Journey from humble roots to national stardom with David Attenborough's family tree
5-6 minute read
By Jessie O'Hara
From academics to bakers and grocery shop owners, dive into the family that brought national treasure David Attenborough to light.
It's difficult to imagine that there's an ear in Britain that has not once heard the dulcet tones of Attenborough's famed documentary narration.
From a young boy collecting fossils to an environmental advocate and recognised Champion of the Earth, David has enchanted and educated the entire nation with his passion for planet Earth.
We were curious to find out where such a man came from, so we delved into his family history through our records to find out.
Attenborough's early days
David Attenborough was born in 1926 in Brentford, Middlesex, to parents Mary Clegg and Frederick Levi Attenborough.
He was the middle child of three sons, Richard the eldest and John the youngest. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in his early years. A quick scan in our newspaper archive offers up a varied history of the school, from the military occupation of its grounds in the First World War to a charming story of a sixth former who eloped at the age of 16.
He grew up living on the campus of the University of Leicester, where his father Frederick was principal. It's clear that David was surrounded by academics and scholars throughout his childhood - something that makes sense looking at his career later in life. He had a fascination with nature from a young age, reportedly collecting newts to deliver to the zoology department of the university.
His early interest in natural history was encouraged by Jacquetta Hawkes, the first ever woman to study the Archaeology & Anthropology degree at the University of Cambridge. Born Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins, and daughter of Nobel Prize winner Sir Frederick Gowlands Hopkins, she too had a passion for archeology and natural history from early childhood.
She admired David's collection of fossils, stones and artefacts - a compliment so huge we can only imagine the impact it had on the young natural historian.
In 1947, Attenborough was called for service with the Royal Navy, and was stationed in North Wales. Just three years later, he married his life partner, Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel.
Between 1965-1969, David Attenborough became Controller of BBC Two, and he made it his mission to reinvent the channel. From drama to documentary, sport to science, Attenborough personally commissioned an eclectic range of early evening television. Highlights included the now-famed Match of the Day and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
He even introduced the first-ever snooker program, capitalising on the fact that many television sets could now show colour. This not only emphasised the quality of the colour television service that BBC Two offered - which set it apart from other channels - but is now credited for the significant boom of the sport in the 1980s.
Four years after David left his position at the BBC, in 1973, his father Frederick unfortunately passed away. But who were the parents that raised such an innovative young talent?
David Attenborough's family
Frederick Levi Attenborough was born in 1887 to parents Frederick Augustus Attenborough and Mary Attenborough (née Saxton).
In 1891, we found him with three sisters, a servant and his parents at just four years old. A decade later, in 1901, he has a brother as well - but no servant.
Servants were fairly common in the early 1900s, and not reserved solely for the rich. However, it looks like Frederick's sister and David's aunt, Laura Attenborough, has been employed to help her mother with domestic duties, so perhaps this was a way to cut costs. Either way, the family were in no way massively wealthy. 18-year-old Ada was working as a typist in an office in 1901, no doubt helping the family with a second wage coming in.
As he grew older, Frederick Levi was educated in various Long Eaton schools, and by 1911 was working as a teacher in Long Eaton Higher Elementary School.
He is boarding with 26-year-old John Williams in Liverpool, and the pair are both working as teaching assistants - so clearly education runs in the family. By 1913, he accepted a full-time teaching post at Long Eaton Higher Elementary School.
The school was opened by Samuel Clegg in 1910. By 1922, Frederick had become so close to the family that he married his daughter, Mary Clegg.
Interestingly, Frederick and Mary had a civil marriage, despite Frederick's parents being devout Methodists.
Their religion may not have been passed down through the generations like their love of education - but let's take a look at David Attenborough's forbears and see what else we can discover.
The generations before
The census records we found Frederick Levi on help us find Frederick Augustus, David Attenborough's grandfather. Frederick Augustus was born and baptised in 1850, the child of Sarah and George Attenborough - David's great grandparents.
We found David's great-grandparents, George and Sarah, married in 1843 - seven years before Frederick Augustus was born. We can also find a marriage license for them with Sarah's full maiden name listed as Sarah Emma Parsons.
Looking a bit later in life, we find the beginnings of Frederick's lifelong career as a grocer. In 1871, aged just 21, he is working at a grocers shop in Nottingham. His employers at this time are John and Ann Rickett.
Frederick and another man, 22-year-old William Brown, are listed as servants rather than boarders, though both of their occupations are as grocers. We'd often expect those listed as servants to be women at this time - men were usually houseboys or butlers. We can assume that Frederick was more involved in the running of the grocer than just sweeping the floors, and this is a career that continued throughout the rest of his life.
In 1881, he is still listed as a grocer, though presumably at a different site as he is not boarding with the Ricketts. Instead, he is living with his widowed sister, 47-year-old Mary Watson. In 1891, he has taken a slightly different path, and ventured into the world of baking.
Looking at Mary Watson however helps us find out a little bit more about her parents - David Attenborough's great grandparents.
Here she is as a five-year-old, living with her mother Sarah and her grandparents - David Attenborough's great great grandparents - John and Sarah Attenborough. Her father George however isn't listed - it's possible he was working away. Frederick would not be born for another nine years.
Even four generations back, as far as 1841, the family are still all living in Stapleford, Nottingham. David and his siblings were the first to break the mould and move to the big city. Of course, the railway and accessibility of car travel helped make this more possible in the 20th century.
Taking a quick look at David's great great grandparents, we can find that John Attenborough was baptised in 1779, to parents Mary and Henry. He married Sarah by bann under the Anglican church in 1801. Sarah's maiden name was Robinson.
It really doesn't get much more humble that this. Researching two full centuries ago, it's clear that there's very little generational wealth, family connections, or nepotism hiding in David Attenborough's family history.
From servants to grocers to bakers to teachers, David and his siblings truly did rise from the bottom and change the face of modern television with nothing more than intelligence, determination, and drive. We'd expect nothing less.
Ready to dive into more celebrity history? Explore more of our research into celebrity and stardom through our History Hub.
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