Valence House Museum’s eight decades of bringing history to life
PUBLISHED: 13:00 05 August 2017
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of a museum at Valence House.
When London County Council purchased Valence House in 1921, they turned it into a town hall for the new and rapidly growing Becontree Estate.
They built an extension on the eastern end of the building, the first floor of which became the council chamber.
The Becontree Estate had several small branch libraries scattered across it, so that residents were within just a short walking distance of a library. Dagenham Urban District Council (DUDC) set about establishing a pioneering library service for its new tenants. They headhunted the country’s top librarian – John Gerard O’Leary – who was based at the library headquarters in Chadwell Heath.
Mr O’Leary was passionate about local history, and realising Dagenham had a rich and interesting past, he began to collect material of local interest and would pay local artists for their works.
When the DUDC moved out of Valence House in 1937, following the completion of the new Civic Centre at Beacontree Heath, Mr O’Leary requested that Valence House become the headquarters for the new Dagenham Borough Council library service.
He turned the former council chamber into a museum room in which to display the local history material he had collected. Valence House Museum was born!
This exhibition celebrates our 80th birthday. It looks at key events that took place in each of the eight decades since 1937, which have shaped the museum and collection we have today. This includes the redevelopment of 2007-2010 that transformed the museum into what you see today.
It was a shock discovery in 1936 that led to the creation of the museum. During sand extraction at Marks Gate, workmen accidently dislodged a coffin.
Despite their initial fears they had uncovered a recent burial from Marks Gate Cemetery, it became clear the coffin was in fact a Roman stone sarcophagus.
Upon hearing of the discovery, Mr O’Leary rushed to the site to investigate. Realising a Roman burial site had been uncovered, he sent two workers to sift through the spoil.
They discovered a variety of artefacts, all of which were grave goods, placed beside the deceased in their grave to aid them on their journey to the afterlife.
In 1937, these Roman objects were brought to Valence House for display.
The Second World War halted the progress of the museum. Valence House once again became the community centre for the Becontree Estate.
Mr O’Leary was appointed evacuation officer for Dagenham, and gas masks, coal supplies and free school meals for children were all handed out at Valence House. The museum room became a dance hall, providing some light relief to residents.
However, preserving the history of Dagenham was never far from Mr O’Leary’s mind. He was instrumental in saving many local history documents that had been destined for the wartime waste paper salvage drives.
Giving the people of Barking and Dagenham the opportunity to learn has always been the core work of Valence House, whether that be as a library or as a museum.
The last 10 years have seen significant improvements. In 2007 we were awarded almost £8million by the Heritage Lottery Fund to refurbish the historic building and improve the facilities for our visitors.
Thirteen new galleries were designed and installed, telling the history of Barking and Dagenham from pre-history through to the present day. More objects than ever before were put on public display.
A new visitor centre, and larger Local Studies Centre, were created, and the landscape around Valence House was extended and improved.
The site reopened in June 2010 to much acclaim. The museum was described by the Museums Journal as one of the best local history museums in Greater London and was voted one of the best 50 free things to do in London by The Guardian.
Today, we welcome more than 45,000 people to Valence House every year.
The exhibition runs from August 5 to September 16. Visit valencehousecollections.co.uk.
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