Valence House – A Place of Discovery

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Listed as one of the top 50 best free things to do in London, Valence House is the only surviving Manor House in Dagenham, East London. In medieval times, Dagenham, Barking and Ilford were part of the Manor of Barking owned by Barking Abbey. Valence House was one of the smaller manors on the land, rented out to generate income for the Abbey. Now a museum, Valence House provides details about the history of the manor house and surrounding lands. The curators have also travelled back much further to the first settlers, explaining how the area developed into the place it is today.

The earliest reference to Valence House is in approximately 1269, however, the first-named inhabitant moved to the property in 1291. This was Agnes de Valence (born 1250), the youngest daughter of William de Valence and Joan de Munchensi (1230-1307). The family had a strong influence on the politics of the 13th century, particularly William de Valance who was the half-brother to Henry III of England and uncle to Edward I. Initially Agnes was married off to an Irish man, however, he died soon afterwards and she returned to England. Agnes was then married off to the Scottish magnate Hugh de Balliol, however, once again, it was not to last. After a third short arranged marriage, Agnes de Valence moved to the manor house, which to this day retains her name.

Nothing is known about Agnes’ life at Valence House or those directly following her, however, by 1435, Barking Abbey had sold the manor of Valence to St Anthony’s Hospital in London (now in the London Borough of Sutton). Four decades later, Edward IV (1442-83), the first Yorkist King, granted the hospital and Valence House to the Dean and Chapter of Windsor. Meanwhile, the house continued to be let out.

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The lease of the house found its way into the hands of the Fanshawe family, whose portraits fill one of the rooms of the museum. Unfortunately, Henry Fanshawe died while his daughter Susanna (1567-1610) was still a baby, leaving the lease of the house to her, which she would gain upon marriage. In 1583, Susanna married Timothy Lucy of Charlecote Park, Warwickshire and moved into Valence House until they sold the lease in 1596 to Sir Nicholas Coote, during which time they had eight children.

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During redevelopments of the museum in 2008, a sixteenth-century wall painting behind a false wall was discovered. It has been dated to the time that Susanna Lucy may have lived at the manor and is believed to be one of many panels that would have once decorated an entire room. The painting depicts a grotesque satyr-like creature with red hair carrying a basket of fruit on its head. The chains around the legs suggest the satyr is a prisoner or slave.

Whilst the dating of the painting suggests it may have been commissioned by Timothy Lucy, dating a centuries-old painting is a difficult task and some experts suggest that it may have been produced the following century. One of the reasons for this suggestion is the subject matter. Traditionally, satyrs represent lust and boar-like creatures, which also feature in the artwork, represent rudeness and wildness. This is a strange topic for a family man to commission, therefore, it may have been the purchase of a future tenant: Thomas Bonham.

Thomas Bonham (d.1676), a London merchant rented the house from 1635. If his tombstone inside Dagenham Parish Church is anything to go by, Bonham led an aberrant life and was involved in many scandals. On one occasion, both he and his wife ended up spending time in Colchester jail.

Stay wayfarer! Lest you be ignorant who is buried here, it is worth your while to know that it is Thomas Bonham Esquire, Lord of Valentia in Essex. He is ever to be praised and can never, alas, be sufficiently lamented. This marble cannot contain his other virtues, nor indeed scarcely would the quarry itself from which it is hewn.
– Inscription on Thomas Bonham’s tomb

Each new tenant of Valence House modernised the building and landscape. When the estate was leased to Henry Merttins (d.1725), a merchant tailor, in 1719, he remodelled the property to make it more appropriate for his genteel family. The Merttins used Valence House as their main family home, adding fashionably large windows and touches of grandeur. Henry Merttins was a fairly wealthy man – his brother was the Lord Mayor of London, Sir George Merttins (1664-1727) – and when he died in 1725, passed the lease of the house to his son John Henry Merttins (d.1776) who remodelled the east wing of the house and built a new staircase.

In 1776, Henry Merttins Bird (d.1818) became the next tenant of the house. Henry was in full support of the development of the United States of America and liaised with George Washington (1732-1799) after the American War of Independence.

“I presume to offer the services of the house of Henry Merttins Bird, Benjamin Savage & Robert Bird, known under the firm of Bird, Savage, & Bird, American merchants of London, in which I am a partner.”
Henry Merttins Bird in a letter to George Washington

Henry campaigned for trade with the USA to be restored, however, in the early 1800s, his banking company collapsed and he was forced to sell the lease on Valence House.

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Mr and Mrs May of Valence House (c. 1910)

The following tenants included Mrs Greenhill and her eight children, who moved to Australia in 1861 where they also lived in a house called Valence.

In 1879, Thomas May, his wife Helen, six children and mother-in-law Eliza Luxmoore moved into Valence House. A further five children were born whilst living in the manor house, bringing their total up to eleven. Thomas was a farmer and became famous for introducing tomato growing to Dagenham. He also bred shire horses and founded the Essex Foal Show Society. In the walled garden, the May family grew grapes, apricots and peaches in greenhouses. The children loved to play in the gardens, often conducting funerals for and burying their dolls.

When Thomas May died in 1913, the same year as his mother-in-law, the lease was inherited by his eldest son Robert. Unfortunately, the family were forced to move when the London County Council purchased the property in 1921. They moved to Gidea Park where they named their new house Valence. A model of the estate as it looked in 1921 is located in the first room of the museum.

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The London County Council purchased Valence House as well as the manor houses of Parsloes, Porters and Jenkins to use the land for its new Becontree Estate housing scheme. All the manor houses were scheduled for demolition, however, Valence House was saved in 1926 when it was purchased by the Dagenham Urban District Council for use as an office. The building was extended to create a council chamber on the first floor of the house. The council remained at the house until 1937 when it became the headquarters of the Borough’s Library Service.

During the Second World War, Valence House became a post for the Air Raid Precautions (ARP). They provided locals with gas masks and ration books, and clothing to those who found themselves homeless. After the war, the Library Service continued to use the premises until 1974 when Valence House opened as a museum of the history of Barking and Dagenham.

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The oldest exhibit in the museum is a wooden figure known as the Dagenham Idol. It was discovered in 1922 in Dagenham’s marshes and is thought to be the earliest known carving of a human form to be found in Europe. Made from Scots Pine, dendrochronology has revealed that it belongs to the Late Neolithic period, circa 2250 BC, making it a thousand years older than Stonehenge.

Although the Idol proves people lived in the area 4000 years ago, no one knows its true purpose. It was discovered next to a skeleton of a deer, suggesting it had been deliberately buried, perhaps as part of a religious ceremony. It is generally believed the figurine may have been a fertility symbol but for arable farmland rather than people.

The first settlers during the Neolithic age were most likely farmers. The marshes would have been sources of both water and food and the nearby woodlands provided abundant timber for fires and buildings. Little evidence remains from these pre-historic times, however, many changes to the land occurred during the Roman, Saxon and Medieval eras.

The Romans were responsible for the Londinium (London) to Camulodunum (Colchester) road that lies north of Valence House. They established towns in the area, such as Durolitum (Romford) and Uphall Camp (Barking). Roads were gradually built to connect towns and settlements, allowing people to be able to travel more freely.

During the Saxon era, more towns began to appear, including Dagenham and Wanstead, which were followed by many more in the early Medieval period. Barking Abbey was founded in 666 AD by a priest named Erkenwald for his sister Ethelburga. Despite suffering from Viking raids, the Abbey became the owner of the surrounding land, which extended as far as the Parish of All Hallows Barking by the Tower of London.

The abbess of Barking Abbey was given the title of Lord of the Manor, allowing her to control the lives of the inhabitants in Barking and Dagenham. She was in charge of all the farms and manor houses whose earnings went towards the upkeep of the abbey. In 1536, however, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) began the Dissolution of the Monasteries, closing down and seizing religious properties. Barking Abbey survived longer than most because the abbess, Dorothy Barley, was a close friend of the King’s representative. Nonetheless, the abbey was eventually surrendered in 1539.

The Tudor Monarchs gradually sold or gifted the lands once belonging to religious buildings to people within the royal court. Towns developed and spread to accommodate an increasing population. Farmland was replaced with houses, shops, schools and so forth until little evidence remained of the former abbey.

The museum leaps forward in time to the 19th and 20th centuries as visitors progress from the ground floor to the first floor. On the wall of the staircase, illustrations of people demonstrate the changes in fashion over time until, at the very top, it ends with an image of Sir Bobby Moore (1941-93). Moore is one of the famous locals celebrated in the museum. He grew up in Barking and began his football career as captain of Barking Primary School’s football team. In 1958, he joined West Ham and, by the end of his career, he had made 90 appearances as England Captain.

There are a few other sporting legends that have come from Barking or Dagenham. Sir Alf Ramsey (1920-99), for instance, attended Becontree Heath School, and midfielder Terry Venables (b.1943) was born in Valence Avenue, Dagenham. John Terry (b.1980), the assistant manager of Aston Villa F.C. is also a local celebrity.

Other famous faces include comedian Dudley Moore (1935-2002), who attended Dagenham County High School, Eurovision winner Sandi Shaw (Sandra Goodrich, b.1947), Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (b.1935) and Quaker Minister Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845).

The Valence House Museum provides a concise history of the past century, which includes Suffragette activity and a visit from Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) in 1931. Fairs, festivals and pageants were a strong part of Dagenham’s past and attracted thousands of people. In 1931, the Barking Pageant and Industrial Exhibition attracted 200,000 people. Twenty years later, the Dagenham Pageant attracted a similar amount and Valence House was used for some of the festivities.

As previously stated, Valence House was almost demolished to make way for the new Becontree Estate. Although it was saved from such a fate, the Estate plans went ahead and in 1934, 27,000 new houses provided homes for over 100,000 people. Each house contained inside toilets, fitted bathrooms, gas and electricity. In order to maintain the upkeep of the new estate, tenants were issued rule handbooks and the London County Council employed inspectors to check on the standard of housekeeping. Regulations included cleaning windows once a week, scrubbing front and back doorsteps, and keeping gardens neat and tidy. Families who failed to meet these standards risked being evicted from their homes.

In the early 20th century, Dagenham became an industrial area; the complete opposite to the rural farmland it once was. By 1929, Dagenham Dock, which was only twelve miles from London, was a thriving industrial estate. In 1931, the Ford Motor Company opened its factory on the Docks, eventually extending to cover an area of more than 600 acres. By the 1950s, Ford Dagenham was the largest car production plant in Europe and one in three cars on British roads has been made in Dagenham. Soon, the names Ford and Dagenham were synonymous.

Barking was granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1931, which promoted the area to an Essex Borough complete with its own mayor. Dagenham followed suit in 1938. By 1965, London had expanded so much that it claimed both Barking and Dagenham, joining them together as the London Borough of Barking. Naturally, Dagenham residents were upset about the name and eventually persuaded the council to retitle the borough as the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in 1980.


There is so much to take in at Valence House and there is an endless amount of information about the history of Dagenham. Photographs, videos, voice recordings and objects help to tell the story of the borough as well as the bygone days of the manor house. A tiny cinema provides visitors with the chance to sit down and learn a little about particular aspects of the past. The current film comprises five animations about Barking’s industrial heritage and its pungent past. Titled The Barking Stink: A Scented History, the 25-minute film made in collaboration with Thames Festival Trust focuses on Barking’s fishing past, the developing factories and the problem with sewers.

Next to Valence House is the award-winning Herb Garden. Having achieved the Green Flag and London Bloom Awards, the historic garden features a green pergola, box hedging, rose beds and herbs. One section has been transformed into a World War Two ‘Dig for Victory’ Garden, complete with a replica Anderson Shelter.

Valence House also keeps bees and their honey is available for purchase in the gift shop. The Oasis Cafe provides hot and cold lunches, cakes and a variety of drinks, plus the opportunity to rest before or/and after visiting the museum.

Valence Park, which includes the remains of a moat, was once part of the Valence House grounds. As well as a fishing lake, children’s playground and open lawns, the park is full of trees, including the Holm Oak, which has been judged to be one of the greatest trees in London. Other trees include the tulip tree, a ginkgo biloba, an English Oak and an ancient coppiced hazel.
Free to visit, Valence House is a fantastic place for people of all ages. There are activities to keep children interested, fascinating information about the area, and a walk down memory lane for older people. The house and cafe are open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and free parking is available in Valence Park.

One thought on “Valence House – A Place of Discovery

  1. I once visited Valence House but I think it was before it became a museum. Such an interesting blog Hazel and so comprehensive. Thank you for my virtual visit!

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