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The Unpaid Careers of Principals’ Wives at Leicester’s University College, 1921-51 – Elizabeth Blood

The Attenborough family, including Mary Attenborough and her three sons, Richard, David and John, lived at University College Leicester between 1932 and 1951 when Frederick Attenborough served as its second Principal. I recently curated an exhibition on their time at its successor institution, the University of Leicester.[1] Mary Attenborough emerged from this research as a vigorous support to the young institution (it had only opened in 1921). This sparked my interest in the roles played by Principals’ wives in the early history of Leicester’s University College.[2]

Mary Attenborough will be easier to place, given the global fame of two of her sons and the recent publication of a biography.[3] She was preceded by a lesser-known figure, Mary Rattray, who has been all but ignored. I wanted to know about the impact these women had, especially after finding them largely absent from the University’s records. They were less often recorded because their roles were less ‘official’. Yet they were integral to the institution. Whereas Principals’ papers are retained by the University, those of their wives remained private. Little has been traced for Mary Rattray who was childless, whereas material for Mary Attenborough has remained with her descendants.[4] This post aims to recover and emphasise the importance of their presence in the life of a young twentieth-century University College.

Mary Rattray (née Clara Mary Currall Heygate Brooks, 1885-1963) and Mary Attenborough (née Mary Clegg, 1896-1961) were consecutive Principals’ wives in Leicester in 1921-31 and 1932-51 respectively. Mary Brooks was from Banbury, Oxfordshire, and Mary Clegg from Sawley, Derbyshire. Although on the surface they seem like different women, in that Mary Rattray chose a largely religious lifestyle whereas Mary Attenborough did not, they shared many similarities in the roles and responsibilities they took on as Principals’ wives. They were pathfinders, setting expectations for subsequent women in these positions. In the latter part of the twentieth century when Universities were far larger and their administrations vastly different, Principals’ partners played less significant roles or, indeed, none. Early experiences, therefore, risk being overlooked.

Both Marys came from families interested in education and lifelong learning, and both attained an external BA from the University of London in modern languages. They both believed strongly in social and charitable work. In the case of Mary Rattray, this was stimulated by her parents’ civic involvements in Banbury life, her schooling from Cheltenham Ladies College, and her religious milieu from the Unitarian chapel, where she met her future husband, Rev Dr Robert Rattray. Mary Attenborough’s convictions stemmed particularly from her father, Sam Clegg, a pioneering educationalist with liberal politics who emphasised that educational experiences developed personality, encouraged individuality, and offered chances for equality. Both women were preparing for possible careers of their own when they became engaged. Mary Rattray had apparently trained for secretarial work, and Mary Attenborough may have been considering teaching. Neither embarked upon paid careers thereafter, but they were tireless workers in the roles they dedicated their time, energy and talents to.

Robert Rattray, then a Unitarian minister in Leicester, was appointed the first Principal of the new University College, and in 1921 moved with Mary into College House on its campus. They kept their doors open to staff, benefactors, students and, later, alumni. When the College opened in 1921, there were so few students that Mary Rattray had them around her table for a Christmas dinner and presented each with a gift. Both women were busy hostesses in the service of the institution; entertaining benefactors, governors and educational contacts in their own home in order to keep the College afloat. The whole family, therefore, represented the institution and worked in its interests.

Both women enlisted domestic help to increase their availability for academic and voluntary duties. In the 1930s, Mary Attenborough ensured that this work was offered to German Jewish women so that they could escape Nazi Germany, just as Frederick offered nominal academic posts to German Jewish academics. The Attenboroughs also adopted two German Jewish girl refugees who were on their way to family in America and staying at College House when war broke out. Mary had previously taken a leading role in rehoming 50 Basque child refugees of the Spanish Civil War in Leicester. Mary Rattray, two decades earlier, had helped Belgian refugees in Banbury during the First World War (1914-1918) and later helped the ‘Ladies of Leicester’ fundraise to assist refugees of the Turkish-Greek conflict of 1919-1923. Both women were exemplifying how people from within ostensibly closed educational communities could actively demonstrate humanity and enlightenment in a volatile wider world.

As the first Principal’s wife, Mary Rattray gained ready acceptance into positions of local influence. At various times in the 1920s, she was President of the Girl’s Social Guild, a Member of the Deaf and Special Schools Committee of the local Education Authority, and was made a Magistrate in 1924. Inestimable numbers of speeches were made, prizes distributed, recitations given, functions attended. Mary Attenborough seemed to do all this and more. She maintained the positions that Mary Rattray had forged, but also dedicated herself to additional causes: Soroptimism, the National Council of Women, the Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate) and, of course, raising three children. By taking on public roles, Principal’s wives maintained civic connections for the University College but also proved their genuine interest in the welfare of the community and beyond. They were helping to ensure the University was relevant beyond its walls. Their continued dedication to public causes and to representing the University in that capacity, showed a genuine desire to work towards social, cultural and educational improvement locally, not just for their students.

Principals’ wives often built a stronger rapport with students than their husbands could, since Principals were often viewed as formidable figures. Mary Rattray participated in many student society activities, attended their social engagements, and hosted ‘at homes’ for them. The ‘at homes’, a social formality now all but lost, would have played an important role in students’ development and welfare. They were something like a mixture of a social engagement, a tutorial and a counselling session. Principals and their wives took their pastoral role seriously; they were like surrogate parents for young people away from home. Both women, therefore, worked to widen the cultural horizons of the students also. Mary Rattray was a keen amateur dramatist and coached student performances. Mary Attenborough was not a performer (though was very musical at home), but successfully took on the Presidency of Leicester’s Little Theatre in 1936-38, as Robert Rattray had done in 1922-24. They set a public example as women of culture, responsibility and civic leadership.

Robert Rattray resigned as Principal in 1931 to return to Unitarian ministry, having been invited to the Emmanuel Road chapel in Cambridge. He and Mary remained there until their deaths in the 1960s. It is likely that Mary’s secretarial training was employed to aid her husband in publishing on Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw (amongst other things) during their time there. When Frederick and Mary Attenborough left Leicester in 1951, it was to retire to Long Ditton in Surrey where they lived closer to two of their three sons and helped to raise their grandchildren. Mary continued her voluntary work, especially for the Marriage Guidance Council, but it was on this business that she was tragically killed in a road accident in 1961. Frederick Attenborough, somewhat lost without her, survived until 1973.

Neither Principal could have fulfilled their own roles without the unpaid careers of their wives running in parallel. Leicester’s first Principals’ wives were crucial to the institution and its community, working tirelessly within it and as public ambassadors for it. Their roles have thus far had unequal institutional recognition compared to that of their spouses, but their impacts were equally significant to generations of students and staff and they deserve equal attention from historians.

Dr Elizabeth Blood is Research Associate (University History) at the University of Leicester. She is a heritage professional and a historian of monuments, commemoration and conservation. Her PhD entitled Place, Community and Commemorative Cultures in the (Re)Making of Local First World War Memorials was awarded by the University of Leicester in 2023. Images author’s own.

[1] The Attenboroughs at Leicester, exhibition by Dr Elizabeth Blood, University Library, University of Leicester, Summer 2023.

[2] For clarity, both women will be referred to using their married names throughout this article.

[3] Richard Graves, The Life and Times of Mary Attenborough (1896-1961), (Market Harborough: The Book Guild Ltd, 2022).

[4] Some information on Mary Rattray is from Charles Howes, Leicester: Its Civic, Industrial, Institutional and Social Life (Leicester: The Midland Services Agencies Ltd, 1927), p.248. Some material is held by Cheltenham Ladies’ College archives, and I am grateful to Mrs Rachel Roberts (College Archivist) for sharing this with me. Local newspapers are a key source on both women’s public activities.