Church of England Diocese of Guildford Dunsfold


22 Jun 2021, 10:15 a.m.

Shoppers and visitors to Cambridge may have got used to the sight of Lee Welham, the charming and enterprising Big Issue seller most commonly seen outside the town’s famous Round Church.

But eagle-eyed pedestrians passing his pitch on a recent summer’s day may have spotted another familiar face wearing the red hat and tabard of a magazine vendor: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

The head of the Church of England has been on study leave in Cambridge since May and the pair have struck up a friendship over the weeks. It didn’t take long before Welby had been persuaded to swap his robes for a Big Issue tabard and spend 40 minutes in Lee’s shoes.

Lee, a former market trader, is no stranger to looking after other vendors in his co-ordinating role across Cambridgeshire. He took Welby under his wing before sitting down for an interview on religion, hope and homelessness.

Justin Welby: I was really nervous before I started because I thought, I’m going to be very conspicuous and, surprisingly enough in my job, I hate being conspicuous. But you were very encouraging, Lee. And it really struck me that people weren’t looking me in the eye, people were head down, I could see people crossing the road.

Lee Welham: You’re a confident man. So can you imagine how it would feel for somebody who has no confidence at all just having someone ignore you 70 times a day, you can see why it would feel so demoralising.

JW: But when someone did buy a magazine it really felt good.

LW: It does feel pretty good, especially if they’re a fella or a lady that normally doesn’t get it. And then you know what, they walk back and they’ll say: ‘Oh, go on, you’ve made me laugh, I’ll buy it.’

JW: It’s an extraordinary thing that you’re doing. Because I’ve discovered you are a franchisee for Cambridgeshire. So what you’re doing involves selling, but also organising, and a lot of pastoring. You’re looking after these folks. And presumably some of them are still sleeping rough.

LW: I made, like, £40 in two hours when I first started selling. That was amazing. It’s just so easy after a while. I can handle rejection as an old market trader and a funfair guy. But if you ask 1,000 people you’re bound to get at least 20 or 30 buying the magazine and that’s my ethos really. And I’ve got loads of cheesy lines.

JW: I’ve heard!

LW: The cheesier you are the better. It makes people laugh and I like to make people laugh, I’m a bit of an entertainer. You like my puns don’t you?

JW: Yes I do! 

 I come from a family of both parents being alcoholic and my mother stopped drinking half a century ago and never went back. My father died of it. What happens if vendors who struggled with a similar thing go back on the booze or the drugs?

LW: For me, personally, I understand if people slip up because I’ve learned addiction is not so black and white as I thought it was. I’ve been quite lucky in life. I did a lot of my silly stuff when I was younger and I haven’t really got any addictions, except maybe to chicken. I don’t mind if my vendors fall, it’s about getting back on the horse. That is what I try and teach them. As a guy who has failed quite a lot in life, I teach people to get off your high horse in life and get yourself a pony – when you fall off it doesn’t hurt as much.

JW: I couldn’t agree more, I think that’s really good. I shall use that!

LW: I’ll be honest, you doing this is really going to help me get my voice out there. We really need to change the way we think as a society.

JW: We need to change the way we think, we really do.

LW: We’ve spoken about this and it’s in your book [Reimagining Britain]. We don’t want to go back to normal because normal didn’t work, did it? We want to have a better life now and we’ve got a chance of starting something.

JW: And there were some amazing things we learned last year. I know Brendan Cox quite well, the husband of Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered. He asked me to chair an organisation [The Together Campaign] that brings together loads of people in the evenings, which is about saying we’re not going back to the old normal. It’s trying to get people in their own area to make sure that we don’t. We learned that last year 4.6 million people started volunteering for the first time. And 75 per cent would volunteer again. What that says to me is what you’re trying to do, that really says there’s an important change which we can pick up on.

LW: Kids right now are thinking in such a different way to any of the previous generations. This is why this project is so important. I’m going to send the video of this interview to primary schools in Cambridgeshire and I hope the kids are going to watch this and they are going to be inspired. It’s hopefully going to change the way the kids think so we can create this better time. Like it says in your book, after World War 2 we obviously had to rebuild and think about community. We created some amazing things, didn’t we?