Mary Attenborough – ‘A Woman of our Time’

Mary Attenborough – ‘A Woman of our Time’

Richard Graves was the speaker at April ’22’s History and Heritage group meeting.

Six weeks ago he published a book about Mary Attenborough (The Life and Times of Mary Attenborough (1896 – 1961) ISBN 978 1914471148.  His talk was called ‘A Woman of our Time.’

Richard had been a speaker before when he came to talk about Evington’s refugee story.  This was when some Basque children from Spain’s civil war came to live in Evington Hall.


Mary was born in Sawley, Long Eaton, Derbyshire.  Her parents were Mary (nee Bradshaw) and Samuel Clegg.  Her mother was described as an able woman who shared her husband’s vision and “ably assists him in all his undertakings.  Her charming tact and courtesy have established her firmly as the graceful and reliable hostess for the social life of a large educational institution.”  Her father, Samuel, an influential educationalist, was Headteacher of Long Eaton School. He built their house in 1870 and Mary was later born there.

Mary was the oldest of five children.  Frederick Attenborough, her future husband, worked in Samuel Clegg’s school and although fifteen years older than Mary, married her in 1922.  Frederick later became the Principal of Leicester University College.

Mary lived at a time when women had only just started to find a voice.  It was only in 1928 when an Act of Parliament allowed women to vote equally with men.  Then the 1930s, although a time of recession, did see more women working and feeling more empowered.  Mary had a zest for life and besides running her own household, set up local groups.  In 1934 she set up the Soroptimist Club.  She worked for the National Council of Women, Leicester branch and the Leicester Women’s luncheon club.  At this time Europe was unsettled and was pointing to renewed conflict.  Mary set up Leicester Women’s Peace committee.  When Franko in Spain took advantage of a politically polarised Spain and the first aerial bombardment raid happened in Guernica, Spain, then 4,000 unaccompanied children left Bilbao to land at Southampton in 1937.  Evington Hall housed 50 children.  Mary was much involved and later made a stand about not sending any children back to Spain until all danger was over.  They stayed until the end of the war, and after that Evington Hall closed down and later became a Convent.  Now the building is the Krishna Avanti School.

During the 2nd World War, Mary, already with a family of their own Richard (born 1923), David (born 1926) and John (born 1928)  had turned her attention to the plight of the Jewish population in Europe and she and Frederick housed two Jewish sisters, Helga Bejach (aged 10) and Irene Bejach (aged 12).  Their older sister had to say behind because she was too old for the Kindertransport programme, but she managed to survive a Labour camp.  Sadly the girls’ father was murdered at Austwich.  When Mary heard of the death of the Bejach girls’ parents, the Attenborough’s adopted them.  Mary took such great care of their education and in a letter to the girls’ uncle on their return to Germany, she described in detail the decisions she had taken, recognising both the girls’ interests and wellbeing.  The Attenborough and Bejach families continue to keep in touch.  Helga had kept a brief three-year diary of her stay, which is now in the archives at Leicester University.

Richard Graves quoted Mary at the end of his talk, commenting on how pertinent this comment is today:


“It is an unhappy Europe at the moment and though the outlook is not over bright, I still think we may have enough decency to get the world on its feet again and walk decently along together.”


In Richard’s book about the Life and Times of Mary Attenborough he finished by saying:


“There is so far no public recognition or acknowledgement of the life and work of Mary.  Leicester prides itself on its diversity and its continuing role of welcoming refugees from desperate situations all over the world.  The University is celebrating its centenary of its foundation with an emphasis on the unsung role of women in its early history.  Surely now is an appropriate time for both the city council and the University of Leicester to acknowledge the wonderful humanitarian work which Mary undertook in the city between 1937 and 1946.

Helen Pettman

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