William Farmer died recently of pneumonia. I knew him through my church, which he had attended for around 60 years. He lived in a local nursing home, and I was on a rota of people who pushed him from his home to church and back again. He used to stay for a cup of tea, and chat to old friends.
Mr Farmer never married and had no family in Britain. Since he died in his 90s, most of his friends had already passed away. I thought the funeral would be a rather small affair. I was wrong. There was a good contingent from our church, some of the staff from the home and lots of people I didn’t recognise.
A simple life
The oration was given by his solicitor. It transpired that Mr Farmer had inherited the life interest in 75 properties in the London suburbs of Kingston, Surbiton and Esher, on the death of his father immediately after the World War II.
Even though he was not allowed to sell them, this made him a rich man. But William had no interest in being rich, or even affluent. Indeed, he was the most parsimonious man I ever met. Apparently he used to wash up using rainwater in summer and used his coat as a blanket in winter. He once remarked that he had no other use for a coat when asleep, so it made sense to use it as a blanket. When asked what he thought heaven was like, he said that he hoped it was a place without too much of anything.
Since William did not wish to be rich, he did not increase his rents. Over the years, as market rents increased substantially, and his only slightly, the gap increased. By the 1990s he was renting his properties at a discount of around 75 per cent of the market value. He ‘gave away’ about £1 million per year in lower rents. Has any other private sector landlord done such a thing?
He operated a paternalist system. He knew his tenants and collected the rent in person, in cash, fortnightly, which he took to his solicitor in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag on the bus (he did not own a car).
When he heard of a tenant who had had a baby and needed a bigger house, he would keep an eye out as to which of his larger properties was likely to become vacant, and earmark it for them. If necessary he would ask another tenant to swap if a property was under-occupied and there was someone in need.
He was happy to take the employed and the unemployed, people who could pay their own way, and people who were on benefits. He expected neighbours to keep an eye out for each other, to behave decently, to be a community.
A teacher gave the second oration. He had messed around at school, left without qualifications, had odd jobs, and then realised that he wanted to be a teacher. But how could he pay the rent, while being a student again? A friend sent him to Mr Farmer, who listened and gave him a tenancy, he trained and now teaches in a well-respected local primary school. Having got his first job, he saved up for a deposit, and moved into owner-occupation, freeing up his house for someone else.
We can argue over whether Mr Farmer used his wealth to the best possible effect. We could make a case that he would have helped more people by charging market rents and given a million a year to Shelter, Crisis at Christmas or our local charity, Kaleidoscope.
He could certainly have become much more famous - indeed, I would imagine giving £1 million a year consistently could get you an OBE sooner or later, an invitation to the Queen’s garden party, and so on. I imagine he would have hated the idea.
He was an unsung hero: none of us at church knew what he had done, although some knew that he owned some property. And the staff at the nursing home were amazed - it is a fairly low-cost nursing home, where few of the residents have significant assets.
Mr Farmer acted with humanity and humility. He remained a landlord, and not a social worker or a friend. His tenants called him Mr Farmer. Nor was he the perfect landlord - he never wanted central heating, double glazing and the like and his properties were relatively basic.
I doubt he had much time for government standards. His view was that people liked very low rents because there were so many other things in life that they wanted. He once told a tenant so many things went up in price and that people had enough difficulties paying for things without him increasing the rent and making their lives more difficult.
Mr Farmer was a man with a mission, even if he had no mission statement. Today most social housing organisations have a mission statement, but I wonder whether they have a mission in the way that he did.
For more than 60 years he ran his properties with complete dedication to the aims that he set himself. When maintenance was less expensive than he expected and he made a surplus even on the rents that he charged, he bought another house and let it on the same terms.
He was loyal to his staff, one of whom used to visit him on a Sunday morning, before church, and bring him a bunch of bananas. Mr Farmer, this man told me, was a great man, although until his funeral I did not understand why.
The people that I did not recognise at his funeral were his tenants. How many landlords, private or social, are good enough at what they do that their tenants would turn up to their funeral? We can have all the performance indicators we like, but to see your tenants turn out for your funeral, well, that is the ultimate indicator that you did a good job.
Dr Tim Leunig is an academic in the department of economic history at the London School of Economics