Hustlers of the Grove

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Michael De Freitas aka Michael X

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The most notorious West Indian hustler to emerge from 50s Notting Hill was Michael de Freitas, the ‘black Rachman’ landlord who became the local Black Power leader Michael X or Michael Abdul Malik. The two most renowned local villains first met when Michael attempted to rob Rachman’s Westbourne Grove office. But rather than setting the dogs on him, the obliging landlord set Michael up with a Powis Square basement flat, which he wasted no time in turning into a gaming house and blues club.

In the 1958 riot aftermath, Donald Chesworth, the Labour LCC member for North Kensington, organised seminars where West Indians could air their grievances. As a result of which, he concluded that the cause of the riots was bad housing conditions and landlord exploitation. Chesworth discovered that Rachman or his nominees were neglecting to let flats unfurnished, which gave the tenants recourse to the Rent Tribunal, and Michael de Freitas became his community liaison assistant

As Michael began persuading tenants to fill out tribunal forms, some of Rachman’s Polish rent collectors attempted to stop him by offering to reduce his rent. Then Rachman himself visited Michael in his flat on Powis Square with three of his henchmen, but all he did was try to buy him off with a bigger flat and a job offer. It seems that Michael never actually worked for Rachman but, by all accounts, including his own, he modelled himself on him and when he came into properties of his own was one of his worst successors.

Whether or not Rachman won over Michael to his firm is debatable but he never spoke badly of him: ‘Poor Peter… going down to posterity like that… he was a businessman like any other… he charged exorbitant rents, but if it hadn’t been for him a lot of black people would have slept in the streets.’ On May 28 1959 Vernon Hunte and Edwards appeared as the landlords of three flats in Powis Square at the West London Rent Tribunal. By then most of the Rachman tenants had been persuaded to withdraw their applications, but Michael de Freitas and some others went through with it. After the flats were described as unfit for human habitation, Hunte and Edwards said they were merely the agents. The Kensington News ‘Tribunal Told of Threats’ report featured tenants’ statements that ‘they had been personally threatened by coloured representatives of the landlord P Rackman (sic).’

At this stage, Rachman could still have by-passed the rent tribunal by issuing notices to quit and re-letting flats unfurnished, but he didn’t. In Shirley Green’s analysis, at the end of the day he wasn’t harsh enough. Michael persuaded more tenants to make applications to the tribunal, and within three months around 200 had their rents reduced and security of tenure. The Polish rent collector Jan recalled houses being sold to someone who would sell to someone else who sold back to Rachman, in order to artificially raise the price. In the end Rachman was forced to off-load most of his properties on to Stephen Halsall’s building society. Halsall sold quickly with mortgages left in, spreading the Rachman slum empire out amongst his protégés and associates. The Powis Square houses went to Tommy Yeardye, Powis Terrace to the Elmstead Trust, and Colville Road to Dandy Kim.

Meanwhile nominee landlords were selling the same places unofficially. Michael de Freitas acquired a house on Colville Road for £4,500 and evicted the tenants before they could get to the rent tribunal. This fuelled speculation that Rachman was the front man for a Mr Big, in an immensely complicated property chain reaction. Shirley Green thought he was part of a syndicate. By the time Halsall’s building society was banned, the mortgage payments to Rachman had dried up and he was setting up property companies with Cyril Foux. But the legend that Rachman never sold out and retained control of his slum empire with former associates running it for him was more widely believed.

The Rachman case detective Inspector Gilbert Kelland mounted an investigation into his vice activities , featuring an undercover officer disguised as a costermonger who pushed a market barrow around Powis Square. After securing a brothel conviction on 58 Chepstow Road, Kelland visited Rachman at his Hampstead mansion, but by then the lease of the property had passed to Vernon Hunte. He recalls becoming familiar with Michael de Freitas in 1960 as Rachman’s agent for Powis Square and Colville Terrace. After the basement of 24 Colville Terrace was put under surveillance and established to be a brothel, Michael, who was living on the top floor, was arrested but the police couldn’t prove he was the landlord. In 1963 Michael was featured in the Guardian as ‘A landlord unable to live at peace – with himself… a respected figure in the area, partly due to fear, but conversation with him and with those who saw him at work in Notting Hill give a despairing knowledge that this is a man who could have been honest and useful. He is not merely attractive and charming, quick-witted and scheming, he also seems to have the sadness of defeated decency.”

Malcolm X meeting in Notting Hill 1965 by John Hopkins. Hoppy recalls a ‘meeting addressed by Malcolm X or in support of him in late 65 in Notting Hill in a hired hall about two months before he was assassinated.’ After working for and against Rachman, Michael de Freitas gave Malcolm X a guided tour of Colville, as the American Black Power leader inspired him to become Britain’s version Michael X /Abdul Malik. The X was bestowed by Malcolm when he told the press he was going to Birmingham “with my brother Michael.” He proceeded to form RAAS, the Racial Adjustment Action Society.

As he developed his black community leader role, Michael also gave Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory and Sammy Davis Junior tours of the area. In the first picture above at All Saints church hall, Michael’s associates Archie Seaforth and the photographer Capitan Allan Thornhill are wearing ‘Dick Gregory president for Peace in 68’ badges, promoting the radical black comedian’s presidential campaign.

In his ‘On the Black Beat’ column in The Gate/Grove newsletter of the London Free School in 66, Michael wrote: ‘There are many approaches to this place, some by road or rail, some by moral degeneration. Today I chose the bus, boarding a number 28 outside West Hampstead station and headed for what once was my home, ‘The Grove’ as we black ones call it, ‘The Gate’ as it is commonly called by Free School people. The Grove is still one of the few places I feel safe in Babylon, no yobbos are going to attack me there and get away with it. My brothers down there know they are my brothers, unlike the other more sophisticated and pretentious black people in and around the area where I picked up this bus. I was a little bit bluesy when I started this trek but gradually my mood changed as we got closer to Westbourne Park Road. Maybe it was all those black faces I started seeing more and more of as we went along that did it, maybe it was the familiar stench of the Ghetto.’

In the late 60s Michael reinvented himself as Britain’s black flower power messiah, as he befriended the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Michael’s downfall came about in the early 70s through the ‘slave collar affair’ at his Blackhouse centre on Holloway Road, recently portrayed in ‘The Bank Job’ film. In exile in Trinidad, he attempted to form his own private army and was eventually hanged for murder in 1975.

In the ‘Souvenir programme for the Official Hanging of Michael Abdul Malik’ by John Michell and Bill Levy, he was introduced as the ‘W11 club man with the fatal amiability that led him to assume the fantastic roles.’ VS Naipaul concluded, ‘To the Trinidad crowds Malik had become a ‘character’, a Carnival figure, to be beaten through the streets on Good Friday. Which was all that he had been in London, even in the great days of his newspaper fame as the X; the militant who was only an entertainer.’ Mike Phillips summed him up as ‘a Trinidadian boy who came to England and became the man he was in the hot house atmosphere of Notting Hill, and that doesn’t say it all, but most of it.

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