This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of a museum at Valence House. In the mid-1930s Dagenham Urban District Council (DUDC) had sought to establish the country’s leading library service. The brand-new Becontree Housing Estate had been designed so that all residents were within easy walking distance of the amenities they needed for a healthy life, including libraries. This is why, unlike Barking, Dagenham had until recently a number of small, local libraries spread across the town.
The DUDC head-hunted the best Librarian the country had to offer – Mr John Gerard O’Leary. In the decade leading up to 1937, Valence House had been used as the Dagenham Town Hall, but with the completion of the new Civic Centre at Beacontree Heath, Valence House became the headquarters of the local library service.
O’Leary had a passion for local history and began to collect items relating to the local area and would pay local artists for their works. The former council chamber on the first floor of the building was turned in to a museum room to display these newly acquired objects. The museum collection at Valence House was born.
To celebrate this anniversary, staff and volunteers staged a special Alive with History event on Wednesday 12 April. Residents from the last 700 years of the Valence site’s history were brought to life. Here are some of the characters that our visitors got to meet:
Agnes de Valence (d.1309)
Agnes de Valence was of noble birth with royal connections. Her grandmother was Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England . Following the death of her 3rd husband, Agnes moved to a property on this site in 1291. After a life of arranged marriages, Agnes finally settled in Dagenham.
Agnes de Valence’s brother, Aylmer De Valence (1275 – 1324), was given the title of Earl of Pembroke, by the King who was his cousin. At this time, it was one of the highest ranks of nobility in the country. Aylmer took control of the tenancy after Agnes’s death in 1309, and held it until 1324. Only after his death was the property referred to as Valence House. Aylmer’s tomb is situated in Westminster Abbey.
Susanna Lucy (1567 – 1610)
Susanna was born in 1567 in Ilford, the daughter of Henry Fanshawe and Dorothy Stonard. Henry died when Susanna was a baby, and left the lease of Valence House to her, which she would gain upon her marriage. In September 1583 she married Timothy Lucy of Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. It is believed that they moved to Valence House soon after their marriage. The late 16th century wall painting that was discovered on the first floor of the building in 2009 is thought to date from their time in the property. They had 8 children, the most famous of whom is Daniel, who emigrated to Virginia USA. Susanna and Timothy sold the lease to Valence House in 1596, from which point the Fanshawe connection with the property ends. Susanna died in Barking in 1610.
Henry Merttins Bird (1755 – 1818)
Henry Merttins Bird was born, on 10 October 1755, as the heir to Barton House and the extensive family holdings in Warwick, Suffolk and Essex. In 1776 his grandfather John Henry Merttins of Valence House died and Henry became the lessee.
In partnership with his brother Robert and Benjamin Savage of South Carolina (and probably with the assistance of his father in law Sir William Manning, a West India merchant, Bank of England director, and MP (Henry had married his Daughter Elizabeth in 1778)), Henry formed the banking company of Bird, Savage and Bird, based in St. Mary Axe St in London. This company became extensively involved in the financing of the newly formed United States government, a position the firm held until being superseded by Barings bank in 1796. There is a letter written from George Washington to him dated 6th May 1792. Henry appears to have managed the London end of the business, whilst his brother Robert and Benjamin Savage resided in the US to oversee the American part of the operation.
In 1794 Henry wrote A VIEW OF THE RELATIVE SITUATION OF GREAT BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES OF NORTH AMERICA: By A Merchant. In this book he reviewed the recent history of trade relations between the United States and Great Britain and warned that in order for England to maintain its favoured role as a trading partner, she must concede to some American demands, especially regarding the British seizure of American ships trading with France.
In the early 1800’s Bird Savage and Bird went bankrupt. The remaining years on the Valence estate lease had been sold off in 1803 to John Hopkins Dare. Henry was forced to default on the mortgage on Barton House and in early 1804 the house was sold off by public auction.
Mrs Mary Greenhill
Mrs Greenhill was the daughter of William Gilbert a mathematical instrument maker. In 1847 she married William Glossop Greenhill, an East India merchant and involved in the St Katherine Dock Company where he was elected as director for a year in 1856.
Would have had tea with the Fanshawes of Dagenham Vicarage.
By March 1853 they were living at Valence House, where 6 of the 8 children were born. They would have taken tea with the Fanshawe family at Dagenham Vicarage. Their known children were:
- William Greenhill born c1850, Chigwell
- William Greenhill born c1852, Chigwell
- Frank Harry Greenhill born March 1853, Dagenham
- Possibly Gilbert Greenhill born and died 1854 in Dagenham
- Mary Harriet Greenhill born 1856, Dagenham
- James Greenhill born 1857, Dagenham
- Twins Grace born 1858, Dagenham
- Nora Greenhill born 1858, Dagenham
The family all sailed to Tasmania, Australia in May 1861 where they lived in a house called Valence.
Dr Robert Bowie (1788 – 1869)
Dr. Bowie was born in Midlothian, Scotland in 1788. He became a surgeon and is recorded as living at Valence House from c1838-1845 with his wife Margaret and their 9 children: Robert (b.1819, medical student), Margaret (b1820), Elizabeth (1823), Isabella (1827), Catherine (1833), William (1835), Walter (1838), Thomas (1839), Helen (1843).
The family oved to Victoria, Australia where Dr. Bowie became Surgeon-Superintendent at Australia Colonial Asylum in 1853. He died in Australia in 1869.
Helen May, her daughters Edith and Cordelia, and their servants, Mr and Mrs Parkhouse and Julia the Cook
Helen was born at Southsea near Portsmouth on 15 February 1849, daughter of Benjamin Luxmore (a Royal Navy paymaster) and Eliza Martin Luxmore (nee Brooks). At 22 she married Thomas May on 18 October 1871 at the Zion Chapel, East Teignmouth. They had 12 children – One, Benjamin, died in infancy. The 11 surviving children were 4 sons and 7 daughters.
The family moved to Valence House in 1878 where Helen’s widowed mother Eliza lived with them. Helen’s husband and mother both died in 1913 at Valence House. The remaining May family were forced to leave Valence House in 1921 when it was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council. They moved to 17 Heath Drive, Gidea Park and named the house Valence. Helen is buried with Thomas at Crow Lane Cemetery in Romford.
Edith was a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) during WWI.
Mr Parkhouse was the Valence Gardener. He is famed for being the first recorded person to see the White Lady of Valence House. Whilst in gardens early one morning (probably at the turn of the 20th century) he saw a young girl in a white nightdress circling one of the old cherry trees. Thinking it was one of the daughters of the house playing a trick on him, he followed her, but she disappeared. He later questioned the daughters about the incident, to find that they were completely innocent. The white lady, or Lady of the lake, has been seen many times since.
Julia the cook was described by the family as having ‘dancing dark eyes, a scrubbed face the colour of a Cox’s pippin and a huge merry laugh’. She was responsible for preparing 4 meals a day for 15 people each time.