Revealing the real Rachman?

It’s almost 50 years since Peter Rachman died and we still use Rachmanism as a shorthand term for everything that is bad about bad landlords. But is what we think we know wrong?

That is the premise of a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 4 this week that set out to find The Real Rachman – the Lord of the Slums (listen again on iplayer here). The legend it investigated was of the evil vice racketeer who owned slum properties in Notting Hill packed full of tenants with working girls ‘bending the basement’ below them. In 1963 the People exposed an ‘empire based on vice and drugs, violence and blackmail, extortion and slum landlordism the like of which this country has never seen and let us hope never will again’. The same year Panorama exposed a ‘big time 20th century racketeer’ who sent men round with dogs to evict his tenants.

But who was the real man behind the legend? The agreed facts seem to be these. He was born Perec Rachman, son of a Jewish dentist, in Lvov, then in Poland, now in the Ukraine. By the time anyone had heard his name in Notting Hill, he may have already been in the Polish Resistance, been imprisoned first by the Nazis then by the Russians, then volunteered to fight for the Allies in the Middle East and Italy before being demobilised and becoming a British citizen in 1948. So by the time he died in November 1962, he’d already lived and seen more than most of us would in a dozen lives. The real notoriety – and those reports in the media – only came after his death when, as the former lover of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, he featured in the Stephen Ward trial and the Profumo affair.

So what happened in the 14 years between 1948 and 1962 that made him the personification of evil landlordism and led to a new word being coined in the English language? The truth investigated in The Real Rachman was much more mysterious. How could it fail to be when only four photographs of him exist? When there is no film or recording of him to reveal the sinister high-pitched voice that witnesses describe?

A biographer who investigated the tales of harassment in 1979 could not find any tenants to authenticate the claims made in the media. He was said to be the only landlord who would let rooms to West Indian immigrants (‘the first man who put a roof over my head and I will always be grateful to him,’ says one elderly ex-tenant who arrived from Trinidad) and was even called ‘too soft to be a landlord’ by the estate agent who sold him properties around Powis Square in the very different Notting Hill of the late 50s.

Another tenant told of trying to find a room when signs said ‘no Irish, no blacks, no pets, no children’ and she had the last three in her household. After a while she said Rachman’s men tried to force her out and then when that didn’t work moved noisy tenants in above and below her. However, both she and a former heavy who implicated Rachman in intimidation on Panorama turned out to have been talking about a time after Rachman had transferred ownership of his houses.

If that sounds a little unlikely, and just the sort of thing a gangster would do, a veteran tenant activist told of Rachman’s activites and how they could never pin anything on him. The Real Rachman revealed a more complex picture of a man operating in a city with contemporary echoes that ‘was fixated on its own affluence but not on its social problems’ and ‘a time of too many people, not enough houses and clashing cultures’ when anyone at the bottom of the ladder would be forced into the arms of unscrupulous landlords. See here for a detailed timeline of Notting Hill in 1959 and the shady role played by Rachman. (That link seems to be broken but more from the same local historian here).

We heard from another notorious landlord, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, who said the stories about Rachman were ‘laughable’. He was a ‘skint merchant’ and the big black guy with the dogs who went round to see tenants was there to protect the money, not intimidate them. If both of those stories sound unlikely (Rachman’s many cars included a navy blue Rolls Royce for starters), what about moving in black tenants to force the white ones on statutory tenancies to leave? ‘People used to call that destating with deschwarzers,’ said van Hoogstraten. ‘That might have been one of the tricks I picked up from him actually. It would have been probably been accidental to start with but once you started getting complaints about the black people from your white tenants you’d turn it to your advantage. I used to bring in the tenants from hell.’

The police investigated Rachman for intimidating tenants but they couldn’t find enough evidence and he was only ever convicted for parking without lights. The programme concluded that he was a contradictory man, an exploiter who also considered himself a benefactor. According to Mandy Foreman (formerly Rice-Davies) he was a gentle man with beautiful blue-green eyes and she was the girlfriend he’d never had as a teenager. ‘Of course I loved him,’ she said. ‘At the age of 18 you don’t try and kill yourself because you didn’t love somebody.’ Even the former henchman who described his cruel methods on Panorama now says he was ‘a good-hearted man – a philosopher’.

So Rachman was a chancer and an unscrupulous opportunist and you have to choose what to believe about the rest of it. He only became the bogeyman with an –ism after his death because of his association with the Profumo scandal and the wider corruption that symbolised in British society. According to the programme, he was a convenient scapegoat because he came from Eastern Europe and he was Jewish, a focus for anti-Semitism.

In the wake of Rachman’s death, the local Labour MP led the fight against bad landlords and a council estate was built on the site of many of his former houses. A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate landlords and the housing shortage and concluded that while most tenants were happy with the way they were treated, abuse by landlords was too common to be treated as an isolated problem. Within three years a Labour government had passed legislation creating regulated tenancies and fair rents.

And so, 50 years later, we are back with a housing shortage, extortionate rents, unscrupulous landlords and exploited tenants and Rachmanism is still used as a shorthand term for the whole process. Are there echoes of the anti-Semitism of the 1960s in the sometimes racist overtones of stories about foreign-born landlords and ‘beds in sheds’? Now, as then, most tenants are happy with their landlord, but the problems with private renting are about far more than just one man or a few ‘rogue landlords’.

-> See my related post on Rachman, rogues and renting

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2 Comments on “Revealing the real Rachman?”

  1. George Rix says:

    Actually, it was Tory legislation on inheriting protected tenancies, in itself no bad thing, that made Rachman’s excesses happen. I don’t think he was especially bad, this brave partisan who lowered the race bar and who would later stand up to the Kray twins was only made infamous over his dead body!


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