The woman who extended Britten’s life

The woman who extended Britten’s life


norman lebrecht

November 04, 2019

The composer Colin Matthews has written a brief memoir of Rita Thomson, the nurse who looked after Benjamin Britten after major heart surgery and became a trusted friend. Rita has died, aged 85.

As Britten’s musical assistant in his last years I found it heartwarming to observe their relationship. Rita freely admitted that she knew very little about the composer or his music before they met, but her common sense, plain speaking and sense of humour were exactly what he needed, especially when he became depressed at his inability to do all he wanted.

Following Britten’s death in 1976, his partner, Peter Pears, asked her to stay on at the Red House. She continued to live there for more than 20 years, working as a local health visitor and looking after Pears, who suffered a stroke in 1980, until his death in 1986. After retiring in 1994, she stayed at the Red House as its custodian until 1999….

Read on here.

Photo: Nigel Luckhurst/BPF



  • Edgar Self says:

    Many thanks to Colin Matthews and Mr. Lebrecht for this lovely and little-known story of a warm, humane, 8seful episode in the lives and history of the Red House, Peter Pears, and Benjamin Britten. I am still warming y hands over it.

  • Bruce says:

    What a lovely story. She sounds like a treasure.

  • Lisa Simpson says:

    Rita was a cousin of mine but I always called her Auntie Rita. She was such a warm and caring person with a wonderful sense of fun. She always spoke very fondly of her time at the Red House. Thank you for these kind words. RIP Rita

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very encouraging that such people really do exist. And they are not in the daily news, but their presence is felt by their environment and that is the most important thing. These are glimmmers of hope for humanity.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Gosh, she sounds like a wonderful woman. My condolences, Lisa, on the passing of your Auntie.
    Colin Matthews’ memoir is very touching.
    We should all be as lucky as Britten was, to find such a dedicated caregiver at the end of our own lives.
    And Rita, in her turn, had lovely caregivers as well.
    Isn’t karma wonderful?

  • Simon Holt says:

    So sad to read about Rita Thomson just now. I loved meeting her when I stayed in her former room at the Red House all those years ago (in 2003?). She was a delight. Utterly unpretentious and unfazed by how her life had turned out. The first thing she said to me was ‘Have you got a partner?’. Straight in . . . Adorable and completely benevolent presence.

  • Margaret sevenoaks says:

    I worked as the junior sister at the national heart hospital with Rita until,I left to have my daughter in 1972. She was kind and an inspiration to me and I am so glad she had such a wonderful and fulfilling life at the red house . I only wish I had kept in contact.