The next recorded date in Torquay's story is 1196 when Abbot Adam and six canons of the Praemonstratensian Order came from Welbeck (its chief house in England) and founded TORRE ABBEY. After the Conquest in 1066, William divided the spoils among his followers, one of whom was Randulphus de Brieria. A descendent, William was born in the manor house at Tor. Exactly where the building was is not certain but it must have been near old St. Efride's Well or the "spring of St. Petroc which rises near the kitchen in the Courthouse of Tor", according to a 13th century document. This records that water from it was conveyed to the Abbey for use there. His son, also William, was made a hostage, with others, following the capture of the King (Richard I) at the time of the Third Crusade. The hostages were released in 1195 and it is possible that the Abbey was founded by William as a thank-offering. It was a generous endowment, including land and fishing rights and there were pasture lands for many sheep. Further away was the "vill and advowson" of Wolborough and those at Tor and elsewhere all yielding animals and produce. The great tithe barn would have been completed first, the building of the remainder following over a period of years. Of these, the church would have been the initial task, cruciform in design (168 feet long and 40 feet wide) with a tower over the crossing and for worship by the canons only, the lay brothers attending Torre Church nearby. The eventual arrangement of the Abbey buildings was the usual one. The church was on the north side; chapter house and sacristy to the east; refectory and locutorium (the only place talking was allowed) to the south, with the kitchen in the south-west corner (as St. Benedict had decreed that the "carnal requirements" should be as far away from the spiritual as possible). The abbot's quarters were on the west side. The cloisters were to the south of the church and completed a square around the cloister garth. The Mohun gatehouse, as it is known, was constructed much later (1310-30) near the kitchen and, for some reason, is out of alignment with the rest of the plan. Builders at that period often used existing foundations so it is possible that there were lay buildings already there. Not long after this, in 1370, the Mohuns sold the manor to the Order and so all the lands around became part of the Abbey domain.

The Praemonstratensians were also known in England as the "Norbertines". At first the Order followed the Rule of St. Augustine but later came under the influence of the Cistercians (an even more strict Order), through Norbert's friendship with Bernard of Clairvaux. For the three and a half centuries their white habits were a familiar sight around South Devon and much of the district's early economic development and culture stemmed from them. The Abbey was the centre of religious life in South Devon. The brothers abstained from eating meat and wore hair shirts. There were daily and nightly Offices, which were numerous and exhausting. Local people depended on the Abbey for employment, the poor for charity, the distressed and friendless for asylum. Education was provided for the children of the gentry and local farmers and ordained brothers were sent to preach in the churches at Kingswear, Townstal, Abbotskerswell, Hennock, Wolborough and elsewhere. However, they did not lead totally secluded lives but were hard-working and diligent; they developed the spinning and weaving of wool and were members of the Merchants' Gild of Totnes.

There is no evidence that the luxury, idleness and dissolute behaviour which infected some Orders in later monastic times ever took place at Torre Abbey; indeed, when the Commissioners of Henry VIII did arrive, they commented on the continuing piety and integrity of those there. The end was inevitable; in either February or March 1539 the Abbey was surrendered, the last Abbot, Simon Rede, becoming Vicar of Townstal. There were then 15 canons and 50 lay brothers. The history of the Abbey is known because John Gaverock of Ford bought the domain and manor of Wolborough in 1545 and, some 30 years later in 1579, had the cartulary in his possession which "he delivered into Court for the Queen's use".

After the Abbey had been dissolved and the sale was proposed, the land was divided into two [referred to as a "moiety" in later documents]: the original Abbey domain and the manor of Tormohun. In 1540 John Ridg(e)way, an annuitant of Rede, acquired TORWOOD GRANGE. His son Thomas built a new house "Torwood Manor", probably in 1579 (which was the date on a rainwater pipe). Originally this was a fine Elizabethan mansion but by the mid-19th century it was in a bad state and some of the rooms were being used as barns. It was demolished in 1840. The other part (the southern portion) was given by Henry VIII to John St. Leger in 1543 who, in the same year, sold to Sir Hugh Pollard. His grandson conveyed it to Sir Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy. He was, of course, in possession during the Armada period and this accounts for his involvement with the crippled vessel and the use of his "Spanish Barn" for prisoners from it. In either 1598/9 it was bought by Thomas Ridgeway, thus completing his Tormohun estate (but see also below). In confirmation, the Exchequer Plea Rolls record: Thomas Ridgeway has 500 acres of arable land, 500 acres of meadow and 400 acres of pasture called the granges of Torwood, Shiphay and Ilsham in the parishes of Tormohun and St. Marychurch; dated 39 Eliz. Some time after his death the old Abbey domain was bought by John Stowell of Bovey Tracey. This was later assigned to George Cary in 1662 for £800. It marked the beginning of the family's long association with Torre Abbey which only ended with its sale to Torquay Borough Council in 1930. (The sale to Robert Palk of Torwood Manor and lands was, of course, in 1768 but is not part of the Torre Abbey story).

The story of the structural changes made to the former Abbey is somewhat sketchy. There was a major rebuild on the south and west sides but that was after George Cary II became owner in 1718. He also probably put in the oak staircase now officially described as "Georgian". He is also credited with building the two projecting wings, the western part being a "new shell" around and above the old monastic kitchen; the east a new construction (it is now the Mayor's Parlour). The west side was rebuilt by George Cary III sometime after 1781; this created a lofty dining room and the Cary Chapel (until the Relief Act of 1778 the Carys had been restricted to observing their Faith in a garret chapel). From its completion, and until 1853, this was both the family's and the town's only Roman Catholic place of worship. Until 1779, one writer says, it was used as a laundry. Between 1803 and 1810 the pyramidal roofs on the two wings were replaced with a low one with battlements. In about 1815 the seven sash windows on the first floor were replaced by french windows with small wrought iron balconies.

Mr R. S. S. Cary died in 1898, his son Colonel Lucius and Mrs Cary arriving in grand style to live in the House from July 1907. His death in 1916, in the middle of World War 1, was followed by a tragedy which possibly led, a decade and a half later, to that sale to the town. There was no direct heir so the estates passed to another branch of the family, Lancelot Cary. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 barely three weeks after succeeding to the estate. Lancelot was the last of the Torre Abbey Carys and the new owner was a sister of Lucius married to John Stuart Coxon. A condition in the will was that he, and his son Lionel, should take the name of "Cary". The first part of the Meadows which had been park land for centuries was bought by the Council in 1924 and became "Abbey Gardens".

© copyright John Pike

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