A mansion in Dorset on the banks of the River Stour looks every inch the tranquil country pile, but Manston House has a fascinating history forged in fire. Penny Churchill explains.
The graceful appearance of Manston House belies the role that fire has played in the part of an otherwise tranquil story. For this house on the banks of the River Stour near Sturminster Newton in north Dorset – currently for sale through Savills at a guide price of £6.5m – would have a very different look and feel today were it not for a devastating blaze.
This grand and magnificent Grade II listed house is arranged around a fine reception hall that is flooded with light from a galleried landing. There is also an elegant drawing room, large dining room, a library and a family room, along with a home office. On the first and second floors there are nine bedrooms and a roof terrace. But the house as it stands today is a long way removed from the original.
The original late-17th-century house was the seat, in the early 1850s, of Thomas Hanham, younger son of Sir James Hanham of Deans Court, Wimborne, when a disastrous fire destroyed most of the building and its contents. The young Thomas immediately replaced the house with a much grander building, incorporating the old rear wing, which had survived the fire.
Fire would come to play another role in the history of the house. Hanham was later a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy-Lieutenant of Dorset and a high-ranking Freemason, who promised his wife, Edith, that he would have her cremated should she predecease him, which she did, in 1876.
Cremation was illegal at the time and her body was installed in a mausoleum as he negotiated with the authorities. Eventually, in October 1882, he was legally permitted to consign her body to the flames in a small crematorium he also built in the grounds: it was Britain’s first legal cremation.
Manston House has always been the principal house of the village, even more so following a major restoration that was carried out in 2013–14 by specialist country-house builder R. Moulding & Co of Salisbury, in close cooperation with the current owners. Tim Moulding, the eighth generation of his family to head up the firm, still recalls every step of the project, which took 18 months to complete.
The restoration work included the construction of a large, three-storey extension on the south side; the installation of a new tiled roof and custom-built windows and doors; the renewal of all mechanical, electrical and plumbing services, with new floor finishes throughout; the creation of a new master suite and new en-suite bathrooms to all bedrooms; and a new kitchen and pantry, as well as extensive landscaping and fencing.
The result is an almost entirely new country house within a classic Georgian framework, with some 8,700sq ft of accommodation on three floors, including four main reception rooms, eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms.
‘Perhaps best of all, given the problems that inevitably surface in the course of a historic-building renovation, is that the owner and I are still friends,’ laughs Mr Moulding.