103 years of glory and grit: Rita remembers

By Joana Ramiro

She is among Lambeth’s oldest residents, but Rita Ravera swears she has no secret to reaching the honourable age of 103 and a half. That said, she often has a little glass of wine with one of her meals.

“The years passed, never to this day did I realise I’d get to this age,” she told Lambeth Life. Rita has lived in Lambeth for over seventy years and can’t help but think that things are very different
today from how they were in 1950, when she first moved south of the river, after living in Soho with her parents.

“Life was so different, so friendly. People used to sit on their steps and talk. You went to the pub, you came out, you’d go ‘goodnight everybody’, you more or less could tell the time from how things were going.”

When she married a widowed nightclub manager in 1962 she moved to Kennington, where she shopped at now extinct Lambeth Market on Lambeth Walk. “The houses mostly were rented. Maybe two families in one house, they used to come and collect the rent once a week. When I married my husband we lived in houses belonging to St Thomas’ Hospital. That’s how it was and I stayed there until he died and the boys got married.”

Rita saw the borough change too, from a nearly bucolic corner of London to the bustling streets we know today. “The houses were sold to individuals. People changed. And it was sort of gradual changing. Not for the worst, for the better really.”

But don’t be fooled by Rita’s age and serene descriptions of the Lambeth of old. She is known to have loved dancing and wearing heels well into her nineties. “They used to know me on Mercer Street because I was walking in high heels, I walked better with high heels.”

“Stilettos,” she adds, arguing that even in the Little Sisters of the Poor residence where she now lives, she insists on wearing shoes with a little wedge. Her legs are tanned too, a beauty procedure she won’t deny herself. And she isn’t foreign to a little makeup, either. She giggles when asked about her favourite lipstick and nail polish. There’s still sparkle in this lady.

Her adventures in London include surviving the war, though she has the dark memories of “bombs falling everywhere” and destroying the neighbouring Lambeth College and Lambeth Cathedral. For the coronation in 1953 she helped out during the street parties. And not so long ago, during the 2012 Olympics in London, she was a special guest at the Games, and even had her picture taken with gold medalist Tessa Sanderson.

Today she can be seen walking around her residence’s grounds with her good friend Lee Newland-Baker, a fellow Lambeth resident and former medical surgery staffer. They met eight years ago and struck up a friendship when Lee noticed Rita’s age on her records. Both women share a love of Italian culture, food and language, and have even travelled together to Rita’s parents’ hometown to meet her Italian relatives. “The best friend in the world,” Rita says of Lee. They go to the pub too, for fish and chips or bangers and mash – not as good as in the old days, but it’ll have to do.

But if you hope to find the key to such a long life, you might have to search elsewhere: “If I had a secret to tell I’d be a rich woman, wouldn’t I?” Rita says with a big smile. And it gets us thinking that maybe being a little mischievous is the answer to it all. That and the little glass of wine.

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