Post Memories: War stories of Victorian Dagenham revealed at Valence House
- Credit: Archant
Letters home from a soldier in the Crimean War reveal what life was like while Queen Victoria was on the throne, as Zoah Hedges-Stocks discovers
What links Dagenham with the city of Sebastopol on the Black Sea?
That would be one Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe, a Dagenham dignitary who went there to fight in the Crimean War in 1855.
Basil, as he was known to his family, recorded his day-to-day life in a series of letters and now, 160 years later, a whole exhibition and one-day symposium are being dedicated to the war, and Dagenham’s place in it.
Valence House archivist Clare Sexton said she is hoping to “really bring the story to life” for visitors.
“We’ve got some varied and distinguished speakers coming to talk and Valence House has never really done an event like this before,” she said.
Historians from across the country will be speaking at the Becontree Avenue manor house on Friday about places, people and things mentioned in the correspondence – from controversial icon Helen Seacole, whose restaurant Basil ate at, to the Irish soldiers and Duke of Wellington’s regiment that he served with.
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Volunteer Deirdre Marculescu explained how she inadvertently discovered one of the exhibition’s star attractions – on Google.
Holding Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe’s prized medal from the siege of Sebastopol, she proudly told the story.
“We just found this on the internet,” she said. “Lots of the work involved Googling to see what came up. I put in his name and up came this medal, and it said ‘for sale’!”
The precious memento, which Basil was “thrilled” to receive, had been lost for decades.
“That was the spur to do something with these letters,” Deirdre said. “When we found the medal it brought the whole thing together nicely.”
The 72-year-old spent nearly four months poring over Basil’s letters, often with a magnifying glass, to decipher his elaborate Victorian script.
“It was very interesting because I’m not sure they had been read completely for at least a hundred years,” she said.
“It’s like you’re entering into a man’s thoughts.”
Bringing history bang up to date, Deirdre feels that the exhibition is interesting because it directly links with what’s happening in Turkey today.
“Influences from then are still going on,” she said. “Perhaps the politicians could do with looking at these letters and the Crimea situation then, and know that they can’t win!”
Clare thinks that Basil’s letters offer a look into local characters and life in Dagenham Village as well as providing a real insight into life as a soldier on the front line.
While the Fanshawe family owned Parsloes Manor in what is now Parsloes Park, they actually chose to live in Dagenham Village in the vicarage, so although they were a well-connected, well-off, old family, they definitely chose to live a simpler life.
Clare told of how, in his correspondence, Basil talks about different people that lived in Dagenham Village at the time, such as the postmaster, Mr Kettle.
“His son was actually out in the Crimea as well, and Basil met him out there,” she explained.
“The post office at that time was the Bull Inn, and that was the first post office in Dagenham.”
The free exhibition runs from Saturday to September 24. Friday’s symposium, also free, runs from 1.30pm to 5.45pm. Call 020 8227 5221 to book a place.