Rus in urbe beside the bay.

St Agnes’s, Black Rock, built in 1914. The flat-roofed extension is a 1970s addition.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

St Agnes’s is a country church in a suburb. It was in the country, more or less, when it was built, and has kept that air, even to the extent of acquiring a thoroughly unsuitable flat-roofed extension at the front for before- and after-service get-togethers, just as many a country church did four or five decades ago when such accretions were the fashion. St Agnes’s is included on this website as a church at risk because those getting together are now fewer in number.

Though unsurprising, this is a pity in a district that has grown a great deal since this diminutive church was built for a much smaller population. Its first congregation lived in rambling, isolated houses among the ti-tree and scrub. Black Rock is now thoroughly built up with expensive-looking houses, though, either in reality or imagination you can still hear the waves swishing on the nearby beach and smell the salt in the air. 

The first St Agnes’s, Black Rock was built in 1899 and burnt down fourteen years later.
Note the sandy soil along the fence: the beach is not far away.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

The present church is the second on the site. The first was a weatherboard structure built in 1899 and burnt down on Shrove Tuesday, 4 February 2013. That day was hot and windy. The fire started in the scrub, swept the street and engulfed the church. Some items of furniture were saved, notably the eagle lectern carved by the German immigrant sculptor Robert Prenzel (1866-1941) who lived nearby. It is still in use in the present church.

After the fire, services were held for a time, at the invitation of the proprietress, at the “Linga Longa Tea Rooms” on Beach Road – oh, those delightfully playful names of yesteryear; today it would be more earnestly named “Caffé e Focaccia”, the latter word probably incorrectly spelt and always incorrectly pronounced. Though the timber church was beyond repair, they didn’t muck about in those days, as my father would have said, and before the year was out the foundation stone of the new church was laid. The building was dedicated in April 2014.

The architect was John Gawler (1885-1978). At the time he was the representative in Australia of Walter Burley Griffin who in 1912 had won the competition to design Canberra. Gawler was later a partner in the firm of Gawler & Drummond and dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Melbourne.

Gawler’s design for St Agnes’s was for a steeply gabled plain brick three-bay nave with pointed windows, a small not-quite apsidal chancel – it has a square east wall with shorter polygonal sides – and lateral vestries with organ chamber. Above the north vestry is a bellcote in the form of a roofed frame. The west end of the church was unfinished until the extension was added in 1975.

Interior of St Agnes’s, Black Rock, with the chancel screen carved by Miss Elsie Traill.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

The interior is made elaborate by much timber carving, principally the work of a local lady, Miss Elsie Traill, who laid the foundation stone of St Agnes’s and whose father, an early resident of Black Rock, was an animating spirit behind the establishment of the parish. His wife, “greatly concerned over the lack of religious training for children” in the district, had started a Sunday School in a private house in 1888 and in 1894 Mr Traill gave the land for the church.

Miss Trail’s principal oeuvre is an open chancel screen running the width of the church. Anglican churches of the era, still under the influence of the distant Ecclesiologists in England, who thought no church “correct” without a screen to divide the congregation in the nave from the choir and sanctuary at, as they would have seen it, the more sacred end, were often equipped with screens, some of which, like that in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, have since been moved to another part of the building. The screen in St Agnes’s would be an ornament to a larger church, and although it is somewhat intrusive in a more restricted space it is good to see it still there when so many church interiors have been vandalised in the name of “reordering”.  

The Black Rock countryside has long since been built over but St Agnes’s retains the look of a country church. The pretty bellcote can be seen beyond the apse.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society

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