Edward Erdman, who has died aged 96, was a consummate London property agent who sold the Ritz and was largely responsible for the appearance of the modern high street retailers, as well as Euston station’s redevelopment.
During a career spanning eight decades, he worked on acquiring some of the first shops for W H Smith, Tesco, Burtons, Marks & Spencer and Great Universal Stores, as well as London Weekend Television’s headquarters on the South Bank.
Erdman specialised in shop property, and benefited from the enormous expansion of multiple retailers. He and his firm pioneered the concept of the sale-and-leaseback, and his advice was instrumental in countless high street and shopping centre deals.
His clients included Sir Isaac Wolfson, Leslie Marler, Sam Chippindale, Sir Jack Cohen, Lord Samuel, Prince Littler, Sir Charles Clore, Sir Jack Cotton, Bernard Sunley, Sir Maxwell Joseph, Sir Eric Miller and Harold Wingate.
At its zenith Edward Erdman & Co was one of the top three retail agents, and Erdman helped to launch the careers of some of property’s biggest names, most notably John Ritblat, now chairman of British Land, whom he articled in 1952. Following Erdman’s retirement in 1974, the firm’s star gradually waned, and an unsuccessful merger led to receivership in 1995. (The business was acquired by Ritblat to form Colliers CRE, or Conrad Ritblat Erdman.)
Few of the schemes with which Erdman was associated could be said to have contributed positively to Britain’s architectural legacy. At Euston station, for instance, British Rail’s 1961 redevelopment included the gratuitous demolition of Philip Hardwick’s magnificent Euston Arch, despite appeals by John Betjeman.
It was to Erdman that Sir Guy Bracewell-Smith turned in 1976 when he decided to sell the Ritz, then languishing in the downturn that followed the rise in oil prices. Erdman drew up plans detailing how the hotel frontage could be let as shops, the Grill Room let as a casino, and the number of bedrooms increased. A deal was struck with Nigel Broackes’s Trafalgar House, which paid £2.75 million for the hotel. Nineteen years later it was sold on to the Barclay brothers for £75 million.
Edward Louis Erdman was born on July 4 1906 at Highbury, north London. A draper’s son, he left school aged 16 intent on a legal career, but this ambition was never realised, after his uncle, a wealthy timber merchant, told his father: “You cannot afford to make your son a solicitor.”
The following morning young Eddie took a job as an office boy with the estate agent Gordon Thomas & Co, based at Oxford Circus. It was 1923 and his pay was five shillings a week. He soon graduated from tea making and typing duties to the black arts of negotiating and bargaining.
In 1934 he set up Edward Erdman & Co in Maddox Street when William Sawyer, a businessman for whom he had acted, loaned him £1,500 and said he would trust him to give him a share of the profits. When Erdman repaid him within two years, together with a good return, Sawyer generously said: “You can keep the practice, it’s yours.”
As a member of the Territorial Army attached to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps he was called up in September 1939 and had little choice but to close the office. Demobbed at the end of 1945 after seeing service in North Africa and Italy, he immediately set about restarting his practice.
Initially operating out of a single room in New Bond Street, the need for space became paramount as former staff returned and business picked up. Erdman secured a lease on 10 Hanover Street with possession of the first floor. Above it were three flats occupied by ladies of easy virtue.
Needing the space and unwilling to share his door-plate with their name cards, Erdman, in person, took prophylactic measures. Whenever a man rang the bell he would appear on the landing and demand sternly, “What do you want?” The men fled in confusion, and it was not long before the ladies decamped.
In 1946 he committed an indiscretion of his own. Enlisted to help his friend Herbert Bishop, the Conservatives’ parliamentary candidate for Hackney North at the general election, Erdman found himself dining with the Hackney Tradesmen’s Association. He began the evening by asking the editor of the Hackney Gazette whether a photograph of the prospective Conservative candidate dressed in a tight bathing costume, and bending down to pick up a sixpence, might boost his circulation.
Things got steadily worse. Driving home to Mayfair, Erdman pulled over and fell asleep at the wheel. He awoke in Islington police station. When asked if he would object to examination by a police doctor he responded: “I don’t care a hoot if William the Conqueror examines me.” Erdman also admitted that, after the meal, he had “finished with 10 brandies”.
These comments did not sound any better when later repeated as evidence in court. The judge, presumably intrigued, asked what the topic of conversation had been over dinner.
Erdman, belatedly more circumspect, replied: “The Town and Country Planning Act, my Lord.” He was fined £25 and had his licence endorsed. Herbert Bishop failed at Hackney North, which was retained by the Labour candidate David Weitzman, QC.
More successful was his courtship of Pamela Mason, a fashion model and professional dancer. He described their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, in 1949, as the “completion of my most important negotiation”. They divided their life between London and a small dairy farm at Henfield, Sussex. For a period in the 1960s, when occupying a mews house in Wilton Row, they employed a butler who had formerly worked in a grand country house.
The butler insisted on changing his clothes for every role – a grey alpaca jacket to sweep the four front steps, a blue-and-white striped jacket to serve breakfast, a white jacket for lunch and black tie for dinner. Pamela was discomforted by his insistence on serving her husband at table before her.
Small, balding and bespectacled, Erdman was energetic, extremely hard-working, courteous and well-dressed.
He was a director of Warnford Investments from 1962 until 1974, and remained a consultant until 1998. He became a director of Chesterfield Properties in 1960 and was its chairman from 1979 to 1998. He published a book, People and Property, in 1982.
The Edward L Erdman Environmental Library at the Cambridge International Land Institute at Fitzwilliam College was launched on Erdman’s 94th birthday in 2000.
Edward Erdman, who died on January 28, is survived by his wife, Pamela, and their son, Timothy, who did qualify as a solicitor.
Obituary – Telegraph