Peter Rachman became known as Britain’s most notorious landlord. He acquired many slum properties in the north London suburbs, particularly around the Notting Hill area, which in the 50s and 60s did not have the hip and trendy image portrayed today. His policy was to acquire tenanted buildings. He used violence to evict sitting tenants so he could fill squalid properties with immigrant families from the West Indies who, without anywhere else to go, were crammed into tiny flats at extortionate rents because of the colour bar, which prevented them from renting anywhere else.
Rachman’s name is so synonymous with bad housing that is included in English dictionaries: Rachmanism: ’Landlords buying up slums to fill with immigrants at extortionate rents; named after Peter Rachman, a notorious racketeering landlord in Notting Hill in the 1950s and 1960s’.
His infamy came about largely by accident. At the time of his death in 1962, he was not widely known outside of Notting Hill. It was only during the Profumo affair, a year later, that his name started making the headlines. His mistresses included Mandy Rice-Davies, and who owned the infamous mews house in Marylebone, where she and Christine Keeler entertained their clients.
The call girls made the front pages, but it was his treatment of his other tenants that made Rachman notorious. As details of his seedy property empire emerged, the call for legislation to outlaw such practices became unstoppable. Ben Parkin MP for North Paddington, is perhaps best known for his diligent efforts to expose the activities of Rachman and other notorious landlords. He coined the phrase ’Rachmanism’. Rent controls had been relaxed by the Tory government in 1957, with the effect that, when a sitting tenant moved out, the landlord could hike the rent as much as he liked. All one had to do was get rid of the sitting tenant. When one group of Rachman’s tenants in Bayswater refused to be persuaded, the roof of their flat was stripped off, once the former, protected tenants had gone, Rachman had the new ones at his mercy. Rachman, was himself an immigrant, the son of a Jewish dentist, he was born in Poland in 1920. He escaped the Nazis, but spent a horrific time in a Russian labour camp before fleeing to England.
The first property he bought was an eight-room house, just off the Harrow Road. He paid £ 1,000 for it and quickly showed a profit from his tenants. From there, he moved into property in Paddington, Bayswater and North Kensington. At the height of his operations, he owned about 100 mansion blocks in west London. He also built up a string of night clubs to indulge his passion for women and gambling.
Ronnie Kray the Eastend gangster learned about Rachman and decided to milk him. One night, Ronnie and a bunch of his pals, crashed a party Rachman was giving in Soho. After a bit of minor terrorism, Rachman agreed to pay protection money to Ronnie to prevent ’trouble’ arising among his rent collectors and enforcers. Rachman paid his first instalment to Ronnie via a cheque, which bounced, and then he disappeared when Ronnie came searching for him. Sure enough, trouble began in Notting Hill. Rachman’s rent collectors were beaten up and his enforcers became victims of worse enforcers. As Reggie once commented, “His rent collectors were big, but our boys were bigger.” His empire was in danger of disintegrating but Rachman was a clever man, who well understood the mentality of someone like Ronnie. He realised that once he started paying protection, it would never stop. He needed to offer a big carrot, one that would get him off the hook for good.
Rachman was connected to people who were aware of a man called Stefan de Faye who owned a gaming club called Esmeralda’s Barn in Wilton Place, which was a fashionable street running off Knightsbridge. Rachman, ’sold’ Esmeralda’s Barn to the Kray brothers.
Rachman’s own home in Hampstead was furnished in a lavish, Louis XV style, the house became the venue for decadent parties and a byword for conspicuous consumption. He owned six cars; his wife was given a red Jaguar, his mistress a white one. There was nothing retiring about this landlord. When he had pocketed his rent, he would drive around the capital in a white sharkskin suit and hand-stitched crocodile shoes, usually with a fat cigar in his mouth.
A mythology grew up after his death in 1962, as details of his property empire became public. One story suggested that he had not died and that his death certificate had been forged, leading to questions in Parliament. Hard evidence to prove he was alive, or to back up tales of his violent rent-collecting methods proved hard to come by.
He could be generous as well as unscrupulous and, despite his infamous reputation, never lacked for defenders among his tenants. In the words of one, a taxi-driver in Notting Hill: “He gave us somewhere to live when most English people did not want blacks anywhere.”