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.

Eastbury Manor House

A hidden gem

Hidden in the heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is one of the very few surviving Elizabethan gentry houses. With a history of over 450 years, Eastbury Manor House is set in tranquil gardens on land that once belonged to Barking Abbey, established in 666 CE. Today, it is a peaceful place for visitors to explore, enjoy a snack in the Kitchen and discover an extraordinary history.

Records of Eastbury date back to the twelfth century in which the land was recorded as a demesne of Barking Abbey. The Manor House, however, was not built until after Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) Second Suppression Act in 1539, which dissolved all large monasteries and religious houses. Initially, the Crown sold the land to Sir William Denham in 1545, however, it was later sold in 1556 to Clement Sysley (d.1578), the man responsible for the construction of the house.

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Eastbury Manor is set up as a museum with information boards, photos, illustrations and hands-on activities aimed at younger visitors. The majority of this, which can be found in the East and Central Attics, tells the story of Eastbury Manor’s development, beginning with Sysley’s purchase until the present day. Unfortunately, no portraits – if there ever were any – have survived of Clement Sysley or Sisley, and the only information about the man has been gathered from legal documents.

Sysley, who was granted a coat of arms in circa 1566, appears to have been a wealthy man of Yorkshire descent who obtained the majority of his money from two wealthy marriages. His second wife, Maud, died in 1562 before work on the manor house could begin but, almost immediately, Sysley entered marriage with Anne Argall (c.1545-1610), the only daughter of a royal tax and land administrator, Thomas Argall – yet another wealthy connection.

Work on the Eastbury Manor, or “Estbery Hall” as Sysley called it, began in 1566 but was not completed until 1573. Sysley moved in with his third wife and children whilst leasing other parts of the estate to farmers. The Sysley family also owned their own cattle and horses and employed at least eight servants to help with the running of the house. Unfortunately, Sysley could only enjoy his new home for five years because he died in 1578, leaving the manor and his debts to his wife and four children.

During the Tudor period, women had very little rights, therefore, Sysley had left the manor to his son Thomas for when he came of age. Meanwhile, Anne remarried in order to resolve the growing debt problem with which she had been lumbered. Her new husband Augustine Steward’s (d.1597) wealth brought the family financial security as well as a guardian for Thomas who was only 14 at the time. Unfortunately, Clement Sysley had so many debts; some were still outstanding on Thomas’ 21st birthday. After much persuasion, Augustine Steward took charge of Eastbury in return for paying substantial debts and annuities.

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After Steward’s death, the house passed to Anne and Augustine’s youngest surviving child, also called Augustine (b.1584). Like his step-brother Thomas, he was only a teenager at the time and had to wait until he reached the age of 21 or got married to gain his full inheritance. At the age of 19, Augustine married Elizabeth Barnham (d.1620) and thus became the wealthy owner of Eastbury Manor.

The Steward claim to fame is the connection with Augustine’s cousin on his mother’s side, Samuel Argall (c1572-1626). Argall, the Deputy Governor of Virginia, was also the naval officer who commanded the ship that sailed the kidnapped Pocahontas (1596-1617) to England. Augustine eventually moved to Virginia to join his cousin, leaving his wife and children behind.

In 1629, Eastbury Manor was sold to William Knightly who then sold it onto the goldsmith Sir Thomas Vyner (1588-1665) in 1650. Vyner was a wealthy businessman and politician who served as the Lord Mayor of London between the years 1653 and 1654. The manor was then passed down the Vyner Baronetcy followed by a range of different families. Not all the owners lived at the manor and various tenants looked after the land. By the time World War One broke out in 1914, Eastbury Manor House was in a derelict condition.

In danger of demolition, the National Trust bought Eastbury Manor House in 1918 and, after Barking became a borough in 1931, the council turned it into a museum.

”It is the earnest wish of the Council of the Borough of Barking that the opening of Eastbury Manor House as a Museum will further stimulate the interest of the people of Barking in the history of their town and increase, by the gift of greater knowledge, the pride that is engendered in the hearts of all of us who live within its boundaries.

We are proud of Barking. We hope that the preservation of its records in our museum, records that will give us an intimate picture of those who lived and worked here before us, may prove an inspiration.”
– Mr. W.J James, Mayor of Barking

During the Second World War, the manor was used as an ARP platform and a nursery for children whose mother’s were involved in war work, something that also continued for a few years afterwards. Eventually, on 28th May 1954, Eastbury Manor House received a Grade 1 listing from Historic England for its exceptional historical and architectural interest, an honour that is only bestowed upon 2.5% of buildings.

After extensive restoration work between 2001 and 2006, Eastbury Manor House reopened as a museum once again, also becoming an idyllic venue for weddings, corporate functions and special events.

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Whilst the name Clement Sysley may not mean anything to people today, Eastbury Manor may have had a significant role in a major event in English history.

“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”
– Daniel Defoe, 1724

The house referred to by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy, famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, is none other than Eastbury Manor House. At this time, the Seward’s were the owners of the house but they had rented it out to Alderman John Moore (1620-1702) and his Catholic wife Maria. Despite John’s death, Maria remained at Eastbury with her daughter, also called Maria, who married Lewis Tresham, the cousin of the infamous Robert Catesby (1572-1605), the leader of a group of English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Most people know the story about Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered under the Houses of Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder but what cannot be proved is whether or not the plotters met at Eastbury Manor to discuss their plans. The plot was discovered after Lewis Tresham’s sister Mary received a letter about the scheme. Mary was married to William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575-1622) who was able to inform Parliament “they shall receive a terrible blow … and yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Thus, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.

Whether or not Eastbury was the meeting place of the plotters, it makes a good story, which can be read in more detail in the East Attic. Also in the attic rooms are the histories of the Manor’s owners, information about life in Tudor times, a series of maps that show how the land has developed over time, and the opportunity for children to dress up as Tudor ladies and gentlemen.

Very little remains of the original furnishing of Eastbury Manor, however, elements of Tudor architecture still remain. The East Chamber, for example, which would have once been divided into bedrooms and dressing rooms, contains the only fireplace in the manor with its original stone surround. Now painted white, the fireplace is decorated with Tudor roses and acanthus leaves.

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Described by the twentieth-century architectural scholar, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), Eastbury Manor is a ‘very valuable medium-sized Elizabethan Manor House’, built according to an H-shaped compact plan, with a small inner courtyard. The facade has a striking gabled roofline and more chimneys than fireplaces. Whilst this appears similar to the original building, the interior has changed somewhat over the years.

The Great Hall on the first floor at the front of the house was once much longer than it is today. In the nineteenth century, part of the hall was partitioned off to make a space, now the reception area, where a modern staircase could be added. Originally, the hall’s fireplace would have been the central feature, however, it is now further towards the east side of the room. The original fireplace surround was sold in 1840 to the owner of Parsloes Hall, Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe (1792-1858), therefore, the Great Hall is only a shadow of its former self.

Eastbury Manor House had two parlours, which were separated by a small vestibule. Appropriately named “Summer Parlour” and “Winter Parlour”, these were used by the family at different times of the year; presumably, the Winter Parlour at the rear of the house was warmer. Parlours were a typical feature in Tudor buildings and were used for a range of activities. The Sisley family and subsequent owners may have used these rooms to entertain guests, however, they may have also used them for more private purposes, such as writing letters, reading, embroidering or playing musical instruments. Similarly to the Great Hall, the fireplaces of both parlours were sold to Reverend Fanshawe.

Upstairs in the “Painted Chamber”, the fireplaces have also been sold, however, remains of paintwork on the walls are being carefully preserved. The paintings were not part of Clement Sysley’s original plan and were added later by John Moore at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Whilst only a fragment of the frescoes survive, their presence helps visitors to imagine what living in the manor may have felt like.

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The tea room “Eastbury Kitchen”, which serves freshly prepared lunches, homemade cakes, scones and refreshments during the house’s opening times, is set in Eastbury Manor’s original kitchen. Situated in the western wing of the house along with the buttery where barrels of food and drink were stored, the kitchen was easily accessible from the servant quarter. Meals would have been cooked over the huge hearth but, unfortunately, the room has lost all its other original fittings.

The two turrets at Eastbury Manor contain staircases, which would have been the only means of getting to the upper floors of the house – the front staircase and lift being installed much later. The spiral staircase on the east side of the building was for the Sysley family’s private use, however, the original stairs had completely collapsed by 1834. On the west side of the house, the servants’ staircase is still fully intact. Built from Tudor oak, the creaky stairs were constructed around a central newel post, which itself was made from three tree trunks so that it could stretch from the ground floor to the roof, thus providing access to all floors of the house. Visitors are welcome to climb the twisting staircase to the observation tower at the very top, approximately 16.5 metres or 52 feet above the ground. From here, the original family would have been able to see for miles, however, today the slightly murky windows reveal a view blocked by modern houses.

Although Eastbury would have been a sizeable portion of land, Sysley included two private gardens for his family on either side of the house. On the west side of the house near the kitchen is the vegetable and herb garden. Not only were herbs used in cooking as they are today, but they were also important ingredients in Tudor medicine. Most women knew how to make these remedies and in the 17th century, the physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) wrote The Complete Herbal, which explained the common usages of plants.

Whereas modern medicine is based on science, Tudor medicine was approached on a more spiritual level. Many believed God had placed every plant on Earth for human benefit. Each plant supposedly had a signature clue on its leaves, roots or flowers to reveal how it ought to be used. Ginger root, for example, was thought to look like intestines and was therefore used to cure ailments of the stomach.

Ginger is not among the plants in the garden today, however, a number of the current herbs had distinct purposes in the past. Lavender, for example, was used for curing headaches, and mint for stomach aches. Yarrow was used in ointments to reduce inflammation and comfrey was believed to “knit” wounds closed.

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On the east side is a walled garden, which supposedly increased the temperature of the soil slightly, making a microclimate where a range of unusual plants could grow. As well as growing plants, the walled garden was the perfect place to keep bees. Still visible today are a number of bee boles (recesses in the wall) in which skeps (straw or wicker beehives) were placed. Beekeeping was a popular Tudor pastime, which provided the family with honey to eat and wax for candles.

“The octopus, spreading it’s tentacles across the countryside…”
– England and the Octopus, 1928

Since October 2018, a new exhibition Eastbury Saved tells the story of the house between 1883 and 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust. Due to its derelict state, Eastbury Manor House was at risk of being condemend; the building was uninhabitable and the farms were gradually being sold to develop new houses.

Politicans and locals held differing opinions about Eastbury’s future. Some saw it as a vital part of local heritage, whereas, others thought the money needed to restore the house was better off being used for something else.

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Newly developed associations, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as well as the National Trust, were determined to campaign for heritage and landscape. Eventually, funds were raised for the building to be purchased and saved from demolition.

Formed in 1927, the Ferguson Gang was formed who helped to raise funds for the National Trust. Influenced by British architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ (1883-1978) publication England and the Octopus, which denounced insensitive building and ugly developments, the Gang raised £4500 to help the National Trust preserve many buildings, including Eastbury Manor House. A little bit of information is provided in the exhibition about the anonymous gang of women who took on unusual, mock-Cockney pseudonyms, such as, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O’Brien the Nark, Red Biddy, The Bloody Beershop, and Shot Biddy.

Eastbury Manor House is open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays between February and December. National Trust and SPAB members can visit for free, as can people living in the borough, otherwise, a small fee is required (£5.20 adults, £2.60 concessions). As well as being an historical place of interest, the National Trust provides various events throughout the year, such as Easter egg hunts, Shakespeare plays, Christmas crafts and carol concerts, such as one given annually by the Kingsley Choral Group.

Having been saved from demolition, it is worth taking the time to visit Eastbury Manor House, one of the only surviving buildings constructed during the Elizabethan-era. Although it may not have a significant past, it helps to shape the history of an area on the outskirts of London and explores the lives of the people who once lived there.

More information about visiting can be found on their website: http://eastburymanorhouse.org.uk/visit-us

Barking Abbey

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
– Genesis 28:16

Citing from Bishop John Inge’s book A Christian Theology of Place, the Right Reverend Dr Trevor Mwamba opens his Barking Abbey guidebook welcome letter with “The place in which we stand is often taken for granted and ignored in our increasingly mobile society.” Over recent years, the demographics of London areas, particularly the East End, has rapidly evolved from locally-born people to a population made up of people from all areas of the world. As a result, the history of the towns and cities of Britain are gradually fading into obscurity. An example of this can be found in the ethnically diverse town Barking; once home to one of the most important nunneries in the country, Barking Abbey, the commercialised town has almost forgotten its former roots.

Situated at one end of Barking Town Centre Market, St Margaret’s Church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304 AD), was originally built within the grounds of the former royal monastery, Barking Abbey. It originated as a chapel for the local people, its oldest section being the chancel built during the reign of King John (1166-1216), eventually becoming a parish church in approximately 1300. The abbey itself, however, is thought to have been founded as far back as 666 AD.

Most of what remains of Barking Abbey is the buried layout on the north side of the church, now named Abbey Green, some of which has been reconstructed. Fortunately, one part of the abbey survives intact. This is the Curfew Tower that was once one of the abbey’s three gateways. Built in 1460, many repairs have kept the Grade II listed building standing, a remnant of the past. On the upper storey, a small chapel can be accessed up a set of stairs, although, this is not used so often nowadays.

Historically, Barking was once a fishing and farming area, as remembered in many of St Margaret’s stained glass windows. A window on the east side, however, depicts a traditional Crucifixion scene flanked by two saints, St Cedd (right) and St Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey (left). In the 7th century, Erkenwald founded two monasteries, one for himself in Surrey and one for his sister Ethelburga. These abbeys were intended to re-introduce Christianity to the British Isles. Whilst Christianity had been made legal during Roman rule in the 4th century, it had begun to fall out of favour.

Ethelburga, later Saint Ethelburga, became the first abbess of Barking Abbey with the intention “to be a mother and nurse of devout women.” (Bede, 731 AD) Ethelburga was a holy, upright woman, constantly concerned for those under her care. Later, she founded the church All Hallows Berkyngechirche (now known as All Hallows by the Tower) in 675.

Barking Abbey was initially a double monastery of nuns and monks who shared the church whilst living in separate quarters. Later, in the 10th century, all double houses were reformed into single-sex abbeys. For the next couple of centuries, many abbesses were appointed by the kings of England, for instance, Matilda of Boulogne (1105-52), wife of King Stephen (c1092-1154), and King Henry II’s (1133-89) daughter, Matilda (1156-89). This ended in 1214 when the Pope insisted the nuns should be allowed to elect their own abbess.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) took refuge at Barking Abbey whilst he constructed the Tower of London. It is thought the king may have fled here after unfortunate misunderstandings during his coronation. Later, the abbey also became the holding place of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), who was forced to surrender some of her property to Hugh Despenser the younger (1286-1326).

As with all abbeys, monasteries and so forth, Barking Abbey succumbed to Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Following this, the abbey was gradually demolished until only the Curfew Tower remained standing.  A lot of the building’s material was reused, for instance, to repair the roof of Greenwich Palace and to construct a new manor for the king in Dartford, Kent.

ees11608Due to its almost complete destruction, it is not altogether certain what the layout of Barking Abbey was, however, many rooms have been identified during recent excavations. The abbey’s main church sat at the heart of the site, its size similar to a cathedral: 103 x 30.5 metres (337 x 100 feet).

As well as the church, various chapels would have been found in the abbey, including the one that has been developed into St Margaret’s Church. Three grave slabs, attributed to the abbesses St Etherlburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhilda, mark the position of the Saints Chapel. Other rooms, including cloisters, parlours, dormitories and the Reredorter have also been identified.

There are so many buildings that have not been excavated and have since been built upon. It is thought that the land belonging to Barking Abbey stretched as far as the River Roding, a tributary of the Thames, as shown in a drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) based upon an original sketch produced in 1500.

St Margaret’s Church was fortunate to survive the Reformation and remained a parish church when the abbey was dissolved. Throughout the years, changes have been made to the building, including the plastering of the ceilings during the 18th century. The building was grade I listed in 1954 and has since been extended to house an office and refectory.

45150956_250210462310684_4637149440711327744_nWithin the church are a number of items that help to preserve the memory of the abbey and the history of the land and building since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Remnants of floor tiles from the original abbey are conserved in a glass display cabinet. From these, the quality and appearance of the masonry can be appreciated.

Other discoveries are also kept in this case, for instance, a Breeches Bible, which predates the King James Bible by approximately 50 years. This was a variation of the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and would have been read and used by people such as Shakespeare (1565-1616) and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). It was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible in England, thus the first made available to the general public. The reason for its name, Breeches Bible, is the wording of verse 7 in Genesis 3:

“Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”

The King James Bible, printed in 1611, changed the word “breeches” to “apron”.

dsc00485Also within the display cabinet are examples of more recent histories and gifts given to the church. One of these is a book of paintings presented in 2004 by local artist George Emmerson. For a decade, Emmerson had been producing watercolours of St Margaret’s Church, the Curfew Tower and grounds, of which this was the final result. He gave it as a gift to the church as a means of saying thank you for the kindness and help shown to him and it “is a tribute to the clergy and the many people who do voluntary work to keep the church alive and prosperous.”

St Margaret’s also pays tribute to the explorer Captain James Cook (1728-99) who was married to his wife, Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835) in the church on 21st December 1762. This year, 2018, has been a significant year for remembering Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean upon HMS Endeavour, which set sail 250 years ago. The church holds copies of newspapers about Cook’s demise in Hawaii and copies of the Marriage Register showing James and Elizabeth’s entry.

The church building itself is crammed full of history, from architecture to objects within the sanctuary. Although many renovations and extensions have occurred over the years, remnants of old decor can be seen in one corner of the ceiling where little cherub faces peer down at the congregation.

The timber beams and design of the roof over the North Aisle, which was built around the late 15th or 16th century, suggests the involvement of local ship-wrights. The Norman pillars in this section may have been taken from the abbey and the windows would have once been a traditional medieval style. In 1771, the windows were replaced with Georgian versions but the ones in place today were added in the 20th century.

Many bodies have been interred under the flagstones, which, unfortunately, are inevitably becoming illegible the more they are walked over. Some are now covered up by carpets and it is impossible to tell how many people are buried in total, nor their names. There are records of some of the people, for instance, William Pownsett whose tomb is more prominent. In his will, he asked, “to be buryed yn our lady chaple next unto my pew at Barking.”

On the walls around the building are monuments to those who had significant connections with the church. Some are more elaborate than others, a few including busts of the deceased. An impressive monument to Captain John Bennett (d.1716) remembers a wealthy man who became a captain in the Royal Navy at a young age. Another, featuring a skull, remembers the life of Sarah Fleming (d. 1715). Francis Fuller (d.1637), an official of the Exchequer who owned a number of estates in the parish of Barking is remembered in a monument featuring his bust in an oval niche.

During excavations of the abbey in 1912, an incised stone slab was unearthed in the Nun’s Cemetery. As well as words, it features an etching of a man named Martinus who was the first vicar of Barking from 1315 to 1328. This memorial stone is now kept in the sanctuary safe from the effects of harsh weather conditions that could permanently damage the inscription.

When renovations began in the late 1920s and 30s, George Jack (1855-1931) an architect, wood carver, stained glass artist and furniture designer for Morris & Co, became involved with the repair work. Jack was responsible for the fisherman’s stained glass window as well as a couple of memorial tablets and a pair of candelabra. For the Youth Chapel, Jack carved eight wooden figures of people with some association to the church. As well as two fishermen, these include James Cook, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), St Ethelburga, St Nicholas, St James and St John. They are still in remarkable condition today.

dsc00465On the Youth Chapel screen below the wooden figures is a contemporary painting by the artist Alan Stewart, which was unveiled by the Bishop of Barking in 2005. Titled Early in the Morning, the painting shows a black Christ in 21st-century clothing surrounded by disciples from a range of ethnic origins. This is to reflect on the diverse population of Barking and those who worship at St Margaret’s Church. The scene depicts Jesus serving breakfast to his disciples by the side of Lake Galilee as told in John 21 after his resurrection.

At the rear of the church is an octagonal stone font with a decorated wooden lid. This was painted during the renovations in the early 20th century. George Jack employed his daughter Jessie to help to paint his design onto the cover. Each of the eight segments features a bird and flowers on a blue background. Around the rim, carefully painted letters spell out the phrase “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his son”.

45192226_188526105356556_497570805895397376_nThe font, stained glass windows and wooden figurines are some of the most attractive objects in St Margaret’s Church, however, one carving often gets overlooked. In fact, people who attend services for years do not always notice it unless it has been deliberately pointed out.

At the end of each wooden pew is a distinctive carved design that, in some way, resemble leaves or a plant. Due to the similarities between each one, it is easy to miss the intriguing design at the end of one particular pew. Taking the same shape as all the others, this one features the heads of two dogs. The meaning of the carving is unknown but it is thought it could be a family’s coat of arms. This suggests that at one time wealthy members of the congregation may have paid to have their own pew where they would sit during every service they attended.

Although St Margaret’s Church may be tiny in comparison to the original Barking Abbey, its elaborate decor, architecture and age make it stand out from other churches in the area, particularly the more contemporary. It has also had a large share of notable clergymen, many of whom eventually became bishops. Even today’s vicar was once the Bishop of Botswana.

The Right Reverend Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was one of the many significant clergymen associated with St Margaret’s. Ordained in 1888, Henson was the vicar until 1895 when he became chaplain of an ancient hospice in Ilford. He was only 25, the youngest vicar in the country, when he joined the church, putting him in charge of an ever-growing working-class parish, whose population then stood at 12,000. Undaunted, Henson made a favourable impression on the congregation, a colleague later stating: “He came six months ago to a parish dead – 250 a good congregation in the church; and now, when he preaches, every seat is filled – 1100!”

St Margaret’s was only the beginning of Henson’s career; by 1900 he was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. In 1917, he became Bishop of Hereford and it was only another three years before he also became the Bishop of Durham. During his final years, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) persuaded Henson out of retirement to resume his position as Canon of Westminster Abbey. It is said that Churchill was impressed with Henson’s strong views on ecclesiastical matters and his support of the Church of England.

Other vicars of St Margaret’s have gone on to be bishops including the Scottish Painter George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), who went on to become Bishop of Sheffield, and William Chadwick (1905-1991) and James Roxburgh (1921-2007) who were both Bishop of Barking.

Today, St Margaret’s Church continues to welcome friends and strangers, inviting everyone to various services throughout the week and on Sundays. Visitors and regulars are also encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee, cakes and lunches in their cafe. Surrounded by a graveyard and the remains of Barking Abbey, the church is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit, both outside and within. It truly is a place of history and religion worthy of being used and remembered. It is thanks to places such as St Margaret’s that local history is recognised and commemorated.

Sunday Services:
8:30am – Said Eucharist
11am – Sung Eucharist
6:30pm – Evensong