5 Great London Swindlers

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 73 months ago
5 Great London Swindlers

A list of five of London's great swindlers. Some maybe more surprising than others.

Photo: Skuggzi.

The landlord from hell: Peter Rachman

If you think your landlord's a piece of work, be thankful you never encountered Peter Rachman. The charming yet callous Pole snapped up west London properties in the 1950s and 60s, before driving out the sitting tenants (with anything from loud music to cutting off the water supply) then filling up the flats with immigrants from the West Indies who were vulnerable to rip-off rates. Rachman also ran brothels in his flats; Christine Keeler was one of his mistresses, and it was because of the Profumo Affair that his wrongdoings came to light. For a gauge of just how prolific this swindler was, the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'Rachmanism' as the exploitation and intimidation of tenants by unscrupulous landlords.

The bill-swerving prime minister: Winston Churchill

If there was one thing Winston Churchill was better at than winning wars, it was dodging invoices. As we've previously recorded, Churchill wasn't coy when it came to questioning a bill; his private secretary once wrote to the Savoy saying, "Mr Churchill is surprised at the amount of this bill, which works out at almost £3 a head" (the bill was actually spot on). Recently it transpired Churchill swerved a £197 invoice at Savile Row tailors Henry Poole & Co  because he didn't much fancy paying it, and it's also claimed that in later life that Winnie warded off the tax man with the aid of expert advisers. Oh, to have the guts of this man.

The master forger: John Myatt

Some swindlers deserve a doff of the cap, and we think one's in order for John Myatt. The talented painter started out his artistic career by advertising 'genuine fakes' in the back of Private Eye. But when one of his customers announced he'd just sold one of Myatt's pieces to Christie's for £25,000, he decided a life of crime would be more lucrative. He went on to paint around 200 forgeries, passing off many at some of London's most reputable auction houses. Imprisoned in 1999, Myatt sold pencil sketches in prison and, after being released, had a collection of his own forgeries exhibited in London.

We also have a soft spot for the two Victorian mudlarks-turned-forgers William Smith and Charles Eaton, whose iffy Roman coins were so endearing they earned the nickname Billy and Charleys and became collectible in their own right.

The diamond that swindled seven thieves. Photo by Matt Brown in the Londonist Flickr pool

The fake ghost: Scratching Fanny

Another sketchy landlord, this time Richard Parsons who, in 1762, decided to reek revenge on his former Cock Lane tenant William Kent by claiming he'd murdered his own wife Fanny (in fact she'd died of smallpox). How to pull off such a stunt? By claiming the house was haunted by Fanny of course; Parsons enrolled his own 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth to say she'd been contacted by Fanny, the ghost claiming that Kent has poisoned her. Parsons got greedy, started charging people to come and 'witness' the various banging and scratching noises made by Fanny (in truth, Elizabeth putting on a song and dance). The ghost — by now known as Scratching Fanny — became so high-profile, a certain Dr Johnson came to see what was what, and following his inquiry, Parsons got two years in prison.

The old switcheroo: the Millenium Dome diamond

Sometimes it's the criminals who find themselves on the end of a swindle. Such was the case during the improbable plot in November 2000 by a gang of seven who decided to rob a £200m diamond. From the 'Money Zone' of a De Beers exhibition. In the Millennium Dome. With a JCB. And then escape by speedboat. What could possibly go wrong? The Flying Squad played swindlers in this case, allowing the plotters to go ahead with the heist, and getting De Beers to replace the real diamond with a replica. When the criminals smashed into the Dome, they were pounced on by armed police disguised as cleaners. "It would have been a blinding Christmas," quipped one of the would-be robbers later on.

Last Updated 17 October 2016

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