A Garden Shed’s Unique Place in History | Looking Back


It’s home to wheelbarrows and gardening tools today but this glorified garden shed in the grounds of Manston House also holds a unique place in British history.

Here on consecutive days in October 1882, the late Mrs Edith Hanham and her 89-year-old mother-in-law Lady Eliza Hanham became the first two people in modern Britain to be legally cremated.

The cremations were hugely influential but also controversial, causing an outcry in many quarters.

Some Manston villagers complained of ‘very disagreeable odours’ that were ‘palpable enough to all who happened to be in the way of the wind’.

Crematorium – Roger Guttridge

Others claimed cremation was ‘distasteful’ or that it ‘interfered with the resurrection of the body’.

Describing himself as the ‘husband of Lady Hanham’s favourite grandchild’, Duncan Skrine, of Reading, publicly condemned the cremations a ‘revolting proceeding’.

He claimed the Hanham grandchildren were ‘unutterably shocked at the deed and the heartless publicity given to it’.

‘We are certain that Lady Hanham, the widow of a clergyman, thoroughly English in her sentiments, never could have contemplated, nor would have sanctioned, such a disposition of her remains,’ wrote Skrine.

Historically, cremation was practised by many ancient civilisations, including the Romans and the Saxons, but after the Anglo-Saxon era, it died out in this country.

The flame of interest was rekindled in the 19th century and fanned by the immense pressure on cemetery space resulting from rapid population growth.

In some cemeteries in Victorian London, bodies were being buried up to 14 deep.

When the Cremation Society was launched in 1874, its high-profile members included the novelist Anthony Trollope, the painter John Millais and Alice in Wonderland illustrator John Tenniel.

The society build its own crematorium at Woking and in 1879 cremated a horse.

Although no-one could find anything illegal in this, the Home Secretary gave into public pressure and banned human cremations.

But for the interest of Manston House owner Captain Thomas Hanham, the campaign may have ended there.

Prompted by the periodic flooding of Manston church and his family vault when the River Stour burst its banks, Hanham and his third wife Edith made a mutual pledge to have their remains cremated.

After Edith and Lady Eliza died in 1876 and 1877 respectively, Captain Hanham stored their bodies in a mausoleum until cremation became legal.

There wooden coffins were placed inside lead coffins to comply with sanitation laws.

The mausoleum also survives in the Manston House grounds.

Cremation campaigner William Robinson, who attended both ceremonies in October 1882, reported: ‘The cremations were carried out in a simple and inexpensive furnace, not only without any nuisance to the neighbourhood but without the slightest unpleasantness to those who stood within 2 feet of the white flame, which promptly resolved the bodies to their harmless elements.

‘The coffins, lead and all, were placed in the furnace on fire-brick and iron plates, which allowed the flames to rise freely up but prevented the ashes from falling to the furnace below.’

Sturminster Newton’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Comyns Leach, was also present at the cremations and raised no objection.

When Thomas Hanham himself died just over a year later aged 58, he too was cremated.

Mausoleum – Roger Guttridge

This ceremony also made history as the first entirely Masonic funeral in England for 100 years.

Dorset diarist Julietta Forrester, who was among the mourners, records that the Rector of Manston absented himself, ‘he not agreeing with the late Captain’s views nor with this style of funeral’.

Julietta was of the same mind, describing it as a ‘shockingly anti-Christian ceremony’.

The Manston cremations effectively gave the practice a toehold in England and directly influenced later developments.

Several cremations followed at Woking and over the next 20 years the Cremation Society opened crematoria in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Darlington and London.

By 1904 more than 4,400 people had been cremated.

And it all started in what was to become a garden shed in Manston.

• A chapter on the Manston crematorium appears in Roger Guttridge’s book Dorset: Curious and Surprising.

Contact: roger.guttridge@btinternet.com

By: Roger Guttridge


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