The church, which must surely be described as outstanding, is set at the head of a stunning wooded drive in a grassed clearing. From the south, the approach to this is along a magnificent and very beautiful avenue of trees originally planted in 1846.
The building was the product of a co-operation between Mrs. Henrietta Bankes, the feisty chatelaine of nearby Kingston Lacy House, whose husband had left £5,000 "for the purpose of building and endowing a church at Kingston Lacy" and the eminent architect C. E. Ponting of Marlborough. The foundation stone of the Arts and Crafts Gothic style structure was laid by Mrs Bankes on 15th February 1906 and the church was dedicated by the Bishop of Salisbury on 27th July 1907. Mr Bankes also directed that £50 per year should be paid to the vicar of Wimborne (in whose parish it was) for a period of 25 years.
However, this was not the first church at Kingston Lacy. Henry de Lacy was one of twenty-five barons charged with overseeing the observance of Magna Carta (1215). In 1229 he was given the manor of Kingston Lacy. A church, also dedicated to St Stephen, was constructed seven years later and survived until the 16c, but by 1573 had been allowed to decay to such an extent that it was beyond repair and abandoned. Today nothing is left and its site is unknown.
Externally, the proportions of the present building are pleasing and the forty foot tower adds a gentle grandeur. The walls, constructed from a mixture of Studland sandstone and Purbeck stone, have prompted some to suggest a tweed appearance. Attached to the tower and above the left side of the porch, with its Arts and Crafts leaf surround, is a niche containing a statue by Palmer of St Stephen with his hand on the head of a small boy. The boy was modelled in the likeness of Ralph, Mrs Bankes' son, who was to be the last squire of Kingston Lacy.
Inside, the building is delightfully simple and yet every detail has obviously received the closest attention and the overall effect is one of restrained excellence. The alabaster font, supported by four angels and given by local farmers, is a particular example because when it arrived Mrs Bankes found a crack. Refusing to accept less than perfection, it was returned to the makers, who replaced it with the one currently in use.
Perhaps the most striking feature inside the building is the quality of the woodwork, constructed from oak grown on the Kingston Lacy Estate. In particular, the roof is an exceptional example of quiet perfection and worth a visit on its own. However, also beautifully executed are the pews, each end exquisitely carved with a Bankes' family fleur-de-lys, and the splendid choir stalls. The glittering tiled reredos is by Carters of Poole, who used 'battered brass' to form the golden wings of the angels and mother-of-pearl for their halos. On either side, it is flanked by Sanctus angels engraved directly into the stone. Above, the east window is sumptuous.
The rich colours and artistry used by Horace Wilkinson to convey Christ on the Cross with a serpent below, are inspirational. The left hand panel depicts Ralph Bankes sitting on Christ's lap with his sisters, Viola and Daphne, looking on. Mrs Bankes is reputed to have been devoted to her rather sickly son, but not to her two daughters. To the right, further panels of Mary and Martha, the Good Shepherd and the Calming of the Storm. The south transept windows have the theme of childhood. The surprisingly small organ by the Positive Organ Co., costing £175, was accorded its own loft above the generous vestry. Immediately below the organ and attached to the wooden panelling is a simple, but moving record of the sixteen men who did not return from the First World War; which was unveiled on 2nd April 1921.
The eight Bankes' family pews are at the back of the church, where presumably they could keep an eye on their tenants and employees in front! Standing over the pew, is a copy of the Wimborne Minster astronomical clock and above and behind, the west window features the historical family armorials with a fleur de lys and the various bride's arms. Before the building of this church, the window was installed in Wimborne Minster. The pew is served by its own private door on the north side from where a path leads directly to a lane where the family could be conveyed by carriage to and from the great house. The habit of always leaving during the last hymn, further insulated the family from any risk of contact with the congregation.
Until the building of this church, the people of Cowgrove and Pamphill had to go to Wimborne Minster for services. However, the new church was within the parish of Wimborne Minster and not a parish in its own right. This had to wait until 1922, when as a result of Mrs Bankes' efforts and her endowment of £6,000, the benefice of St Stephen's was finally established with its own vicar. The beautiful grass enclosure in which the church rests remains unconsecrated and consequently has never been used for burial. The stone cross in front of the church is a memorial to Walter Bankes, Mrs Bankes' husband and benefactor.
The Dorset Historic Churches Trust wishes gratefully to record its sincere thanks to Mrs. Jane Butler for the assistance received in the preparation of these notes.
The Trust gratefully acknowledges images and text by Robin Adeney ©