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Leicester Special Collections

Mary's Family

Mary Clegg's painting in an Edwardian autograph album.jpg
A page from an Edwardian autograph book, with a painting signed by 'Mary Clegg'.
Ilkeston and District Local History Society, An Edwardian Autograph Album, 2020 <> [accessed 8 September 2020].
The Hundred of Sawley.jpg
The Hundred of Sawley, Mary Clegg, Long Eaton School Annual, No. 2, 1913. A piece written by Mary for the Long Eaton Grammar School magazine.
LEGS Reunited, Long Eaton School Annual No 2 1913, 2020 <> [accessed 8 September 2020].

Mary was born in Nottinghamshire in 1896.[1] Her father, Samuel Clegg, was a teacher and a noted educationalist, who became the first head of Long Eaton Grammar School in 1910. Mary's brother, Alexander, was better down as Sir Alec Clegg, the director of Education for West Yorkshire in the 1960s and was highly esteemed as an educational reformer.[2] Samuel, Mary's father, was "a  leader  in  the  emerging cultural life of this industrial community"[3], he "believed firmly in art as the means of providing a first class education for the child, a means which blends enjoyment and profit as no other can do".[4] His "devotion to education and culture that led to him being described as a 'high voltage cable' electrifying and vivifying the society with which he was in contact." [5] This gives a good background for Mary's upbringing.

Mary showed an interest in arts even as a teenager. She played the part of Malvolio in the performance of "Twelfth Night' in April 1910.[6] She received many compliments on her paintings and wrote a piece for the school magazine.[7]

After graduating from Long Eaton School, Mary studied at University College Nottingham (now the University of Nottingham). She is listed as one of the graduates of the University of London.[8]

Mary and Frederick outside College House, 1931.jpg

"Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Attenborough photographed at the College House, Leicester University",
Leicester Mercury, October 1931, University of Leicester: Archives and Special Collections, Press Cuttings Book June 1920-December 1946. ULA/PCB/2 p.143.


"Recital, 1937", Leicester Evening Mail, February 6th 1937, Univeristy of Leicester: Archives and Special Collections. ULA/FG9/2/36.

Mary had various talents and took part in a wide range of activities, and her upbringing shaped her ideas and how she brought up her own family. Mary Attenborough was the wife of Frederick Attenborough, Principal of University College Leicester between 1932-1951, and mother of three sons: Richard (Lord Attenborough, Lit. & Phil. President 1999-2000), David (now Sir David Attenborough, an Honorary Life Vice-President of the Society) and John.[9] Mary Attenborough (nee Clegg) married Frederick Attenborough in 1922.[10]

An interview with Sir David Attenborough, in which he recounts memories of his family life at College House on the University College Leicester campus.
University of Leicester, Sir David Attenborough – Memories of the University of Leicester [YouTube], 2016 <> [accessed 15 August 2020].

Sir David Attenborough grew up in College House on the campus of the University College Leicester, with his father, Frederick, and his mother, Mary. In the interview of Sir David Attenborough, he mentioned what his parents were like in his memories. Sir David Attenborough said that his mother was more practical in the three brothers' upbringing. Mary was a highly social person and had a very strong social conscience. [11]

Mary was much involved in bringing Basque refugee children out of bombed cities during the Spanish conflict.[12] Mary took her sons to help her clean up Evington Hall, and ran a school and accommodation in the Hall. In the memories of Sir David Attenborough:

She (Mary) rolled up her sleeves and actually started scrubbing the floors. And I fetched buckets of water [...] and cleaned up the place.[13]

Mary housed two Jewish sisters, Helga and Irene Bejach, during the Second World War. These two girls stayed with Mary and Frederick for seven years and became the much-loved "sisters" to Richard, David and John. This special experience also had a deep influence on Richard. It gave Richard an understanding of what it was to be Jewish, and taught him to loathe prejudice and persecution.[14] When describing life in Leicester and his mother’s contribution to the community, Richard Attenborough said:

If the Governor [father] was the studious visionary, beavering away behind the closed doors of his study, my mother was the doer. As teenagers, we called her Mary which, I suppose, was very avant-garde at the time. It was Mary whod been a crusading suffragette, Mary who took part in marches against Francos Fascist regime in Spain and Mary who eventually worked herself to death as one of the founders of the Marriage Guidance Council.

Im sure she wanted all her sons to grow up happy and fulfilled, no matter what career they chose.[15]

Richard and David both made significant contributions to education and achieved fame in other fields.

Page researched and written by Shiyu Gao.


[1] Frederick L Attenborough 1939-46, Available at:  (Accessed: 27 August 2020)

[2] An Edwardian Autograph Album, Available at: (Accessed: 8 September 2020)

[3] Long Eaton Grammar School Jubilee Book, p.5, Available at: [accessed 8 September 2020][accessed 8 September 2020]

[4] ibid, p.3

[5] ibid, p.5

[6] ibid, p.15

[7] The Hundred of Sawley (Long Eaton School Annual No 2 1913), Available at: (Accessed: 8 September 2020)

[8] Graduates List, Available at: (Accessed: 8 September 2020)

[9]Mary Attenborough (B.1896-D.1961), Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2020)

[10] Frederick L Attenborough 1939-46, Available at:  (Accessed: 27 August 2020)

[11] University of Leicester, Sir David Attenborough – Memories of the University of Leicester [YouTube], 2016, Available at: (Accessed: 15 August 2020).

[12] Mary Attenborough (B.1896-D.1961), Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2020)

[13] University of Leicester, Sir David Attenborough – Memories of the University of Leicester [YouTube], 2016, Available at: (Accessed: 15 August 2020).

[14] Leicester Mercury, 3rd August 1938 & Richard Brooks, The Sunday Times, November 30, 2008

[15] Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins, Entirely Up to You, Darling (Hutchison: Great Britain, 2008), p.10.