Manuel & Stella Saavedra: puttin’ on the Ritz

22 Aug

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. London is a big draw for people all round the world. Manuel Saavedra – born in Spain – and his wife Stella – from the Philippines – came here to seek their fortune in the late 1960s. They met in the heart of London in the 1970s and married. Now both retired they talk about their years living in Islington. Interview by Nicola Baird


Manuel and Stella are a lovely couple who generously let their back yard be used by the Blackstock Gardeners of N4 for the seed and plant swapping parties that are run two or three times a year. That’s how I found out Manuel is a skilled gardener and expert at saving rainwater, in a collection of rain butts, to use on his thriving plants. This year he is growing blue potatoes, beans, fennel, brussel sprouts, a grape vine and a cucumber. Many of Manuel’s plants were grown from seed given out at one of the Blackstock Gardeners’ Cake Sunday events.*

Manuel: “I was born in Galicia, in the north west of Spain. It’s the next province to Santiago di Compostela. In Galicia it’s green like here. It rains and it snows. We were a farming family, growing wheat, sweet corn, potatoes, beans. It was nice in one way because there was no one to tell you when to wake up or go to bed or get the products ready. In that way were very rich. But to buy a dress we had to sell an animal, or eggs or a cheese. From a very young age my eight brothers and sisters found their way out to a different job. We saw people coming from abroad with the good suit, the good tie and shiny hands. They were so well dressed and had a pile of money. We went out and they said “I’ll pay for him”. That tells me, it tells us all, I must go abroad to Germany, England, or Holland. We never asked how they made their money – they were waiters or washing up…

Stella: “I was born in the Philippines in the city. My mum is from the Philippines and my Dad from China. I’m half and half. I came to London to study nursing at Great Ormond Street Hospital when I was 26. When I got here in 1971 I’d only known hot weather, but I liked the cold. In the beginning I was lonely as there were no Philippino people, now the community is a big one. But I soon made friends and was happy.

Manuel: “From 1969-83 I worked at the Top of the Town (a theatre restaurant, now the Hippodrome) in Leicester Square. I learnt English there. There were three restaurants serving 864 people at two shows a day.  When it closed in 1983 they said it wasn’t profitable, but we were still serving 350-400 customers daily! In 1970 I started working two jobs. Sometimes I only slept three hours. I joined the Ritz Hotel as a commis waiter*. The customers were excellent at the Ritz. Instead of complaining about my English they tried to correct you. I remember Hart to Hart (starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers) was filming in London in 1981 and we opened the buffet for 24 hours a day. I also worked in Mayfair at the Bristol Hotel (now the Mayfair Holiday Inn at the back of Aeroflot) and Browns, opposite Green Park.

Stella: “We met in Leicester Square. It was the nurses’ day off and we said let’s go to the discotheque at the Empire Mecca – it’s a casino now.

Manuel: “If you worked hard you got good money and good tips. I rented a room with my wife first. Then I was able to buy a flat, then a house. In my time you worked hard, but you could make good money – not like today when hotel staff get maybe £6 an hour, below the minimum wage.

Stella: “At first I lived in Holloway. The council ended up compulsorily purchasing the house. It was knocked down and now it’s the Argos car park.

Manuel: “I bought this house from Mr Protter. His mummy had died here. He was in the military, living in Essex. The house has five bedrooms now but with Mr Protter it had been two flats and squatters were getting in. Islington Council had given him £18,000 to do the place up, so everything was new, wiring – everything. My neighbour Lily said Mr Protter’s  mother had been here for over 60 years. I don’t think many people have lived in this house.

manuel_plaqueOn Manuel and Stella’s living room mantelpiece is a blue plaque picture provided by neighbour Naomi of a turn of the century census giving information about the 1911 residents of their home – Daniel Taylor, house painter, his wife and eight children (see pic). There are also photographs of the couple’s son Leonardo, now 34, graduating from Derby University. Leonardo lives in Chiswick now, but he went to primary school off Holloway Road and to St Aloysius Secondary School.

Manuel: “I remember my Mummy, before she passed, telling us at the fiestas to ‘Eat properly before you leave the house so you don’t have to spend even 10 pesetas. If you don’t need it, you don’t spend it.’ That’s why I tell my son ‘Don’t spend money’. I never used to go to the pub, and I don’t drink now. It’s because I was in hotels and in charge, so you can’t really drink. You have to behave yourself. But I don’t regret the hard work.”


Bricks and books for the grandchildren.


Manuel’s thriving plants grow along the boundary wall.

Manuel: “I stopped work in 2006. I noticed I couldn’t pick up a tray from the floor because of my back. But I like Gillespie Park and Finsbury Park and sometimes go for a walk with my friends. We go two or three rounds around Arsenal because it’s all level. I’ve never been to a game but my son went a lot of times with his school friend. I saw the stadium at a conference once…”


Ingenious water saving means Manuel never needs to use mains water on his plants, or to wash his son’s car.


  • Join the Blackstock Gardeners on a Cake Sunday by bringing a cake to share and then catch up on gardening tips and local news over a cup of tea. You can see photos of these events in Naomi Schillinger’s 2013 book Veg Street.  Or follow her blog here.
  • Commis waiter – entry level waiter who sets the cutlery, brings bread/water/condiments to the table, etc. See here.
  • Hart to Hart info here.

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.


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