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Sleeping rough, visits from Princess Diana and an amazing love story: The life of a Chelsea Big Issue seller

From sleeping on the Strand to selling the magazine to celebs outside Tiffany's and rescuing his mother-in-law from Ukraine, Frank McGucken has got quite the story

Big Issue vendor Frank McGucken in a Santa hat

Frank McGucken. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Meet Frank McGucken. For two decades, he lived on the street or scraped together enough money to rest his head at hostels. He’s dealt with abuse and addiction. But Frank is a grafter – and was one of the very first people to sell The Big Issue in 1991. He’s been with the magazine, on and off, ever since.

These days Frank lives with his wife, Inna, in one of the wealthiest areas of the UK – not far from Janet Jackson. They do not live in luxury. Far from it. But they are happy and comfortable in their small Peabody Housing Association flat in the old Chelsea Barracks – just yards from some of the most expensive properties in the UK.

Frank welcomes us in. Their home is spotless. He’s proud as punch and so he should be. “This hasn’t come easy. I’ve had to graft for everything,” he says. “I’ve made my home beautiful – and everything in here, I’ve worked for it, solidly, day and night.”

The walk to his pitch says a lot about the country we live in. We wait to cross the road from his block. “This is the poor side,” he says. “Twenty feet across the road it’s a different ballgame, the super rich. People who are worth not hundreds of millions, billions. Top celebrities, footballers.”

Frank’s walk to his pitch takes him through one of the most expensive areas in the country. Image: Eliza Pitkin

We cut through Mulberry Square. “A normal one-bedroom flat, I believe costs £4million. And I live next door in social housing. It does make you think, where are you getting this sort of cash?

“These are the townhouses,” he says. “These are £56m. For just one. That would take me probably 600 lifetimes to even buy one room. It is a beautiful walk to work. When I walk through here I feel like am I in a dream. Because it’s a different world. Then reality kicks in.”

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Frank, 51, sells The Big Issue outside Tiffany’s on Sloane Square – perhaps the most famous jewellery shop in the world. So his is a life of contradiction. A man struggling through the cost of living crisis but surrounded by the super-rich. A Big Issue vendor that can count billionaires, celebrities and Royals among his customers.

“I’ve got nothing against anyone who has got money. But there’s people in society who are suffering all around these people – and I think if you’ve got that much money, you can do something, you could better someone else’s life.”

I can’t afford heating this winter. I’m going to grin and bear it

The cost of living crisis and soaring costs are affecting Frank, his friends and his neighbours alike.

“People are suffering. I’m suffering,” he says. “We live a small life. But my shopping used to be £30 a week in Sainsbury’s and now it is more like £80. I have to watch my gas and electricity use. I turn everything off – I can’t afford heating this winter. I’m going to try to grin and bear it. So I’m wearing extra clothes.”

We arrive at Frankie’s pitch. It’s bitterly cold, but Frank is wrapped up and ready to go. A few shoppers who literally smell of money quicken their step to get past him – but joining Frank as he sets up on his pitch, it’s clear that locals love and respect him.

“Some people who live in this area walk past like you aren’t there, like you’re a lamppost,” says Frank.   

“But I engage with the public and I give it my best shot. People buy the magazine and say, ‘You’re a great salesman – I’m surprised you’re not selling Rolls Royces for a living’. But I was once told by a billionaire, ‘do what you do best’. So I’m just staying on my little level at the moment.”

‘Lady Diana used to come to me on her own and buy The Big Issue’

Almost everyone has a kind word and a big grin for Frank. He has been selling The Big Issue for years and he’s very good at it. Because he has often sold the magazine in wealthy neighbourhoods, Frank has met many well-known people.

He brings out photo after photo of himself with some of his celebrity customers. Although the most famous customer of all did not stop for a selfie.

“Harry Hill used to be a regular, I used to see Michael Caine quite a lot, Peter Crouch came to buy the magazine on a lovely summer’s day. I said, How’s the weather up there, Crouchy?”

Frank reels off the names as he looks through his photographs. Former boxer Prince Naseem, Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, jockey Frankie Dettori, actor Pierce Brosnan… the list goes on.

Frank McGucken with his celebrity customers
Frank McGucken with Eddie Redmayne, Frankie Dettori, James Corden, Prince Naseem, Olly Murs, Peter Crouch. Photos: Frank McGucken

“They buy the magazine and I have a conversation with them like a normal person. They value what I am doing, just like Prince William values The Big Issue. He had a go at selling it himself,” says Frank.

“William knows how hard it is – and him and Kate value homeless people. Before that, Lady Diana used to come to me, privately, on her own, and buy the paper. I used to see her on a regular basis in Beauchamp Place when she was on her way to the gym in Chelsea Harbour. She had it all, but she had respect for homeless people.

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“She used to give me a beautiful smile. I hope people don’t get offended by this, but I used to think: ‘Does she fancy me?’ because she had that glamorous smile.

“I saw Diana Ross around there too and that is where I met Jack Nicholson on the street. He had a cheeky smile, just like me. He said, What the hell is The Big Issue?

“I always say to people, if you lie in bed, you will not get a penny. If you get up and go to work and try – people see you trying and will help you out.”

It seems to work. “I usually come home empty handed every evening. Because that’s my aim, that’s my drive – to sell all my papers. I’m not there to muck about, I’m there to sell as many papers as I can.”

‘The nurse who looked after me when I broke my neck – we’re married now!’

Frank’s ability to create something positive out of adversity is encapsulated by the most incredible love story. It started with a life-threatening tumble but led to him falling in love and getting married.

“I was in a homeless hostel in Euston. I was attacked by four people on top of a landing – I got pushed down 60 feet over a staircase. The fall broke my neck, it took half my nose off, I had bad head injuries. I ended up in and out of hospital for 16 months.

“I couldn’t walk for over a year. And I still don’t have the feeling in my left leg below the knee. While I was in the hospital, coming out of an induced coma, this woman pulled the curtain back and I said ‘who the hell are you?’ She said, I’m your nurse. I work here. You see me every day. She’d bought me some fruit, she’d brought me the Bible.

“She said, there is something telling me there is more to you than meets the eye, Frank. You’ve just had a bit of an awkward life. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to the same hostel where I’d been attacked. One day, they said, ‘a beautiful woman is downstairs to see you.’ I couldn’t believe it. There she was. So I said, let’s go to the park – it’s a bit embarrassing in the hostel.

“It was a lovely day, we talked and talked. And that is how we built our relationship. It wasn’t overnight. It was baby steps. And then we fell in love.”

They are now settled and happy, and have been married for 11 years. “I’ve never let my wife down. She said if you promise me you won’t take drugs or drink again, I’m taking you out of here now. I left the hostel and never looked back. She comes home from the trauma unit and has me to deal with! And she is so calm and collected. We live a little life. She looks after me like a king. We got married in Ukraine.”

Nothing in Frank’s life has been easy. Not his childhood, growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and not his time in London, which he has called home for decades.

“I changed my whole life around and things are looking rosy,” he says. “People say to me, you’ve got a lovely little home. But it wasn’t lovely 25 years ago when I was sleeping on The Strand in a sleeping bag with snow all over me. When I was going to Day Centres trying to make ends meet every day. And when I had a drug problem, an alcohol problem and was dealing with trauma after my mother got murdered in London.

“But when you are clean for so long, you change. The madness starts to leave. You reconnect with life again.”

‘My most important thing is to get my mother-in-law out of Ukraine’

Frank is now a man on a mission. He has always been a hard worker, but even though he has a comfortable home these days, he is still striving.

“I’m like anyone else. I go to work, I save my money, I have targets in life, which I try and reach,” he says. “My most important thing in my life at this moment of time is to get my mother-in-law out of Ukraine. She never asked for this war, but the war came to her doorstep.

“So I’ve been saving up from the start of the war. I just don’t want my mother-in-law to be killed in Ukraine, or my wife’s brother-in-law, who is looking after her.

“I’m working every day to get my mother-in-law out of Ukraine to somewhere safe. That’s what I get up for in the morning. That’s my purpose. And that’s why I work so hard – and that’s straight from my heart.”

Subscribe to The Big Issue – with the money going direct to Frank – here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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