Happy birthday Valence House: 1937-2017

2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of a museum at Valence House.

When the Dagenham Urban District took over Valence House in 1926 they converted the old manor house into a town hall to serve the residents of the new and rapidly growing Becontree housing estate.  They built an extension on the eastern end of the building, the first floor of which became the council chamber.

The Council found itself unprepared and without the necessary skills to  arrange services for the new estate dwellers.  They sought the experience that they needed by headhunting some of the leading people from councils across the country.  From Whitechapel they recruited a young reference librarian called John Gerard O’Leary to run Dagenham’s first library service.

Mr O’Leary was passionate about local history and, realising that Dagenham had a rich and interesting past, he began to collect material of local interest and artworks from local artists.

When the District Council  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, events which have shaped the museum that you see today.


The beginning of all things

Roman coffin and pottery in the museum
Exhibition of Roman material from Marks Gate Cemetary at Valence House in 1937.


A shock discovery in 1936 led to the creation of a museum in Dagenham. During sand extraction at Marks Gate, workman dislodged a coffin at the edge of their quarry. At first they feared that they had uncovered a burial from the nearby Marks Gate Cemetery, but it soon became clear that the coffin was in fact a Roman stone sarcophagus, almost 2000 years old.

Upon hearing of the discovery, Mr O’Leary rushed to the site to investigate. Realising that a Roman burial site had been uncovered, he sent two workers to sieve the sand from the site. They discovered a variety of artefacts, many of which had been grave goods, placed beside the dead people in their grave to aid them on their journey to the afterlife.

In 1937 these Roman objects were brought to Valence House for display. Mr O’Leary turned the former council chamber on the first floor into a museum room, creating Dagenham’s first museum.
The Second World War halted the development of the museum. Valence House became the community centre for the Becontree Estate. Mr O’Leary was appointed evacuation officer for Dagenham, and gas masks and free school meals for children were supplied from the building. The museum room became a dance hall, providing some light-relief to local war workers.


John Gerard O'Leary
John Gerard O’Leary, the founder of Valence House Museum

The O’Leary years


During his time as Borough Librarian Mr O’Leary hosted annual exhibitions at Valence House, looking at different periods of history in Essex. As well as exhibits from the new museum, Mr O’Leary would borrow objects from national museums and the royal collections.

The first exhibition ‘Saxon Essex’ was held in 1953 and included rare wood and metal drinking buckets excavated from Gerpins Farm in Rainham. Today these items are on show at Havering Museum. This exhibition was followed by ‘Chaucer’s Essex’ in 1954 and ‘Tudor Essex’ in 1955.

The collection of original artworks by Valence House flourished during this decade. Edward Pond, later a prominent graphic designer, recalled in his memoirs that Mr O’Leary would often stop him as he cycled home from the East London Technical College and offer to buy his latest artwork.

Mr O’Leary would also buy pieces, often at great cost, from the art competitions held at the annual Dagenham Town Show. At one point, he allowed a group of local artists to use the museum’s attics as their studio. This ended abruptly when Mr O’Leary discovered that intimate relations were taking place between one of the artists and his models!



The jewel in the crown

Portrait of Sir Thomas Fanshawe
Sir Thomas Fanshawe (1628-1705) painted by Sir Peter Lely.


One of the greatest additions to the collection came in 1963 with the Fanshawe bequest. Negotiations had begun a few years previously between the Council and the Fanshawe family regarding the donation of 51 portraits, a large archive collection and an extensive library.

The Fanshawe family had a long history with Barking and Dagenham. Henry Fanshawe had owned the lease to Valence House in Tudor times, before leaving it to his youngest daughter Susanna in his will. Susanna and her husband Timothy Lucy lived here for the first 10 years of their marriage.

The family were also Lords of the Manor of Barking and owned Fulkes and Jenkins Manor Houses in Barking and Parsloes Manor House in Dagenham.

The portraits date from 1560 to 1940 and were painted by some of the most famous artists of the time, including Sir Peter Lely, Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, Mary Beale and William Dobson. The archive collection is equally grand and contains many official documents relating to Sir Richard Fanshawe’s time as ambassador to Spain and Portugal in the 1660s. Many of these documents bear the signature of King Charles II.

The portrait collection is often described as one of the best examples of gentry portraiture in the country.


Barking Library with flames coming out of the roof
Flames engulf the roof of Barking Library, 1967

Saved from disaster


In 1967 one of the big local stories was the fire at Barking Library. Fire took hold in the early hours of April 4 and the Victorian building was destroyed. The few items that survive from Barking Library came to Valence House Museum. It was reported at the time that the only book to be saved from the flames was the Barking Book of Remembrance, which is now on display in the Local Studies Centre.

In 1974 the library headquarters moved from Valence House to the newly built Barking Central Library. Finally, the whole of Valence House was given over as a museum.

Barking also once had its own museum. Based at Eastbury Manor House, the museum opened in 1935 with a large collection of unusual objects. Suits of armour and an 18th century dolls house shared display space with a collection of Greek and Roman pottery and a fragment of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake. The last object to come into the museum collection was a walking stick, once owned by Alexandra, the last Tsarina of Russia.

However, Barking Museum survived only a few years before being closed at the beginning of the Second World War. After the war ended the collection was broken up, with some items being returned to their original owners and others sold or given to other museums. By the 1970s the few items that remained were transferred to Valence House Museum. Today they form some of the more peculiar parts of our collection and include Egyptian ushabti figures, Byzantine jugs and theatrical costumes.


All that remains…


fragments of coloured glass
These fragments of highly decorative drinking vessel glass are very rare, and may be some of the earliest example of this type of glass in the country

Excavation on the site of Barking Abbey first took place in 1911 and gave us our first glimpse of the life of one of the country’s greatest nunneries. However, it wasn’t until 1985 that the historic site was systematically and scientifically investigated.

The excavation lay to the west of St Margaret’s church on the former site of Masters match factory. Between 1985 and 1986 archaeologists discovered a wealth of objects that showed us the richness of life at the abbey. Amongst these finds were jewellery and bone combs, writing implements and items used for weaving, and even a wooden pillory recovered from the bottom of a well.
A most unusual discovery was numerous fragments of extremely rare glass drinking vessels dating to c 700AD. Research is currently underway into these finds and archaeologists now think that the glass could have been made at the abbey. If so Barking Abbey would have had the earliest and most prolific glass works in the country after the Roman period.

Valence House is the registered repository for all archaeological finds in the borough. The material from Barking Abbey makes up a large part of our current archaeological holdings.


bookbinding workshop
Staff at work in the book binding workshop based at Valence House, 1960s

The last page


Under the leadership of Mr O’Leary the libraries in Dagenham had reached their pinnacle in the 1950s and 60s. In 1952 a book binding workshop was established at Valence House, based in a specially built extension on the west side of the building. Staff used huge pressing machines to bind books from both Dagenham and Barking libraries (then still two separate boroughs).

By the late 1950s the Borough Treasurer reported that the price per volume had increased by 1 penny as the binding shop was now using better quality cloths and buckrams (to cover the books), as well as real gold leaf for imprinted lettering instead of metal foil. The new price per volume was £4 2s 7d (around £72 today!). At its height, the shop was binding more than 20,000 books a year.

In the 1990s the former binding shop became a dedicated learning space for the museums growing education service.


Lesson learned

child trying on a helmet
A Valence House education session where a pupil get to try on a real helmet


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. In the late 1990s Valence House began to offer a formal education service to schools, opening the museum to a new generation of people. Students came to learn about local history and handle real artefacts.  Popular topics for schools were World War II, Victorian Christmas and a trip to the Seaside.

Over the years, the education service at Valence House has gone from strength-to-strength. Education sessions are now interactive and students can learn how to make fire using a bow drill, excavate a skeleton (not a real one!), cook wartime bread and dress like a Tudor. Today we welcome over 3,500 students to Valence House every year, and our education service has won numerous awards, including the Sandford Award for Heritage Education.

In 2002 a local studies library was opened at Valence House, giving people the opportunity to use our reference collection to research local and family history.


Deputy mayor with boxer Kevin Mitchell
Former super-featherweight boxing champion Kevin Mitchell, aka The Dagenham Destroyer, and Deputy Mayor John Davis officially open the revamped Valence House Museum on 24 June 2010



The last 10 years have seen significant improvements at Valence House. In 2007 we were awarded nearly £8,000,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to refurbish the historic building and to improve the facilities for our visitors.  Thirteen new galleries were designed and installed in the museum, 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 was built, providing a space for the community to come together. A large Local Studies Centre was created to cater to the growing interest in family history research.

The landscape around Valence House was extended and improved. A view across the park was opened up, and a section of the original 12th century moat was reinstated on the south side. A Dig for Victory vegetable garden was planted, beehives were installed and a traditional fruit orchard was established.

The Valence House site was reopened in June 2010 to much acclaim. The museum was described by the Museums Journal as one of the best local history museum in Greater London and was voted one of the best 50 free things to do in London by The Guardian. Today we welcome over 45,000 people to Valence House every year.