A short history of Carrow Priory

Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, September 2018
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


TG2407 : Pedestrian crossing on the Carrow Works site by Evelyn Simak

Although commonly referred to as Carrow Abbey, this was actually a Priory founded in 1146 by Benedictine nuns. The west range had been rebuilt shortly before the Dissolution. The Priory housed nine (later twelve) nuns and is documented to have also accommodated local girls as boarders. A poem, written by one of them by the name of Jane Scrope, lamenting after the priory cat had killed her tame pet sparrow, has survived:

That vengeaunce I aske and cry
By way of exclamation,
On al the whole nacion
Of cattes wilde and tame
God send them sorrow and shame;
That Cat specially
That slew so cruelly
My litle prety Sparow
That I brought up at Carow

Today, only the prioress's residence is still in place, comprising a parlour and hall built by the then prioress Isabel Wygam in the 16th century, on 12th century foundations. After the Dissolution, the property passed to Sir John Shelton. In 1811, Henry Martineau acquired the property, and in 1878 sold it to Jeremiah James Colman, who however lived in the adjacent Carrow House > LinkExternal link once it was completed, and used the former prioress's residence for accommodating his extensive library. A south wing, added in 1899, was the home of his daughter Laura and her husband James Stuart, who became director of the Carrow Works after his father-in-law's passing. Later Laura's sister Helen lived there, and after her death in 1948 the property was leased to the Red Cross, and later converted to offices. Currently it serves as the conference centre of Unilever.

The adjacent priory church, known as St Mary of Carhowe, and associated buildings were demolished in 1536. With help from his workforce, Jeremiah J Colman however excavated the ruins comprising the church's foundations and the east range of the priory buildings, in the early 1880s. The remains are now a scheduled ancient monument and the prioress's lodgings are Grade II* listed. In the 1960s, an employees' canteen was built over the site of the church's nave but the rest of the ruins remain as JJ Colman found them. A number of graves, including that of a child, are still in place in the former chancel and immediately adjacent to the former Chapter House.

For an in-depth history go to: LinkExternal link

The Priory is situated on an active works site owned by Unilever, and strictly out of bounds to visitors. Only on one day per year, on occasion of the Heritage Open Days (HODs), is the public permitted access for viewing, albeit in small groups only, led by an authorised guide. Unilever do not allow commercial photography nor the use of private pictures by others for commercial purposes.

Photos taken on occasion of the HODs guided tour can be seen here:
Carrow Priory - PhotographsExternal link


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