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Leicester Special Collections

Mary Attenborough (b.1896- d.1961)


Mary Attenborough and Principal F.L. Attenborough.

Mary Attenborough was the wife of Frederick Attenborough, Principal of University College 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 the Second World War (1939-1945).

During the Spanish conflict, refugees swelled the population of major urban cities within Spain, causing the autonomous Basque Government to appeal to other countries to take in young refugees. In Britain, the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief was established at the end of 1936 to co-ordinate the voluntary relief agencies working within Spain. Following on from this, the Basque Children’s Committee was founded.


Letter of reference for Frederick Attenborough with references to Mary, who 'ably assists in all his undertakings'.

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. Evington Hall, a large, out-of-use mansion was rented for the purpose of becoming a boarding school for the boys and girls of the Basque region, who arrived from Bilbao on 6th July 1937.

£1000 was the estimated figure required for the initial repairs and equipment needed at Evington Hall. 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.”[1]

The Committee’s aims were a success, providing the refugees with a safe haven from the fighting and terror of their home country and a much-needed childhood routine of work and play for the course of the conflict.

In response to a growing sense of impatience on the part of the general public, who believed that the end of the Civil War was looming, Mary wrote a series of passionate and empathetic letters to engage a civic sense of duty to the children, insisting that:

"If we can send back children to parents with homes to receive them, then we think that they should go, whether the parents are in Nationalist or Government Spain – but we will not deliver the children up to their parents’ enemies".[2]

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 housed two Jewish sisters during the Second World War. Helga and Irene Bejach (aged 9 and 11) arrived in Britain on the ‘Kindertransport’ programme, as a means of escaping Nazi Germany. The sisters stayed with Mary and Frederick for seven years and were adopted by the Attenborough family upon the news of their parents’ death.

Affectionately referred to as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ by the sisters, the family remained in regular contact with Helga and Irene for many years.



[1] ‘Leicester’s refuge for Basque children from the Spanish Civil War’, Graves, Richard, The Leicestershire Historian, No. 52, (2016), p6

[2] ‘Leicester’s refuge for Basque children from the Spanish Civil War’, Graves, Richard, The Leicestershire Historian, No. 52, (2016), p18