Torquay seafront site mentioned in Doomsday Book

The stories behind Torbay’s blue plaques by Ian Handford, President of the Torbay Civic Society. This week: Torre Abbey

Associated with the Cary family, Torre Abbey actually predates the Carys by nearly 500 years before a branch of the Devon family purchased the premises in 1662.

The wording on our blue plaque, which now stands along the steps of Torre Abbey, states that “Torre Abbey – founded as a monastery for Premonstratensian canons – after 1539 adapted a private residence , home of the Cary family 1662-1930”.

The history of this medieval site was uniquely investigated by Leslie Retallick in 1989, who quickly discovered that Torre Abbey was, in fact, the oldest historic building in Torquay and that parts of the building and walls are still original.

In recent years substantial financial grants have supported what was the arts center as it gradually became more of a museum, until today with its elevator and modern toilets it now meets all standards of health and safety in museums.

For many years the complex was run by Mr. L Retallick, who even oversaw the changes to the rear of the premises while inside the building a new cafeteria space was fitted out.

Extensive research proved that Alric – one of the last in a long line of Saxon owners – had owned Torre Manor while also having lands at Cockington Manor.

However, much of the earliest history has been lost to us, although we know that some of the earliest references to this important site are even mentioned in the Domesday Book 1066.

After the reign of King Edward the Confessor, it seems that Alric was finally ousted from his estate after William’s invasion of Normandy in 1066, when the manor of Torre was taken from him and divided among the most loyal supporters of Guillaume.

At the end of the 12th century, the lands of Torre Abbey came into the possession of the influential Lord William deBrewer who, as a nobleman, had once been an adviser to King Richard the Lionheart.

When Richard was subsequently imprisoned in Austria by Duke Leopold, it was Lord deBrewer who attempted to obtain a ransom of 150,000 marks – in today’s terms, millions of pounds.

Ransom proved impossible and an agreement was then made whereby in 1194 some 67 hostages were sent to Austria in partial payment, one even being Lord deBrewer’s son, William the Younger.

Fortunately, with the ransom money paid, the British hostages were released unharmed, including his lordship’s son.

For this, Lord William now ensured that the Order of Premonstratensian Canons of Austria “were suitably endowed with lands and money” to establish what became the new Torre Monastery.

According to historian Arthur C Ellis, within 12 months of the hostages’ release, the first abbot – Abbot Adam and six canons – had, by March 1196, taken possession of the waterfront lands.

The canons – white canons due to white formal habit – would within two years receive a charter confirming that they were to dispense charity and offer hospitality at all times.

At this time William the Younger was Sheriff of Devon and, like his father, he also granted what is recorded as ‘five charters to the Abbot’, including lands in Hylesham (Ilsham) Coletone ( Shiphay) and Dunningstone (Denscombe near Bampton).

Over the centuries the Premonstratensian Order of Torquay became one of the wealthiest in Britain, until, like all other monastic orders, they fell to Henry VIII when he introduced his new religious regime.

By 1598 the Ridgeweay family had purchased the whole site and made it their domestic quarters, until they finally sold the estate to the Cary family and moved into their primary residence at Torwood House.

The Torre Abbey Cary family have been featured in this series before and of course it was their blue plaque which was established on the steps of the Abbey in 1989 when the Mayor of Torquay and Chair of the Torbay Civic Society, Sheila Hardaway, would have officially officiated.

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