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‘He was the most intelligent, unassuming man I ever met’: Big Issue mourns vendor John Byrne

The Big Issue has been inundated with tributes from friends, family and customers of John Byrne’s after the much-loved vendor died suddenly last month.

Tributes have rolled in for much-loved London Big Issue seller John Byrne who died last month.

Byrne, who sold the magazine for more than 20 years – most recently on Regent Street in central London – was found dead in his flat on Saturday May 21.

The Big Issue’s Natalia Stevenson paid tribute to the much-loved vendor, 59, who also supported other Big Issue sellers as a magazine distribution co-ordinator in London. 

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“John had many layers to him, and we will miss all of them. He was welcoming and funny, always with a good story to tell,” said Stevenson, a service broker for The Big Issue’s charitable arm The Big Issue Foundation.

“He was well-known and popular at his local pub, with many friends there, who would often visit him on pitch too. He was an extremely intelligent man, a historian with a degree, always with interesting facts about past monarchs up his sleeve.

“And he was also an excellent distribution coordinator, loved by all the vendors who bought their issues from him, for his accommodation and care for each of them. We were very lucky to know John – he will be greatly missed, and we will remember him fondly.”

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Originally from Ireland, Byrne moved to London in his 20s but became homeless in the 1990s after a relationship broke down, he told The Big Issue in an interview in 2016.

While selling The Big issue he studied an undergraduate degree in English Literature and History at Goldsmiths University.

“I loved every minute. It was great. I got on really well with the other students, despite being older than them. There were a lot of stimulating conversations over a pint in the pub,” Byrne said.

“I continued selling the magazine because it helped me pay my way and I still struggled to get any decent housing. I was in and out of hostels. But I was reading a lot and getting into the great Irish writers – WB Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan. I also enjoyed studying Shakespeare and Chaucer.”

Big Issue vendor John Byrne
A plaque in memory of John Byrne has been placed in his regular seat at The Cock Tavern in London. Image: Michael Earwaker

Byrne returned to his native Ireland to finish off the last year of his degree at the University College Dublin and took an office job.

But he returned to London and ended up selling The Big Issue once more, becoming a vendor coordinator in recent years helping other vendors to sell magazines.

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Byrne signed off his interview in 2016 reiterating his love for the English capital, a place he said was a “brilliant place” to sell the magazine because he could “chat with people from all over the world.

He said: “I’m in one of the world’s great cities – I just love the London buzz. There’s nowhere else like it in the world.”

Scores of Byrne’s family and friends have contacted The Big issue to pay their respects to the popular seller. 

Byrne’s daughter Sarah said he loved selling The Big Issue and spending time with his friends in The Cock Tavern in London’s West End.

Big Issue vendor John Byrne
John Byrne’s kindness, knowledge and wit endeared himself to his friends, The Big Issue has been told. Image: Paul Hayward

“He was a barman for many years which he enjoyed as he got to have different people from all walks of life chatting to him,” said Sarah.

“He had a great wit and he was very intelligent. He loved political crosswords and reading and Yeats was his favourite poet.

“He told me how much he loved it all, especially the people he would meet selling The Big Issue. I think it was great for him as it gave him a routine and a reason to get up.”

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Margaret Dixon, one of Byrne’s friends, also contacted The Big Issue to pay to tribute to the “most intelligent, unassuming person she ever met”.

Dixon said: “John was very kind, very thoughtful but very modest too. He loved his music passionately, he knew his Irish literature and history inside out and his English literature too – he loved reading.

“He loved London and loved his job selling The Big Issue with a passion. It gave him purpose and his customers gave him his feel-good factor. He gave that to them too because he was a great conversationalist. The Big Issue was important to him. It was identity and his esteem. It gave him a lot.

“We’re all so shocked that he has gone. It was so unexpected. We just miss him so much.”

Another friend, Michael Earwaker, revealed that a plaque had been placed on Byrne’s regular seat at the bar in The Cock Tavern in his memory. Earwaker said: “John was a very funny person who told wonderful stories. I loved John, he was one of my closest friends and I will miss him deeply.”

Byrne’s funeral will be at Mortlake Crematorium in Kew on July 8 from 2:40pm. Mourners are asked to wear casual dress while Byrne’s family have also asked for donations to be made to The Big Issue Foundation in his honour rather than sending flowers.

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