Born in Nottinghamshire, Attenborough was educated at the Long Eaton County School and the Normal College, Bangor, before going up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1915. In 1919 he became a Fellow of Emmanuel specialising in Anglo-Saxon studies. He quickly made his academic reputation with his substantial 1922 book The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, and in the same year married Mary Clegg, who was also from Nottinghamshire. In 1925 he became Principal of the Borough Road Training College in Isleworth, and in 1932 came to Leicester, succeeding Dr. Robert Rattray as the second Principal of the eleven year old University College.
Attenborough found an institution that, despite the very real local enthusiasm and support for it, was still very small and struggling financially, and which was being kept afloat mainly by irregular donations and small endowments from local private patrons and by small contributions from the City and County Councils. The government’s official body for university recognition and funding, the University Grants Committee, rejected his initial approaches requesting that the Leicester University College should be given official government recognition and an annual Treasury Grant. However, at the end of the War the Committee changed its position in view of the academic progress being made despite the difficult financial circumstances, and the College began to receive ever-increasing Government funding.
Under Attenborough’s leadership the College began to make rapid progress in all fields: student numbers, new buildings, the recruiting of the first Professors, and the creation of new Departments and other areas of teaching and research, though its degrees still had to be awarded by the University of London, not the University College itself. However, by the time of his retirement in 1951, Attenborough had prepared the ground very well for the award through the Privy Council of a Royal Charter making it a full university in its own right, and the University College became the University of Leicester in 1957.
Attenborough’s Presidency of the Lit. and Phil. was unique in terms of its length. He was elected President at the May 1939 AGM and plans were well advanced for the start of the 1939-40 session of the Society, beginning with his Presidential Address at the beginning of October. However, with the outbreak of war at the beginning of September, the Museum building was requisitioned to be used for war purposes. The Council of the Society decided that it was not possible to relocate to other premises and so suspended the planned programme indefinitely, and though the Council met from time to time during the war it was not until October 1945 that the Society and its Sections were revived. Attenborough continued to serve as President, playing a major role in re-building of the Lit. and Phil. membership in particular, until handing over to George Tarratt at the beginning of the 1946-47 Session of the Society in October 1946.
Attenborough was for many years a non-Councillor member of the City Council’s Museums and Libraries Committee both in his own right and as a representative of the Lit. and Phil. He was, among other things, an unfailing supporter of the wartime Museums’ Director, Trevor Thomas, in reviving and developing the museum’s programme of wartime activities once the building was reopened in 1942, including the launching of the lunchtime concerts in 1943 and the audacious decision to start exhibiting and then acquiring German Expressionist art in 1944. Before his death Trevor Thomas stated that it was Attenborough who proposed the purchase of the Franz Marc “Rote Frau” painting, as recommended by Thomas and this very controversial decision was carried after a long debate. (This account this was confirmed by the late Sir Charles Keene, who chaired the key Subcommittee meeting.)
Both Attenborough and his wife were very active in a wide range of local and national humanitarian and cultural activities. Both campaigned and worked at the practical level for the protection of human rights and for the care of refugees from Europe arriving in Leicester from Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Practicing what they preached, they themselves housed and cared for two Jewish girls who came to England under the “Kindertransport” programme for some years alongside their three sons, Richard (now Lord Attenborough, Lit. & Phil. President 1999-2000), David (now Sir David Attenborough, an Honorary Life Vice-President of the Society), and John. They were also strong supporters of the Leicester Little Theatre, which Mary Attenborough chaired for many years (and in which the teenage Richard Attenborough made his first stage appearances).
Attenborough’s principal recreation within a very busy life was photography, specialising in photographing buildings and landscapes. Attenborough arrived at the University College at more or less the same time as the pioneer of local history studies, Dr. W.G. Hoskins, and the two began a remarkably successful collaboration: Attenborough, as a photographer and car-owner (and no doubt with a supply of petrol rationing coupons during the war and the following years of continued rationing), was willingly pressed into service by the non-driving Hoskins. Over almost 20 years they made very many local and more distant journeys researching and photographing landscapes and historic buildings including his ground-breaking Leicestershire and The Making of the English Landscape, and many of Attenborough’s photographs were published in other Hoskins books. He also did photographic recording for publications by others, most notably the work of Sir Nicholas Pevsner on Southwell Minster.
Main reference: Obituaries: Mr. F.L. Attenborough The Times Friday March 23, 1973, p. 20, col. F.
Also notes from Ms Alex Cave, Leicester University Archivist, and personal recollections of Trevor Thomas and Sir Charles Keene in discussions with Patrick Boylan.