Jack Goldhill: Businessman and philanthropist whose property deals assisted in reconstructing post-war Britain

Monday 21 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Jack Goldhill, one of the chief figures in the post-second world war reconstruction of Britain and a philanthropist on a scale usually seen in the United States, has died aged 89. He was a major benefactor to national cultural institutions, supporting over 70 charitable organisations for more than four decades, often anonymously

Born into an Anglo-Jewish family which established itself in this country in the first part of the 19th century, he emerged as a giant in the sphere of commercial property. His success personified new possibilities for social mobility in the post-war era, linked to the development of London as a business metropolis.

His father ran a greengrocer's shop in Tottenham in north London. From this vantage point Goldhill became aware of the potential in urban land management and became an office boy in an estate agents in Tufnell Park, north London. This was the springboard for a career as one of the foremost property negotiators of his generation, first with Pritchard & English, based in Great Portland Street. It was there, beginning in 1938, that his gifts as a dynamic figure who could link clients to properties and sites became obvious.

He enlisted in the Royal Corps of Signals just before the outbreak of the second world war. Like the Pioneer Corps, the Signals Corps drew on the technical skills in the expanding field of communications and electronics of many Anglo-Jewish males and German Jewish emigrés.

Goldhill, known as a dapper figure, originally donned a first world war Corps of Signals cavalry uniform which he had purchased from a second-hand clothes shop in Fulham. However this earned him, rather than plaudits for initiative, a reprimand from the Military Police for being improperly dressed.

Promoted to the rank of sergeant, he had a long war which included landing in Normandy during D-day plus one of Operation Overlord. He went on to serve in the African colony of the Gold Coast before being demobilised in 1947.

While in uniform he had gained, by correspondence course, civilian qualifications which enabled him to work as a chartered auctioneer and estate agent. Returning to London he resumed his career in the rapidly expanding world of commercial property development, moving from Dudley Samuel and Harrison to Richard Leighton & Co, where he became a partner in October 1948.

In those days London was a much-damaged city, with numerous bomb sites. These features made it, however, ripe for building and development, particularly of office and industrial space for commercial companies. It was such companies, who were in the forefront of the modernisation of London, which became clients of Jack Goldhill and his new firm of chartered surveyors, Leighton Goldhill.

His natural charisma and humour helped broker deals between developers and the owners of sites and estates. His networking skills were remembered by his partner Ivor French, who said: "One of his greatest abilities was to befriend the people that he was working with, and many clients and business associates became good friends."

His genial and classless identity had the capacity to reshape traditional relations between established interests and the new developers. In the socially conservative 1950s, it was standard practice for landed estates to deal exclusively with traditional estate agents.

Goldhill helped transform this. In one landmark deal, he exerted his charm to persuade the then age-old owners of tracts of Soho land – the Sir Richard Sutton Settled Estate – to transfer their allegiance away from Victorian-era estate agents to the upstart Leighton Goldhill.

This was indicative of a wider cultural transformation which was sweeping through London in the 1950s and '60s. Anglo-Jewish figures operating from new service industries, including individuals such as Vidal Sassoon, mounted a challenge to customary English social structures.

Besides his intrinsic charm, and his reputation for his word being his bond, one of the key ways in which Goldhill won the trust of his clients was his cultured attitude. This was evident not only in his collecting of paintings and sculpture but was also manifest in his activities as patron to bodies such as the Royal Academy.

He was a painter himself, and his taste was regularly visible in the Summer Exhibition: many will remember his comic pastiche of Munch's screaming figure lost in a forest of British highway road signs in the 2005 show.

Goldhill's philanthropy, besides being directed towards a host of Anglo-Jewish charities, was found mainly at work in the arts. In the mid-1970s he retired from mainstream business and launched a programme of supporting visual arts organisations through bursaries and grants.

Each year he gave the Goldhill prize for sculpture at the Summer Exhibition, which he helped to judge. He was a supporter of the Prince's Trust and the Prince's Drawing School, and set up a fund for artists on film. Many other worthwhile causes benefited from his patronage including Holland Park Opera, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tricycle Theatre in London.

Nicholas Kent, director of the Tricycle, said of him recently: "Though Jack Goldhill's politics were often diametrically opposed to those of the Tricycle, it was a measure of the man that over the last two decades he very generously and enthusiastically supported our work. He abhorred racism and always championed education and individual freedom – he was very committed to supporting our education programme, and our work with culturally diverse communities trying to give children and young people better opportunities."

Catherine Goodman of the Princes Drawing School, said of him: "Jack was one of the most personal of philanthropists – someone you could go to when all else failed. I went to him two years ago in desperation when funding for our childrens' drawing clubs had fallen through. He single-handedly saved the programme from closure."

Goldhill married twice, first in 1943 when he was 17. He and his wife Aurelia had three sons before her death in 1966. He later commemorated her name in the Rela Goldhill Lodge residential home for young Jewish adults wih physical or sensory impairments.

He married again in the late 1960s to Grete Kohnstam, who already had four children, and who survives him.

Judy Goldhill

Jack Goldhill, businessman and philanthropist: born 18 September 1920; married 1943 Aurelia (died 1966; three sons); secondly Grete Kohnstam (four stepchildren); died 24 November 2009.

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