Name that lives on for wrong reasons

The infamous Peter Rachman bequeathed his name to the language thanks to his exploitation of immigrant tenants in the 1950s and involvement in the Profumo scandal, says Simon White

There aren’t many people who can claim to have changed the face of our industry and whose name has now passed into common usage. Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism is an obvious example but second up has to be Peter Rachman.

Rachman unwittingly contributed the phrase ‘Rachmanism’ to the English language, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a noun meaning the exploitation and intimidation of tenants by unscrupulous landlords. And that sums it up.

Make no mistake, much of today’s legislation surrounding buy-to-let and lettings in general is a result of this man, and his story is an interesting one.

Rachman was a Pole who survived a Soviet labour camp and came to London in the 1940s. After a succession of jobs he turned his hand to property in the following decade. He was soon to become the UK’s most notorious landlord.

He was most active in and around Notting Hill and Bayswater, which in the late 1950s did not have the trendy images they have today.

His modus operandi was simple and successful. He was helped enormously by Anthony Eden’s Conservative government, which in 1957 relaxed rent controls with the result that new tenants didn’t have the same protection under the law that sitting tenants had. As a result they could be hit with enormous rents.

Rachman’s policy was to only buy houses occupied by sitting tenants who legally couldn’t be removed, so he was able to get them at rock-bottom prices. He would then force the tenants to leave and re-let the rooms to immigrant families at extortionate rents. It worked because at the time social conditions were such that those new to the UK had nowhere else to go.

The methods he used to evict sitting tenants were astonishing and included cutting off their electricity and water supplies, changing the locks while they were out and even hiring goons to break in and smash up kitchen and sanitary fittings.

The first property he bought was an eight-bedroom house on Harrow Road. Because seven of the rooms had sitting tenants, he got the property for under £1,000.

He let the vacant room to six Jamaican musicians who he paid to play loud music all night to make the sitting tenants leave. Unsurprisingly, they did.

By 1960 Rachman owned over 100 mansion blocks but by then the police had got wind of his activities and in a fit of panic he sold his entire portfolio.

As full details of his sordid activities were revealed, there were calls for new legislation to prevent such practices. As a direct result, Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the 1965 Rent Act, which gave greater security to tenants and is still in force today.

Interestingly, Rachman didn’t achieve general notoriety until a year after his death. When the Profumo affair hit the headlines in 1963, it emerged that Rachman had owned the Marylebone mews house where Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler carried out their prostitution business.