Saturday, 20 August 2016

Valence House Museum

Beacontree Avenue
Dagenham RM8 3HT

Thursday 18 August 2016
Linda and I know that the local museums of the varying boroughs are an important part of our project, and with the Museum of Barking and Dagenham at Valence House, we felt we had found a winner.

From the moment we walked round behind the library, and saw the rusted Ford motor (a Capri, we thought) it seemed probable that we were going to get local history with a slight touch of wry humour.

We thought we would save the attractive looking gardens for later, and so, having used the facilities in the reception area, and met the first of several charming and friendly staff, we went through the red door in the Manor House. The signage throughout is clear and crisp, and we headed first for the oak panelled Great Parlour.

This contains two interesting objects, one modernish and one extremely ancient: an apt introduction to this excellent museum. The 1877 Bechstein grand piano came to the borough in the 1930s, when the Chief Librarian purchased a piano for every library under his control, on the grounds that books were not the only cultural items which should be made available to the people. How the concept of public service (and spending!) has changed. In the centre of the room stands a wooden idol, found in Dagenham Marshes, and labelled as 'older than Stonehenge'.

This made a good introduction to the next area, which was about archeology, and included opportunities to see what archeologists do, as well as various items discovered. Every pot and shard has its provenance clearly labelled, so we could see what rich trade came up the rivers to settlements round here in ancient times. We weren't sure why the children's signage featured rather a jolly whale, but we learned later - as you will if you read on.

The next section was about the great Abbey of Barking, founded by St Erkenward, the Bishop of London, in the 7th century for his sister, St Ethelburga.  She was the first of a series of educated and influential women. The most interesting, we thought, was Mary Becket, who was appointed Abbess by Henry II as an apology for the murder of her brother. This kind of royal influence continued to show to the end: the convent was not dissolved till 1539 (most of the wealthy houses fell to the greed of Henry VIII between 1536 and 1538) and the nuns were all awarded generous pensions.  The artefacts were limited, but the signage and illustrations excellent, including a splendid map showing the Abbeys holdings as recorded in Domesday Book in 1087.

The stairs up to the first floor, which are modern, are decorated with pictures of local heroes, as well as a typical family from the Becontree estate, about which we were about to learn, and the first thing we came to was a quiz about sporting and otherwise famouis sons and daughters of the borough, with a clue, and then a door to open to find the answer: not only Bobby Moore, but Alf Ramsey, Trevor Brooking, John Terry and, if you prefer the oval ball, Jason Leonard.  Other famous people include the aircraft designer Handley Page, the singer Anne Shelton and (apparently) the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Sandie Shaw. Dudley Moore, and the Tremeloes (listen here!) are all from the area. So was the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Oh, and this is Margaret Hodge's Constituency, too.

There was also a case about the Dagenham Girl Pipers, who apparently played for Hitler when on a visit to Germany in 1937. Gandhi chose to stay in the area ('among the poor,' as he said) and so there is a swadesh cotton spinning wheel of the kind he used.

Next we came to a brief 'community' section, with photographs of rites of passage ceremonies from some of the different communities of the borough, but we have seen such things in other local museums and so were keen to get back to the History. 

The reason the Manor House is borough property is that the estate was compulsorily purchased in the 1920s, to build 27,000 new homes: this is one of the few areas which even attempted to fulfil the pledge to build 'homes for heroes'.  The Becontree Estate was internationally renowned, and people were proud to live there, and to accept the fierce rules which governed tenancies. Of course, thanks to Mrs Thatcher, these properties are no longer publicly owned or available to the deserving of the area, being mostly buy-to-let.  This is according to a lovely member of the Museum's staff with whom we had an interesting conversation. The Museum has a mock-up Becontree kitchen:  running water, Befast sink, electric cooker, mincing machine and all, as well as a sitting room, complete with rag rug, antimacassar and fire screen.  These two cases were backed up by examples of other domestic gadgets.

A section about health told us that Malaria was a problem in this marshy area till the 19th century , but also that this was the home of  May and Baker, the pharmaceutical company whose product probably saved Winston Churchill's life during his pneumonia in 1942.  Since the area also had a major asbestos plant, the health news was not all good.  As the industries and population grew, so did pollution, and apparently fat skimmed from the sewage laden river was used to lubricate machinery.

Next we came to a room about Barking and Dagenham's waterside industries:  the huge fishing fleet and innovative methods of the 'short blue fleet' whose fishing boats stayed at sea for weeks at a time in the 1820s, a kind of precurser of modern factory methods of trawling.  Also the shipbuilding industry:  it was here that the Dreadnought HMS Thunderer was built in 1911. Jute was also manufactured hereabouts, and there was information about the great Ford works.

As we moved on, our friendly guide told us not to miss some 16th century wall paintings, which were uncovered during renovations a few years ago.  They are protected behind glass, so we do not have a picture of them.  Suffice it to say that there are rather grotesque and, we thought, designed to embellish a male area of the Manor. We were also shown a panel with ancient gorse behind it, designed to discourage rats and mice.

Of course the industrialisation of the area is a fairly recent phenomenon, and there was some interesting information about rural life, with a model of Dagenham Parish before the 19th century changed it all.

This time we went down the handsome main staircase, to see a collection of portraits belonging to the Fanshawe family, who come from the area but not this house, as well as a small section of wattle and daub wall. They also have a room which was showing a loop of old Pathe newsreels, including a few minutes of children in 1953, gorging on chocolate because sweet rationing had ended, and some film of the return of the triumphant World Cup team of 1966.

The special exhibition space has a display about the Crimean War, based on the letters home of one of the Fanshawe family. 

Finally we came to a room which explained the reason for the children's 'whale' signage: some huge whale bones were found in the river and are displayed here, looking like great beams of blackened wood.  And of course. the whaling industry hereabouts produced everything from 'corsets to candles,' examples of both being on display.

By now, we felt we had filled our brains, so we went for a restorative stroll through the attractive garden, before returning westwards via the number 62 bus and the District line.

We had really enjoyed this excellent museum. 

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