Thursday, 24 December 2015

David E. Levy – Outside Left / Inside Knowledge


75 years ago German bombs began to rain down on Britain causing widespread destruction. Night after night ton after ton of high explosives and incendiaries were dropped by the Luftwaffe, causing tens of thousands of Londoners to perish or suffer serious injury. Many more were displaced, including countless schoolchildren, evacuated to the safety of the English countryside.

While much of London was being reduced to rubble, Bill Kirby was manning an anti-aircraft gun on Clapham Common and on Hampstead Heath, a post he held for the whole duration of the blitz.  Bill’s youth had been spent at Champion Hill, following his local side Dulwich Hamlet. He saw the Pink and Blues in the glory days of the 1930s, watched the legendary Edgar Kail play in his twilight season, and witnessed the Hamlet win their third FA Amateur Cup in six years at West Ham United’s ground. He returned that same evening to the Crown & Greyhound pub in Dulwich Village where the Dulwich players were celebrating their great victory. Bill, then seventeen, was handed the champagne filled trophy, and managed to take a few swigs out of it himself. That momentous night was the first time in his life that he was intoxicated. Today, at 95 years old, Bill is the Hamlet’s most senior supporter.

One player Bill remembers from that heyday was left-winger DE Levy. Levy had arrived at Dulwich Hamlet halfway through the 1929/30 season following a spell at Sutton United. Before that he played 20 times for Hampstead. Hampstead later changed their name to Golders Green, and later still to Hendon FC, which they have been known as ever since.

In his time at Dulwich Levy made over one hundred appearances for the club, scoring over 20 goals. He was also the provider of many more and formed a strong wing partnership with Stanley Smith. [See elsewhere in this issue.] Levy won a Surrey Cap and Badge, represented the Isthmian League, and was one of the eleven Hamlet players that had the unique distinction of taking part in the opening game at the brand new 30,000 capacity Champion Hill ground In October 1931.

Born in Acton, Middlesex in 1905, David Edward Levy was the fourth child of Jewish couple David and Nellie Levy. His father, at the time was a hotel waiter, but went on to become a manufacturer's agent and bookmaker. Growing up, David was closest to his younger brother Joseph, born a year later. Both were keen footballers, and the boys were almost inseparable. They even followed the same path in business, and when Joe left school he joined the same firm where his older brother worked.

That company, JA Phillips Estate Agents of 123 Oxford Street, was owned by fellow Jew, Jack Abraham Phillips. It was at the feet of this charismatic character that David and Joe learned all they knew about office development, becoming steeped in the property world. Among his numerous projects Phillips was responsible for acquiring the land and brokering the deal for the construction of Broadcasting House in Portland Place as the home for the BBC. He also procured a property at the back of the Strand that became New Zealand House.

Despite his flamboyant millionaire playboy image, Jack Phillips held a dark secret. He was an extremely jealous man and hid away his second wife for eleven years, not allowing her contact with any male company. Whenever he threw a party at his mansion in Virginia Water or his rural cottage in Stoke Poges, his wife was locked away in an upper room, a prisoner in her own home!

By 1937, with David’s Hamlet career out of the way, the Levy brothers were looking to finance their own development – some new depots for Dunlop the rubber manufacturers, one of the UK’s largest companies – and hooked up with Scotsman Robert Clark to form a partnership that would eventually reap great rewards.

As the 1930s were drawing to a close and another world war loomed, Jack Philips was on the decline, both in occupation and in health. He contracted cancer and died on Christmas Day 1939. He had lived a luxurious lifestyle but departed this world impoverished, owing hundreds of thousands of pounds in debts and unpaid taxes. All his wife and young daughter, free from their captivity, were left with was a wedding ring and five shillings (25p).

His associates must have seen this coming. The previous January David E and Joe Levy set up their own company DE&J Levy Co Ltd. in St James’ Square, and took over the JA Phillips ailing business. In time DE&J Levy would become the largest commercial-industrial estate agents in London.

During the Blitz of 1940-41, while Bill Kirby was patrolling the skies seeking to take out German bombers, Joe Levy was a member of the fire brigade extinguishing London’s blazes. Not a job for the fainthearted, such was his bravery that he earned the honour of a British Empire Medal after rescuing several people from inside a bombed building that was soon to collapse. Throughout the war years Joe and David met up every few days to keep their own business alive and plan for the years to come.
The saying ‘one man’s loss is another man’s gain’ could not have been truer for the Levys. With the foresight to see that when London came out of the war there would be an awful lot of rebuilding to do, they went about amassing a huge portfolio of war damaged properties in prime locations and at slashed prices. They actually carried cheque book and pen with them to devastated office blocks and retail shops, to make as quick and cheap a deal as possible; perhaps even taking advantage of the owners in their distress and uncertainty. In the post-war property boom these sites would prove to be extremely valuable. What aided them was Joe’s comprehensive knowledge of the West End bomb sites. His fire-fighting duties in the area made him ‘Johnny on the spot’ and gave him a head start in the property market.

Thus, in the aftermath of the war, DE&J Levy had a large hand in the rebuilding of London's West End. There was a great need for the development of offices and shopping areas to get the capital on its feet again, and the Levytes, David with his charm becoming established as the top development agent, and the younger jovial Joe, were chief players.  

However, on January 8, 1952 David Levy sadly passed away aged just 47, the result of a long illness of a rare blood disorder. He had been moved from his deluxe apartment at the Grosvenor Hotel in Park Lane to spend his final days in a sickbed at the London Clinic in Harley Street. Two days later his memorial service took place at the Great Portland Street Synagogue, before his last remains were buried in Willesden Cemetery in a plot not far from his mentor Jack Phillips.

Just prior to David’s death, the Levy brothers transferred their assets to a small-property company they had acquired called Stock Conversion Investment Trust. David’s untimely demise meant he would not witness the rapid growth of the company, or how his brother Joe would soon be propelled to giant status in the post-war property industry. Before long Stock Conversion had office blocks going up in the Strand, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, High Holborn, Kingsway, Victoria Street, Edgware Road, and most notoriously in Euston Square.
Over the next three decades the company that David Levy set up with his brother Joe was the leading development agency in the West End. DE&J Levy prided themselves on their motto ‘Changing the Face of London.’ And they did just that, arguably much of it was to the detriment of London’s skyline: ugly concrete, steel and glass office blocks rising up to spoil long held vistas. By 1958 the enterprise was responsible for nine million square feet of new office development and investments of almost £100 million. It all made Joe Levy an absolute fortune.

But could it have been achieved without the clandestine meetings with London County Council planners and the shady deals done in the corridors of power to obtain building licenses. One tends to think not.

In 2014 the DE&J Levy Co Ltd. rebranded itself and is now the less cumbersome Levy.

Acknowledgements and sources:  Bill Kirby; John Lawrence for the image; London in the Twentieth Century by Jerry White; The Property Boom by Oliver Marriott; The Times newspaper; The Changing Face of London - British Pathé film 1957.

Original article from HH28 Autumn 2015
Copyright © Jack McInroy

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