David Attenborough Family History


David Frederick Attenborough was born on May 8th, 1926 to Frederick and Mary Attenborough in Isleworth, Middlesex.

David grew up living on the campus of the University of Leicester where his father Frederick was the Principal. He had a fascination with nature from a young age, reportedly collecting newts to deliver to the zoology department of the university.  In 1945 he won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge to study geology and zoology and he obtained his degree in natural sciences.

In 1952, after having completed his national service, he joined the BBC.  His association with natural history programming on TV began with Zoo Quest two years later when he was called in at short notice to be its presenter.

In 1965 there came a change in career direction – first when he was appointed Controller of the new BBC Two TV channel and then, four years later, when we was made Director of programs for both BBC One and BBC Two.  But he resigned that post in 1973.

He returned to his first love, making and presenting natural history programs.  Life on Earth began airing in 1979.  This was followed by The Living Planet and he has contiuued with different series until the present day.  His infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter is readily apparent to his audience.

David’s Ancestors in Stapleford

Today the village of Attenborough lies within the borough of Broxtowe some five miles southwest of Nottingham town centre.  Nearby there is the Attenborough Nature Reserve that was opened by Sir David Attenborough in 1966.

Southwest of Nottingham and not that far from Attenborough are the villages of Clifton and Stapleford.  Records of David’s ancestors began at Clifton around the year 1500.  In those days rural Clifton was still very much feudally run by the Clifton lords of the manor.

Sometime around 1650 Gervase Attenborrow or Attenborough (the spelling varied) moved with his family the five miles from Clifton to Stapleford.  His descendants were to remain there for more than two hundred years and through eight generations of Attenborrows/Attenboroughs.

Stapleford had more going for it than Clifton.  There was farming of course.  In addition, during the 18th century, this area of the East Midlands became a centre for the hosiery industry.  Stapleford had many “knitters” of stockings who worked from home in this trade.  The lace industry arrived in the 19th century with factories so that by Victorian times Stapleford looked less like a village and more like a small town.

Attenboroughs (or more usually Attenborrows) can be found in the BMD records of St. Helens church in Stapleford.  But come the 19th century, nonconformism was a growing force.  By 1850 a religious census indicated that more than half the reported adult population of 1,960 was attending Methodist services.  Among them were Attenboroughs, including Fred Attenborough the baker who had sung in the choir at the Wesleyan Chapel.

Early sightings of Attenborrows in Stapleford were:

  • John Attenborrow who was a collector of the local land tax in 1700
  • and  William Attenborrow who was a prosperous farmer in the early/mid 1700’s.

James Choulerton, who was born in Stapleford in 1860 and wrote about the town, had this to say about William Attenborrow’s house:  “This house is unique for the time as it has the only inventory which mentions any stairs.  The usual method of reaching the upper chamber of a house or cottage had been by means of a ladder placed against the edge of the boarded upper floor.”

Among later Attenboroughs, George who married Sarah Peet in 1828 was a laborer, first at a local iron ore mine and later at some ironworks.

A son Fred, born in 1850, aspired to something better.  From 1870 to the mid-1880’s or thereabouts he was working for the Ricketts who ran a grocery establishment in Nottingham.  Then, having learnt his trade, he returned to Stapleford and started a baker’s shop.

The 1891 census found Fred reasonably well established in Stapleford with his family of four and a thirteen year old servant girl.  He lived on until 1924.

Frederick and Mary Attenborough, David’s Parents 

Frederick Levi Attenborough started out as the son of the Stapleford baker.  He progressed from elementary school teaching to become a scholar and then a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  From 1932 until his retirement in 1951 he was Principal of University College, Leicester.

Frederick’s greatest influence was his schoolteacher Samuel Clegg, whose daughter Mary became his wife in 1922 and the mother of their three boys (Richard, David and John).  The boys remembered a house full of activity and laughter.

David’s brother Richard also recalled: “Mary and the Governor felt unquestionably that in order to enjoy living to the full, you simply had to be conscious of others and their quality of life. It followed that you should be prepared to make some sort of sacrifice wherever it was possible to help.”

On their seaside holidays the Attenboroughs took with them boys from depressed Leicester housing estates who would never otherwise have seen the sea.  They chaired committees to care for child refugees from the Spanish Civil War and from Nazi Germany and took into their family two Jewish refugee children who remained as the boys’ adopted sisters for eight years.

These boys turned out to be Sir Richard the acclaimed film actor and director, Sir David the national treasure, and John the motor industry executive.  Only Sir David remains with us.

David Attenborough’s  Family Tree

  • Gervase Attenborrow (1621-1688) from Clifton, Notts. m. Ann (b. 1625)
  • – John Attenborrow (b. 1656), born in Stapleford, Notts.
  • – plus four other Attenborrows
  • John Attenborrow from Stapleford. m. Katherine Wilkinson (b. 1657) in Stapleford in 1677
  • – Francis Attenborrow (b. 1688)
  • – plus eight other Attenborrows
  • Francis Attenborrow from Stapleford. m. Ellen Bamford (b. 1688) in Bramcote, Notts. in 1712
  • – William Attenborrow (b. 1716)
  • – plus three other Attenborrows
  • William Attenborrow (b. 1716) from Stapleford m. Mary Carmichels (b. 1718) in Stapleford in 1741
  • – William Attenborrow (b. 1746)
  • – plus four other Attenborrows
  • William Attenborrow from Stapleford m. Mary Smedley (b. 1747) in 1767
  • – William Attenborrow (1768-1845)
  • – Francis Attenborrow (1777-1862)
  • Francis Attenborrow from Stapleford m. Mary Hallam (b. 1777) in 1801
  • – George Attenborough (1801-1884)
  • George Attenborough from Stapleford m. Sarah Peet (b. 1808) in 1828
  • – Mary Attenborough (b. 1834) m. John Watson
  • – Charles Attenborough (1846-1929) m. Jane Barrowcliffe
  • – Frederick (Fred) Attenborough (1850-1924)
  • – plus two other Attenboroughs
  • Frederick (Fred) Augustus Attenborough from Stapleford m. Mary Saxton (1852-1917) in Basford, Notts. in 1882
  • – Ada Attenborough (1882-1983)
  • – Laura Attenborough (1885-1973)
  • – Frederick Attenborough (1887-1973)
  • – Maud Attenborough (1889-1965)
  • – John Attenborough (1892-1947) m. Marjorie Smith
  • Frederick Levi Attenborough from Shardlow, Derbys. m. Mary Clegg (1896-1961) from Sawley, Derbys. in London in 1922
  • – Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) m. Sheila Sim
  • – David Attenborough (b. 1926)
  • – John Attenborough (1928-2012) m. Janet Cleverdon
  • – plus Helga and Irene Bejach (adopted orphans during World War Two)
  • David Attenborough m. Jane Oriel (1927-1997) from Wales in Surrey in 1950
  • – Robert Attenborough (b. 1951)
  • – Susan Attenborough (b. 1955)


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *