Celebrating our Citizens of Change

Mary Attenborough (1896-1961)

Citizen of Change: Fought for the safety and education of refugee children

Mary Attenborough was the wife of Frederick Attenborough, Principal of University College Leicester (later University of Leicester) between 1932– 1951 and mother to their three sons: Richard, David and John. 

The Attenborough family are an integral part of the University’s history, however there has been little focus on the significant work of Mary Attenborough, particularly her role within philanthropy in Leicester.  

Working to ensure the safety of child refugees, Mary was central to the organisation and fundraising efforts required to ensure the safe reception and care of refugees arriving into Leicester during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945).

Mary, as Secretary for the Leicestershire Committee for the Basque Children was one of the people responsible for the reception and care of 50 children arriving into Leicester, ensuring that the Committee had the funds and facilities required to house and educate the Basque refugees. 

As part of her role as Secretary, Mary was responsible for the collection of donations and worked tirelessly to promote the welfare of the children. Her son David described his mother’s attitude to the task quite succinctly:

“My clearest memories of this are of seeing my mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors of this disused house to make it ready for them.”

Subsequent to her efforts during the Spanish Civil War, Mary soon turned her attention to the plight of the Jewish population in Europe. Both she and Frederick had been working with others to smuggle Jewish children under 17 years old out of Germany, with their Leicester home being a staging post of the children’s journeys on to key relatives. 

In fact, Mary and Frederick housed two Jewish sisters during the Second World War, Helga and Irene Bejach (aged 9 and 11) who were staying in College House the day World War II broke out. 

The sisters were ‘adopted’ by the Attenborough family upon the news of their parents’ death. Helga and Irene stayed with the family for the duration of the war, after which they continued their journey on to the USA. To this day, the families remain in contact. 

As a result of a car accident in 1961, Mary passed away aged 65.

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