Whether you ride a horse, drive a car or walk on foot, undoubtedly the best view of Newmarket is from the top of Warren Hill. As you look down over the town the skyline is marked by the squat tower of All Saints’ Church, the slim Hertfordshire spike of St. Mary’s and, to the right, the slender turret of St Agnes’. All Saints’ and St Mary’s have both a much longer history but in some ways St. Agnes’ is the most interesting of the three.
It was built just over a hundred years ago by Caroline Agnes, Duchess of Montrose, a member of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, in memory of her second husband, W. S. Stirling Crawfurd, Esquire. He had died at Cannes in 1874 and his body was re-interred in a plot behind the church in 1885. In the intervening years the Duchess, who lived at Sefton Lodge in Bury Road, had built St Agnes” Church in his memory, naming it after the saint of her own name. Two years later, on October 8th, 1887, it was consecrated by the Bishop of Ely, in whose diocese Newmarket then was, and the Duchess, as patron of the new building, presented the Rev. Alfred Sharpe to the Bishop to become the first vicar of St Agnes’ Parish, Exning – the area round the church was at that time in the civil parish of Exning. When she herself died in 1894 she was buried beside her second husband in the plot behind the church, marked by a standing cross.
You have only to look inside St Agnes’ today to realise that no expense was spared in its building. The description of it in the Supplement to Cautley”s Suffolk Churches speaks of ”the lavish interior embellished with a great deal of Salviati mosaic and a majolica-tiled dado”, and draws attention to ”an oil painting of the Last Supper in a fine late seventeenth century frame and an elaborate marble reredos by Boehm in Renaissance-manner” depicting the Assumption of St Agnes over the Coliseum at Rome. All the windows are of stained glass and it is said to be ”the only example of the high Victorian use of such elaborate tile and mosaic work in Suffolk”. The organ, incidentally, was designed by Sir Arthur Sullivan. As the church will seat barely a hundred people, you will realise that it is almost a unique example of a small Victorian church.
For the next eighty years St Agnes’, although with only a small population of not much more than 400, remained a parish in its own right, its second incumbent, the Rev. William Colville- Wallis, holding the benefice for no less than 46 years. In view of the smallness of the parish, there were at least two attempts between the wars to amalgamate it with either All Saints’ or St Mary’s, but the proposed amalgamation was stoutly and successfully resisted by among others Mr Jack Taylor, the Hon. George Lambton and Miss Ellis. However, eventually on the retirement of the then vicar, the Rev. H.D.P. Malachi, in 1964, amalgamation with St Mary’s was unanimously approved and on March 25th, 1966, the Rev. Kenneth Child as rector of St Mary’s became also vicar of St Agnes’.
Amalgamation notwithstanding, St Agnes’ has never become a daughter church of St Mary’s, but thanks to the labours of devoted lay people, like Mr. W.E. Stuart, Dr John Dean and more recently Sir Brooke and Lady Fairbairn, has retained its tradition of being characteristically middle-of-the way Anglicanism, somewhere between the High Churchmanship of St Mary’s and the Evangelicalism of All Saints’. In theory the church serves the Bury Road (where the horse population is said to be higher than the human), but in practice its members come from all over the town, and although never large in numbers its second century of life begins with trust and hope for the future under the pastoral care of the Reverend John Hardy, its present rector.