Obituary: John Attenborough

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The Independent Online
Ralph John Attenborough, publisher: born 30 December 1908; married 1935 Barbara Sandle (died 1988; two sons, one daughter); died 11 May 1994.

JOHN ATTENBOROUGH was a traditional publisher who spent his working life in the loyal service of his authors, his partners and the staff of Hodder and Stoughton. One of his most endearing characteristics was his deep-seated conviction, frequently expressed, that they were all the very best of their kind.

Hodder and Stoughton was founded in the latter part of the last century and in 1896 was one of the founding firms of the Publishers Association. Attenborough was always destined to join it. His mother was a Miss Hodder Williams. His close cousin Paul Hodder Williams was his chairman.

John Attenborough was born in 1908, the son of a solicitor. He was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford, and after a short apprenticeship in Germany, a traditional approach at the time, he joined the firm in 1931. In 1935 he was appointed a director on the editorial side of the business. He joined the Honourable Artillery Company in the 1930s and was thus in at the beginning of hostilities. He had an interesting and good war, which he rarely discussed, serving on Montgomery's staff first in North Africa and then to the end in Europe. He could have remained in the Army and made a military career, but he rejoined his firm as soon as possible. The office, which was in the traditional heart of publishing near St Paul's, had been completely destroyed during the Blitz. In due course it was rebuilt on an enlarged site and separate distribution facilities provided in West Kent.

When the senior Hodder Williamses, Ralph and Percy, retired, Paul became chairman and John Attenborough deputy chairman, responsible both for sales and editorial matters. The main strength of the Hodder list was popular fiction. Attenborough was concerned particularly with Mary Stewart, for whom he acted as agent as well as publisher, and there was usually an H and S book in the best-seller list. But there was an educational list, children's books, published under the Brockhampton imprint, and the very successful 'Teach Yourself' series, and the long-established list of religious books rooted in the past and also in Attenborough's own convictions. Characteristically, he gave full credit to his editorial colleague Leonard Cutts for these two categories.

John Attenborough was elected president of the Publishers Association and served for the years 1965 to 1967. It was a time of much activity in pursuit of exports, with delegations sent to the main export markets. Attenborough himself specialised in India. In due course he was appointed CBE.

In 1973 he retired, happy in the knowledge that his two sons had joined the firm and that his eldest, Philip, would become chairman and also be elected to be president of the Publishers Association.

In retirement he turned to authorship, beginning with a useful history of his firm, In Living Memory (1975). But he was essentially a fiction publisher and he wrote four novels; the most recent, The Day of Small Things, was published just before his death. His first work, One Man's Inheritance (1979), had as its background the East Kent countryside which he loved and where he had a cottage. This book was reprinted six times.

In 1988 his beloved wife Barbara Sandle, whom he had married in 1935 and who had developed such good judgement on novels, died suddenly. From then on he was determined to be independent, living alone though supported by his family. He died on 11 May, swiftly and peacefully in his own home as was his wish.

(Photograph omitted)