MARTELLO TOWER - 1805 - 1812





The Martello Towers were part of the same defence scheme as the Redoubt, 74 being built between Folkestone in Kent and Seaford, 12 miles west of Eastbourne. The name 'Martello' comes originally from a tower built on Mortella Point in San Fiorenzo Bay, Corsica, which in February 1794 held off an attack by two Royal Navy ships, inflicting heavy damage on one of them.


Only after a gun battery had landed and pounded the tower for two days, was the tower finally taken, and only because a lucky shot had set the tower on fire. The defence put up by the tower greatly impressed those who had tried to capture it, and after much debate and decision, Brigadier-General William Twiss surveyed the English coastline, and decided where similar towers should be built. 'Mortella' soon became corrupted to 'Martello' and the name was accepted as a universal term for any round defensive tower.


Each tower was made of about half a million bricks, and although they look round, they are in fact slightly eliptical. The walls were thicker on the side facing the sea, because that was where most enemy fire was expected to come from. The roundness and thickness of the walls was designed to deflect cannon balls, which tests proved they could not penetrate. A round brick pillar rose through the centre of the tower to support the roof, on which a cannon on a rotating gun carriage (the same as those used in the Redoubt) could fire in all directions.



Martello Tower No.66 by the Sovereign Harbour entrance


Martello Tower No.66 by the Sovereign Harbour entrance



By 1803 Boulogne had become an enormous camp for a French Army of over 130,000 men and 22,000 landing boats, poised ready to invade Britain. The Royal Navy had also by then begun to blockade French ports to prevent the invasion force leaving French waters. However, some form of coastal defense system for England was needed in the light of French raids in Wales and Ireland.


The idea to erect towers along the English coast at this time was put forward by a Captain W.H. Ford of the Royal Engineers, who proposed a chain of square towers along the Kent and Sussex coast. Ford, however, was not the first to come up with this idea; in 1798, a Captain Reynolds had proposed a line of towers in similar positions to those that were begun seven years later.1 "...there are no Works that appear to me so likely (to prevent an enemy landing) as a Simple Tower of Brickwork defended by a Handful of Resolute Men."2The doorway to a Martello was halfway up the wall, making it easier to defend. A ladder was needed to enter, and this could be pulled up into the tower if need be. The ground floor of the tower was the magazine, where gunpowder, cannon balls and supplies were kept. Many towers had large rainwater tanks under the floor to store drinking water. As with the Redoubt, Martello Towers were designed to withstand a lengthy siege. Several towers, such as No. 73 in Eastbourne (the 'Wish Tower') were also protected by a moat.


The first floor was of wooden boards held up by the central pillar, and was where the garrison of 24 men and one officer lived. The living area was divided up into three or four rooms, one for the men, one almost the same size for the officer, and small store room, and the entrance hall, which had a trap door in the floor for access to the magazine. The two main rooms each had a fireplace for cooking and heating, and one of the two windows. In the mens quarters was a stone staircase built into the thickness of the wall, which led up to the roof.




Martello Tower canon



On the roof, the gun was mounted, protected by a parapet over which it fired. The towers were sited quite close together so that they could provide a cross-fire against enemy ships attempting to land troops. It was said that, in Pevensey Bay, a ship out to sea could have come under fire from fifteen towers at once.


Even before the towers had been built, gun batteries had been built along stretches of coastline, and Eastbourne had two such batteries at Langney Point. Known as West and East Langney Forts, these batteries contained six cannon, and with the line of towers and the Redoubt, made Eastbourne a heavily defended area. East Langney Fort was later known as 'Langney Redoubt'. Both forts were washed away by the sea, the western fort disappearing long before the eastern one started to be washed away in about 1910. Remains of East Langney Fort can still sometimes be seen today.


As Napoleon never tried to invade, the towers were not used for their intended purpose. Many of them were later used as Coast Guard stations in the fight against smuggling, which was rife all along the coast. Many fights on the beaches took place between smugglers and Coast Guards, resulting in several deaths on both sides.


By 1860, the Martello Towers were old-fashioned, as modern guns, such as the rifled breech-loading guns invented by Sir William Armstrong, were too advanced for the towers to stand up against adequately. Many towers by this time had fallen into the sea, or been demolished for building materials. Some towers were destroyed in military tests, such as experiments with gun cotton and explosive. Tower 71, which was near the Redoubt, was bombarded for two days in 1860 by some of Armstrong's new guns, in order to test them. The tower was devastated, and what was left was demolished. Tower 49 at Bexhill was later shot at with the older smoothbore cannon, to see if the Armstrong guns really were better. The rifled Armstrongs were found to be much the better weapons.




Martello Tower destroyed in 1860 tests



The walls of each tower were 13 feet thick on the seaward side and narrowed to 6 foot thick at the rear. A total of half a million bricks was required for each 30 foot high tower which as many bricks as were required to complete the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral. Not one of these forts ever fired a shot in anger.


These towers were never tested which is a great tribute. The best defence is that which deters attack and certainly the French regarded these little 'bulldogs' as a formidable barrier. With hindsight it appears that all these defences were, essentially, pointless since Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in October 1805 - at the very moment the construction of the Martello Tower system was getting under way - made a French invasion of Britain a virtual impossibility.


After the destruction of his fleet at Trafalgar Napoleon went on to win, in December 1805, the vastly important victory at Austerlitz that confirmed the French as the military and political masters of Europe. A French fleet could be reconstructed and, as far as the British could see, it was just a matter of time before the French were again in a position to invade. It was not until 1812 when Napoleon and his allies were smashed in Russia that the invasion of Britain was clearly beyond the French - and in this year the construction of the chain of Martello towers ceased.

After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, there was little need for these towers in a  defensive role but many were used to house the newly formed Coastguards to assist in the blockade that was started against smuggling in this area. Many retired soldiers and sailors, no longer required for active service, were taken on as Coastguards, normally with a preference for those men who were not native to the area.  Today, all of the remaining 25 towers are classed as ancient monuments, many now being lived in or otherwise used.


If you want to know more about Martello Towers, then visit the website link: for a fuller history of every one of the 74 South Coast Martello 



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Photograph showing the Martello Tower at Langney Point near Eastbourne


Tower, number 66, at Langney Point, Eastbourne 



Planning & Construction 1804


The concept of a brick tower for coastal defence was a standard military engineer's solution which had already been widely used. Reynolds's proposed line of towers ran along the Kent coast, into Sussex and the low beaches of Pett Level and Pevensey Bay to Seaford, but actually extended past Seaford and westward as far as Littlehampton, involving something in the region of an extra forty towers. The threat of invasion from France receded as Napoleon invaded Egypt, and when he once again threatened to cross the Channel, the plan for towers along the coast resurfaced, this time submitted by Captain Ford.


Ford sent his plans to his superior, Brigadier-General Twiss, who was to play a major role in the Martello Tower story. Twiss was impressed by the scheme and was known to see the addition of towers as the solution to any defence work that needed to be bolstered. He passed the proposal on to his superiors, one of whom was General Sir David Dundas, whose guns had bombarded the Mortella Tower. The whole issue caused controversy throughout Parliament and the Armed Forces. The Royal Navy was very enthusiastic for the towers to be built, Admiral Jervis leading support. The Army was divided in its opinion.


The proposal reached the Secretary of State for War, who asked the Committee of Royal Engineers to give their opinion. The members of the Committe were Twiss, Lieutenant-General Robert Morse, the Inspector-General of Fortifications, and Colonel Abraham D'Aubant. The latter pair had inspected round towers on Guernsey sixteen years previously. They favoured towers, but not the square design, and so proceedings were delayed.


The delay might have been greater, but in 1804, William Pitt became Prime Minister. He became interested in coastal defence, possibly influenced by Colonel Sir John Moore, who had been present at the capture of the Mortella Tower. As a result, Twiss was sent to survey the coastline of south-east England from Beachy Head at Eastbourne, to Dover, to determine suitable sites for the towers. On completion of the second survey, September 3rd, 1804, Twiss wrote to Lt-General Morse from Dover:


"My first object was to apply the general Principles of Fortification which the Committee of Royal Engineers had approved to the Defence of this exposed Line of Coast, and it occurred to me that the simple Tower of about 29 feet diameter, arched over and having on its top, one heavy gun and two carronades, would apply throughout, by placing them within five or six hundred yards of each other in the most advantageous Landing Places, and extending their distances as circumstances might render admissible." 3

Twiss went on to describe the sites for fifty-eight towers which he proposed be built between Eastbourne and Folkestone. The area eventually spanned by the south coast Martello Towers is shown in the box on the map above.


Twiss's proposal was put before a conference at Rochester, Kent, on October 21, 1804, exactly one year before the Battle of Trafalgar which effectively negated the need for Martello Towers. The proposal that emerged from the conference planned to build eighty-three towers, two eleven-gun towers (known as 'redoubts') at Eastbourne and Rye, and a four-gun tower at Dymchurch, as well as the modernisation of one of Henry VIII's forts, Sandgate Castle at Shorncliffe. Pitt was convinced of the need for towers, much to the disgust of John Brown, whose own project, the Royal Military Canal, was overshadowed by the Martello issue at the conference. The towers were finally to be built.


The number and design details of the towers were altered many times, and the redoubt proposals revised. The towers were eventually designed to be circular and the armament was revised, due to the lack of space on the roof. This meant that the two carronades were not part of the final design, and a standard tower was armed with just the 24-pounder cannon, but Towers 1-9 and nine others in Sussex were also fitted with a 5-inch howitzer, to supplement the main armament.4 This extra piece of ordnance was first proposed to be fitted to twenty-six towers, then reduced to the nine Kent towers, but was later increased to eighteen. The purpose of the howitzer was for the defence of the tower should a hostile force be able to approach making use of 'dead ground' which could not be fired upon by the 24-pounder.


Other changes to the planned line of defence involved the Circular Redoubts. The redoubt at Rye was cancelled, and instead built at Dymchurch in place of the four-gun tower, and the number of cannon for the redoubts dropped to ten. Prime Minister Pitt later intervened and had the number of Martello Towers increased. Each tower was to be numbered, no.1 being in Folkestone and no.74 in Seaford.


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