Peter Rachman

Peter Rachman in his office at 91/3 Westbourne Grove 1960. 'At the West London Rent Tribunal allegations were made concerning a certain Notting Hill landlord. It was a sensational day. Flats in Powis Square were described as 'scruffy', 'dirty' and 'unfit for human habitation'. The counsel for the tenants was Mr Arthur Skeffington. He said: "We understand that Mr Rachman is the owner of all these three properties." Evidence alleged that certain tenants, whose cases were due to come up at the tribunal, had been intimidated.' Kensington News May 12 1959.

‘Rachmanism: the conduct of a landlord who charges extortionate rents for property in which very bad slum conditions prevail; from the name of one such landlord exposed in 1963.’ Oxford Concise Dictionary. 'Rachman gave his name to the language, but that's about all he ever gave anyone. He could have been several people or merely the front man for others. But he came from nowhere, took on a mythological aura, set forces in train which would alter the district for ever, enact laws and change the course of important social patterns. Then he disappeared, carrying his secrets with him. Existential, don't you think?' Mike Phillips, 'Notting Hill in the 60s'.

When Mark Strutt inherited the Colville estate in 1948 he found "there wasn’t a cupboard that didn’t have somebody living in it… The houses had been sub-let and sub-sub-let without our consent, and they were filled with prostitutes, burglars, murderers and negroes." He concluded that the ‘escalating costs could only be covered by being ruthless’, and sold the estate to the property developer Benson-Greenall, who broke it up into manageable packages. In 1955 around a hundred Colville properties came into the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel George Sinclair, about a third of which were farmed out to Peter Rachman.

Rachman with Mandy Rice Davies early 1960s. As the go ahead was given for recruitment from the West Indies to ease the post-war labour shortage, London landlords became notorious for displaying ‘Flat to Let’ notices amended with ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’. But it wasn’t long before some landlords began to cater for the new black housing market.

Through such pioneers as Baron Baker and Sam Selvon, the author of 'The Lonely Londoners', a West Indian community sprang up around Powis Square amidst the existing racial mix of Irish, eastern European Jewish, Cypriot and Maltese. As more West Indians and Africans sought accommodation in the area, housing exploitation escalated with rooms being split into sections and people sleeping in shifts like in Victorian common lodging-houses.

Peter or Perec Rachman was himself a post-war immigrant from Poland. He first appeared in Bayswater in the early 50s and set up the Express letting agency at 91/3 Westbourne Grove, to rent flats for £5 a week to sub-let for three times as much to prostitutes. He swiftly clambered up the property ladder, assisted by his respectable connections, Cyril and William Foux and Colonel Sinclair.

Hedgegate Court on Powis Terrace became the first and most notorious Rachman slum as he acquired most of the street; closely followed by St Stephen’s Gardens to the east. The other Colville Rachman houses were 31, 32, 44 and 45 Powis Square, 3, 4, 6 and 7 Powis Gardens, 20, 22, 27, 28 and 29 Colville Road, 2, 9, 10, 19, 22 and 24 Colville Terrace, and 90 Lancaster Road.

As Rachman was driven round his slum manor in a Rolls Royce, accompanied by glamorous girls, according to his sympathetic biographer Shirley Green, he wasn’t being particularly ruthless. In order to charge more rent, he emptied houses of furniture and re-let flats unfurnished. He was also operating the practise known as ‘putting the schwarzes in to de-stat’ (encourage white statutory tenants to vacate properties), and then subdivided rooms and charged the new black tenants more rent. Rachman wasn’t the only landlord exploiting the accidental racial housing situation, and in most first-hand accounts he wasn’t the worst. But he would become so notorious for it (due to his involvement in the Profumo affair) that his name is now synonymous with slum landlord.

In the Rachmanism legend, if tenants fell into rent arrears they would be persuaded to leave by such means as itching powder or dead rats left in beds, rubbish dumped in flats, or belongings thrown into the street by his henchmen. But in the Shirley Green version, he usually bought out sitting-tenants and there is ‘little evidence to suggest that he forced them out in any way.’ Rachman tenants remember him as a benefactor rather than an exploiter, even being un-businesslike or a soft touch. Other landlords and his successors are always cited as worse; paying West Indian hustlers to clear white tenants from houses, exploiting his reputation and hiding behind it.

After the 1958 race riots, the Profumo affair and the fall of the Tory government, the Milner Holland Report concluded: 'Coloured people, always in some difficulty in finding accommodation in the face of shortage, made worse for them by racial prejudice, were welcome. Cheerful people, and given to much singing, to playing radiograms and to holding parties, they were not always appreciated as neighbours by the remaining statutory tenants in Rachman's houses. These started to move out, and what perhaps began naturally Rachman began to exploit.' 

He was even featured in the Empire News as a Schindler-type figure to West Indians: ‘probably London’s largest individual landlord for the coloured people… he doesn’t advertise vacant rooms or flats, the coloured people tell each other, "Go see Rachman, man."

His rent collectors were boxers and wrestlers who went round with Alsatian dogs, but according to Shirley Green this wasn’t that sinister. The dogs were necessary as they were carrying money through rough neighbourhoods, and the men just had the Victor Mature tough-guy look of the time.

In July 1957 the Tory Rent Act came into operation, lifting restrictions on how much rent landlords could charge, which was supposed to prevent neglect and create more rented accommodation. In Notting Hill rents doubled over night and around 200 eviction orders were served. From the Labour opposition point of view, the Tory act was the primary cause of 'Rachmanism'.

As explained by Jan O’Malley in 'The Politics of Community Action', ‘this Rent Act, by decontrolling rents without giving tenants security of tenure, ushered in an era of intimidation and strong arm tactics aimed at getting rid of any tenants who stood in the way of an increasing flow of rent income.’ However, in Shirley Green’s Rachman reappraisal the act barely affected him, as by then most of his sitting-tenants had been replaced.

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