Post Memories: From manor house to museum: Dagenham’s Valence House

Valence House from across the pond

Valence House from across the pond - Credit: Archant

As Valence House celebrates five years since its reopening and half a century recording the whole borough’s history, we look back at its transformation through the ages.

Valence House gardens reopened with the house in 2010 and now boasts its own bees

Valence House gardens reopened with the house in 2010 and now boasts its own bees - Credit: Archant

From artists in the attic to bees out back, Valence House Museum is abuzz with the living history it witnesses and records.

The name is taken from the French nobility who lived at the estate in the late 1200s. The ghost of Agnes de Valence – who would marry twice in her short life – is believe to haunt the grounds, as explored in a spine-tingling tour at the house.

The oldest part is thought to date back to the 14th century, when the manor house was one of five in Dagenham. It is the only one to remain.

“It was pure luck that it survived,” said historian Mark Watson, who explained how the development of the Becontree Estate in 1921, perhaps surprisingly, proved its saviour.

London County Council bought the land and estate to use as its headquarters during the construction of the estate. After its completion the house served as the town hall until 1937.

It was then that the charisma of one man changed the future of the council property. John Gerard O’Leary was a chief librarian “when it meant something to be a chief librarian”.

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“It was his idea to start up a museum so he started collecting old things,” said Mark.

O’Leary began his collection with Roman pots from Marks Gate cemetery and a Roman stone coffin.

“It was a council museum at a time when museums meant something. What you strove for in a town was a museum.”

For nearly 30 years, O’Leary expanded the selection and oversaw the museum according to its needs.

Fire spotting, free school dinners, football training and dancing were some of the alternative uses of the hall over the Second World War. In the post-war 1950s, the museum entered a new phase, housing artists in the attic and hosting the popular Dagenham Cooperative Film Club.

It also became the first institution in the country to loan out vinyls to the public.

“He was really keen to improve the arts in Dagenham.

“The big idea was to push culture to the masses indirectly. The idea was if they took out a record like Sinatra they might take out something else as well.”

Virtually unchanged physically since 1937, the house was not immune to the shifting political landscape of the capital.

In 1965, the same year that O’Leary retired, the museum had to expand its collection to reflect the boundaries of the new borough.

“It was more difficult for Barking because of the fire which had destroyed the library’s collection, so you had to work twice as hard to build the collection.”

It was also a difficult time for museums in general, with hundreds closing on the grounds of being too elitist. Between the ’70s and late ’80s, Valence was only open on certain days, and then just by appointment.

But luckily for the 20,000 annual visitors that now stream through its rooms, there was a “sea-change” by the end of that decade.

“Museums were to be relevant to local people, not just for the rich. Councils started to put more money into them. They recognised that they’re quite important and they should be given more support.”

The positive public mood is reflected in the recent Heritage lottery funding, which enabled the house’s extensive restoration between 2007-10 and allowed it to hoover up “600 years of dust”.

“It was all made with wood and plaster, and the rooms were in a very bad state. We renovated it to make to ‘futureproof’.”

It’s been five years since the grand re-opening, and young visitors can now be spotted learning how to make a bow drill or pulverising deer tendons to make threads. Adults too will be in awe over the newly-cleaned collection, which includes the world’s smallest matchbox and bagpipes from the Dagenham Girl Pipers. And let’s not forget the bees who now make their very own Valence honey.

“People think that history stays the same, but it doesn’t. The more things you collect, the more you find out, the more you discover. It’s not static, it changes all the time.”

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