Scottish nurse who cared for Benjamin Britten

Born: August 16, 1934;

Died: October 11, 2019

RITA Thomson, who has died aged 85, was the nurse who with much grace and kindness tended the composer Benjamin Britten in his last years. She entered the close-knit household at his home the Red House in Aldeburgh after the composer had heart surgery in 1973. Britten had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition in 1970 but Thomson’s nursing enabled him to complete his final opera, Death in Venice, and bring much pleasure and sustenance to his final years.

Colin Matthews, Britten’s musical assistant at the time, has written, “I knew Rita for 45 years, and immensely valued her friendship: her common sense and plain speaking which had made her so important to Britten could always be relied on. Even in her last years, when she was suffering from a brain tumour, her mind remained as sharp as ever.”

Britten and Thomson met in 1973 when Britten was admitted to the intensive care unit at the National Heart Hospital in London for a heart valve replacement. On their first meeting in the hospital, Britten was a worried and nervous man. She calmly said to him, “Don’t worry, we’ll see it through together.”

When he was recuperating at The London Clinic, Thomson visited him regularly and then returned to nursing. A few years later Britten asked her to become his resident nurse at the Red House as he needed permanent medical attention. Thomson proved to be the ideal sympathetic nurse for his last years. She described him as “the best brought-up little boy you could imagine.”

Rita Thomson was born in Dingwall, the younger of two daughters of Evander Thomson, a coach trimmer, and his wife Elizabeth. She attended Dingwall Academy and then trained at the Royal Northern Hospital in Inverness. After qualifying she attended the Edinburgh School of Mothercraft and read thoracic medicine (chest and respiratory complaints) at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. She then worked as a senior ward sister at the National Heart Hospital.

Although the rest of her life was to be spent away from Scotland, Thomson never lost her Highland lilt. In the many television programmes about Britten she speaks in a reassuring manner with an endearing Scottish accent. She joined Britten and his partner Peter Pears when the three visited Orkney and Shetland in the 1970s.

In 1975 the Queen wrote to Britten asking him to compose something for her mother’s 75th birthday. Britten wondered if he had the energy but Thomson encouraged him to undertake the composition. She read him some poems by Robert Burns inspired by the Scottish word Hansel which means a gift at harvest time. As Britten sat at the piano composing A Birthday Hansel Thomson read the poems aloud to him.

The premiere of the piece at Sandringham was attended by the Queen, her mother and sister.

Britten loved Venice. He visited the city at least eight times – often in winter – and on the last occasion shortly before his death in 1976 he and Thomson stayed at the Danielli. There is marvellous footage in a film on the composer’s life (Endgme) of the two on the balcony overlooking the Grand Canal where they are seen laughing and joking while Thomson takes numerous photographs.

The most charming scene is of the two in St Mark’s Square with Thomson pushing Britten in a wheelchair and spinning a delighted Britten round and round. As Jenni Wake Walker of the Aldeburgh Festival said in the film, “Rita was a breath of fresh air for Ben. She brought him a lot of sunshine.”

After Britten’s death, Pears asked Thomson to remain at the Red House while she retrained as a health visitor. She was a great comfort to Pears after he had suffered a stroke and she stayed in the Red House after his death in 1986 for 20 years.

Keith Grant, manager of the English Opera Group (1962-73), was a stalwart admirer of the composer. “In those last years Ben was a man in a hurry and knew he did not have all the time in the world. Rita fitted into the Aldeburgh circle triumphantly. Her sense of humour and sound judgement was widely admired.”

The Amadeus Quartet visited the Red House to play his third string quartet and as Thomson settled Britten in the library the players mentioned that they preferred Thomson was not present at a rehearsal. Britten breezily remarked, “Oh don’t worry about her, she’s tone deaf.” “It reflects” Grant says “their closeness and it is to Rita’s credit she told the story against herself for many years.”

Rita Thomson is survived by her sister.