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Dorset Houses – A burning question

Manston House has a curious place in history, for it was here that the first legal cremations in Britain took place. Tony Burton-Page tells its intriguing story.

Manston is a small village, with a population of just over one hundred, a couple of miles north-east of Sturminster Newton. It is easy to overlook it. Sir Frederick Treves does not mention it in his classic early 19th-century tour of the county, Highways and Byways in Dorset. Jo Draper, in the course of researching her monumental Dorset: the Complete Guide, discovered that the Ordnance Survey had actually left Manston Church off the map. But it has a story to tell, and that story centres around the principal house of the village, Manston House.

The front elevation of Manston House

The front elevation of Manston House

There has been a Big House on the west bank of the River Stour in Manston as far back as records go: the Domesday Book lists it. The original manor house was probably demolished in the latter part of the 17th century by the owner, Richard Dibben, to make way for a new building. There is ample stylistic evidence for this; in addition there is an inscription in the chancel of the neighbouring church of St Nicholas stating that the yew trees which are now a feature of the grounds of the house were planted in 1690, about the same time as the house was built.
Richard Dibben was the father of Thomas Dibben, who became a well-known clergyman and that rare beast, a Dorset poet who wrote Latin verse – a far cry from William Barnes. He was the first of a dynasty of Dibbens who were rectors of Fontmell Magna from 1701 until 1812. The Dibbens eventually sold Manston House to Henry Kaines, the celebrated diarist, and it then passed to Thomas Barnabas Hanham, the youngest son of Sir James Hanham, the 7th Baronet of Deans Court in Wimborne.
Hanham probably acquired Manston House in the 1850s; he certainly had it by 1857, for the Dorset County Chronicle of 12 February of that year reports that ‘on Friday morning last, soon after 4 o’clock, Manston House, the seat of T.B HANHAM Esq., was discovered to be on fire.’ The fire was disastrous, destroying most of the building and its contents, although no lives were lost. The report concludes with the melancholy news that ‘the insurance will not cover above a moiety [i.e. half] of the pecuniary loss.’ Some things never change.

The refurbished mausoleum

The refurbished mausoleum

Hanham, then in his early thirties, started building a new house straight away. He evidently saw it as an opportunity to establish his status as a Victorian gentleman of means, for the new building was deliberately impressive. The old rear wing, which had survived the fire, was incorporated into the design, but it is completely undetectable from the north-facing front. On the east and west sides, however, the join is as clearly visible as the strata at Lulworth Cove.
Hanham was a successful man. He had joined the Royal Navy as a youngster, achieving the rank of Lieutenant in 1847 and Commander in 1864. He became a JP and a Deputy-Lieutenant of Dorset and rose to the height of Past Provincial Senior Grand Warden as a Freemason. He was less fortunate when it came to the longevity of his wives, all three of whom predeceased him. The second of these, Josephine Ida Dodson, died in 1866 while the couple were sailing in the Pacific. As she had previously made it clear that she would like to be laid to rest in her beloved Manston, she was taken home. But she had also stated a dislike for the churchyard, which was regularly flooded by the rain-swollen Stour – Manston’s current owner says it still floods at least once a year. So Hanham had a waterproof vault built next to his private aisle in the church. However, when it was opened up on the death of his only child, Maud, in 1869, he found it flooded to a depth of 19 inches. This distressed both Hanham and his new wife, Edith, so much that she made him promise that he would have her body cremated if he survived her, she promising to do the same for him if he should die first. But there was a snag: cremation was not legal in Britain at the time even though it was practised elsewhere in Europe, as well as the USA.

The historic crematorium is now a garden storage area

The historic crematorium is now a garden storage area

The snag became an obstacle when Edith died in 1876. Hanham, being a JP and a decent citizen, was determined not to break any laws, so he had her body stored in a lead-lined coffin and began to build a mausoleum in the grounds of Manston House. This was completed in 1877, and there his wife lay while he negotiated with the authorities to have cremation legalised. His was not a lone voice; the Cremation Society had been campaigning for this for some time, and the movement had been gathering strength because of the parlous state of many cemeteries, particularly those in large cities. But it was not until 8 October 1882 that Hanham could legally consign the body to the fire, and even then he had to have a small crematorium built in the grounds of the house. His mother had died by then, and she followed her daughter-in-law the next day. They were the first legal cremations in Britain        – in the presence, says the Western Gazette of 5 December 1883, of ‘a large gathering of Masons from all parts
of Dorset.’
The crematorium was dismantled and is now a garden storage area; but the mausoleum is in pristine condition, thanks to a refurbishment by Ben Harrison, who has lived at Manston House since 1985. The lead from its domed roof was stolen in the 1960s and the building had deteriorated badly. The dome was re-covered with a lead substitute called Alwitra, which should last for at least fifty years.
It is the only memorial to a strange byway of British history of which few are aware. The somewhat macabre goings-on of a century ago certainly do not seem to dampen the spirits of those who come to the Manston village fête every year in the grounds of Manston House.

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