When Wilberforce Came to Tea

In 2021, Year 12 drama students from Robert Clack School, in Dagenham, participated in a history project proposed by Valence House Museum and funded by Arts Council England. Under the guidance of creative director Simone Panayi and their Head of Drama, Mr Sam Butler, they discovered the history of Henry and Eliza Bird – residents of Valence House 1778-1803 and co-wrote and performed a script, covering a period of revolutions in America, France, and Haiti.

This project uses local heritage to access global themes in human history, including the impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the inspirational abolition movement. Henry Bird was an ideal character to view these events through. He married a plantation owner’s daughter from St Kitts, and was the cousin of William Wilberforce – champion of the abolition movement in Parliament and close friend of many prominent abolitionists, and Prince Naimbana of Sierra Leone.

Our key objective was to voice the words of characters so often silenced in the past, including two slave girls ‘gifted’ to the Manning sisters in the 1750s – Charlotte and Kitty. The drama is presented in three acts, each set a decade apart. Central to each Act is an imagined tea party at Valence House. All the historical events discussed were researched and aim to be factually accurate.

The Film which can be viewed here, will be viewed in three acts, as part of a learning resource for secondary schools, supporting the aims of Black History Month and Black Lives Matter – please contact Valence House for further details.

We are very grateful to Ewan Bruce (film editor) and the students and staff of the Media Department at Barking and Dagenham College, who filmed the drama on location at Valence House (where an exhibition in the Great Parlour explained the project in more detail). We are thankful for the support of the Valence House staff including the curator, Leeanne Westwood, and borough archivist, Karen Rushton. We also thank Massachusetts Historical Society for providing access to the letters of Eliza Manning Bird, her sister Sarah Manning Vaughan and family, and their kind permissions to reproduce extracts for educational purposes and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for approving the use of an image of The Slave Ship by JMW Turner. The costumes were funded by Be First and provided by Larger than life Stagewear, The National Theatre and Valence House Museum. The props were organised by Mark Watson who commissioned this project!