It must be admitted that the approach to Valence House is not very promising. It lies in that belt which surrounds London, and most other British cities, of endless and rather bland streets where there is no particular reason to be a visitor. Dagenham, however, turns out to be so much more than a nondescript suburb. Originally a 14th-century manor house, Valence House was once the home of generations of the Fanshawe family and sits near an ancient Abbey site. Before the current housing estate was built up around the House, leaving it in its parkland oasis, the area was still rural – all fields and villages.
Barking Abbey existed between the 6th and 16th centuries when it was demolished during Henry VIII rampage of dissolution. It had been one of the largest and wealthiest Abbeys in the country, at different times housing nuns and monks. Valence House Museum has some relics from the Abbey, including an intriguing textile-related legacy. In the Dark and Mediaeval Ages, nunneries were often the refuge of women who needed an alternative or refuge from marriage, but that did not necessarily mean they wanted to leave all their worldly wealth behind them. 7th century Barking Abbey nuns wove their own cloth but were notorious for also weaving real gold thread into their habits – and were admonished by the Venerable Bede for such vanity. We can now only imagine in what form these golden vanities were integrated into their habits – the threads certainly suggest that such luxury was not isolated. Perhaps they were subtle golden glints, or else full-on bling.
Sometimes you come across an object that is so meaningful and has such an impressive provenance that we can feel a little star-struck. A modest object in a glass case had such an effect – Mahatma Gandhi’s weaving loom. The loom, once used by one of the greatest leaders and peacemakers of the 20th century, was given to his friend Muriel Lester. She was a London born writer and international campaigner who herself left a considerable legacy through founding community centres in deprived areas of the east end, including Kingsley Hall in Bow. She had visited Gandhi in India many times, and in 1931 he visited London, staying at Kingsley Hall for 3 months. This unimposing and precious object tells the tale of Gandhi’s own personal practice of weaving, developed while a prisoner of the British, and maintained as a symbolic gesture, encouraging his countrymen and women to spin their own cloth rather than buying imported fabric. Gandhi left this portable spinning loom to Muriel, and it currently lives in a case at Valence House.
Valence House is so-called because of the original Agnes de Valence of 1291. No part of the original building remains, but the present house dates from the 14th century – it has been built and rebuilt since, with many rooms and areas from different eras and recent decades remaining. A notable family who lived at Valence house for generations were the Fanshawes who have also left in the Valence a very fine collection of portraits which themselves document a treasure-trove of costume and textile history. Past lives often seem full of almost fictional eccentricities, and the Fanshawes had their share of contributors. Richard Fanshawe, 1608-1666, was a Universal Man, a great intellect and innovator who travelled widely in Europe, with his wife Ann and several children in tow. Many of the children did not survive the precarious travel of their day and were buried, scattered abroad. When Richard also died abroad, Ann returned to England with her surviving children, travelling with Richard’s coffin which rather gruesomely had a glass window so that she could check his face. While this tale may have nothing to do with textiles, I couldn’t possibly not mention it!
Many traditional craft items don’t get to survive long enough to be left to museums as they are not as valued as posher items. Valence House has a frankly beautiful and intricate 19th-century farmer’s smock, in what looks like wearable condition, fortunately, treasured and kept by a local family and then donated, leaving another clue to the times when the area was largely rural and agricultural.
One of the difficulties which have emerged while researching for the Bow Arts’ Raw Materials: Textiles project, is resisting getting distracted by the many other fascinating facts and contexts, characters and industries, that get trawled in with the broad sweep of research. While that is certainly a pleasant and interesting problem, we were able to add more threads to our textile research in the archive with evidence of jute manufacturing in the area before all the house building proliferated.
The archive itself springs from enlightened local Gerard O’Leary who started buying collections and artefacts from local families in the 1930’s. His forethought, enthusiasm and innovation in library services, has left a wonderful legacy in the survival of Valence House.