Leicester author shares untold story of Mary Attenborough

Researcher and author Richard Graves (left) with Dr Simon Dixon (right) outside College House on the University of Leicester campus.

A Leicester historian says he is ‘absolutely certain’ that Mary Attenborough would have been front and centre in helping refugees and asylum seekers in 2022.

Leicester-born researcher and author Richard Graves was speaking on Friday at the launch of his new book, The Life and Times of Mary Attenborough, held mere metres away from the house where Mary and husband Frederick (Fred) – a former Principal of the University College – raised their family on the University of Leicester campus.

The book launch and Q&A formed part of the annual Literary Leicester festival, which in 2022 also celebrates the University’s Centenary year.

Richard’s book, written following exhaustive research including interviews with Mary’s son, Sir David Attenborough, as well as of materials held in the University’s own Archives and Special Collections and travel across the UK, details the Attenborough matriarch’s strong character and ‘incredible energy’.

Much of the book is based around the family’s support for displaced children – first by the Spanish Civil War, and later by larger conflict in Europe. Mary and Fred famously took in two young Jewish refugee sisters, who lived with the family in College House.

Richard said: “I’m absolutely certain from what I know of Mary that she would be helping those affected by these tragic circumstances that we see today.

“And she wouldn’t just be helping as an individual – I have no doubt she would be organising groups to help. She didn’t necessarily set out to do that, but she was very much a natural-born leader.

“She was a very deeply humanitarian person. Any causes she embraced she embraced with a passion.”

Helga (9) and Irene Bejach (11) were Jewish refugees taken in by the Attenboroughs in 1939. Orphaned by the war, they were supposed to be on their way to family in New York. But after hostilities spread to the Atlantic, the girls were later formally adopted by Mary and Fred.

Richard continued: “Mary must have had incredible energy levels and drive. Mary and Fred agreed almost overnight to take the girls on and keep them in a place of safety until the end of the war – but of course they wouldn’t have known when the war would end at that point.”

Archive photograph of Fred and Mary Attenborough alongside author Richard Graves, with his book The Life and Times of Mary Attenborough.

Much of the book has been informed by documents including letters, diaries and photographs held in the care of the University of Leicester’s archive collections.

Dr Simon Dixon, Head of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Leicester, added: “This whole process has been really enlightening. We knew of Mary and of some of her connections through the soroptomists; through the Spanish Civil War; through adopting the children; and then the story of the Bejach girls, but what Richard’s book does really brings the story to life and highlights that, once you start digging and doing the research, these were complex three-dimensional individuals.

“We keep and look after all of this valuable material so that it gets used – whether it’s by students, our Museum Studies students, or members of the community like Richard. That’s why we do what we do. It’s about the stories that those records contain and how people engage with them.

“There are so many layers to the history that these artefacts can tell us.”

Literary Leicester is the University’s annual free literary festival, open to all. Led by the School of Arts and the Centre for New Writing, the programme is generously supported by The Jean and Arthur Humphreys Fund.

The Life and Times of Mary Attenborough is available in bookshops including Waterstones and online via Amazon. A short excerpt on Mary’s response to the Spanish Civil War is reproduced below by kind permission of Richard Graves.


Mary Attenborough was at the forefront of the local response in Leicester. Mary had witnessed first-hand what it meant to be a refugee, forced to flee your homeland by an invasion of enemy forces, when her father took onto his teaching staff two young Belgian refugees at the Long Eaton School in 1914. No doubt this experience was in her mind when the sudden urgent need arose to accommodate and care for a large group of refugee children unaccompanied by their parents…… 

By 5 June 1937 it was confirmed that:

the 50 Basque children who are coming to Leicester will be housed at Evington Hall. This was settled at a meeting of members of the committee last evening, and the children will arrive by the end of the month. The Hall, which will be rented, is a big brick mansion with considerable park ground, and buildings that can be adapted as play houses……

We learn from the Leicester Mercury that the local committee was:

representative of all religions and social activities in the city. The Lord Mayor (Councillor A.H. Swain) is president, the Bishop of Leicester chairman, and Mrs. Attenborough of University College House, the Secretary. The Rev. Glan Morgan is the chairman of the executive committee, and there is an appeals committee, of which the Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Richard Hallam, is chairman and Councillor Charles Keene secretary.

There is little doubt, however, that the driving force behind this massive local effort was Mary Attenborough, who now had a new focus outside of home and the university college and channelled her superabundant energy into addressing a humanitarian crisis created in a foreign land. Following a public appeal to raise £1,000 for the initial outlay on repairs and refurbishment, Mary, as secretary, was the conduit for other offers of help including gifts in kind, subscriptions and voluntary assistance. David Attenborough, who was eleven years old at the time, recalled to me his mother’s involvement in preparing Evington Hall:

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. The children, when they eventually arrived, seemed very exotic to my eyes with their black hair and dark complexions, and did not of course speak much English. I accompanied my mother on some of her regular visits and got to know some of the children slightly as their English improved.