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The Story of the Martello Towers

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It was the time when England became an armed camp, when men put aside their pens to take up the sword, when the chivalrous Sir Walter Scott trailed a pike, and every yeoman shouldered a pitchfork or a match-lock, that the famous Martello Towers rose by twos and threes along the south-east coast of England. Sir Walter, indeed, remembered the towers when he came to write the first chapter of "Peveril of the Peak" - "This feudal baron built his fortress in such a fashion as if he had intended it, as an Irishman said of the Martello Towers, for the sole purpose of puzzling posterity."

The visitor to Rye, or Pevensey Bay, or Eastbourne will see three or four of these reminders of the Napoleonic wars, which stood defensive of the English coast from Hythe to Seaford, in number about seventy, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A range of four can be seen from the pier at Eastbourne, one to the west under the shadow of Beachy Head-now known popularly as the " Wish Tower" and converted to a museum of sorts- and three along the coast which bends eastwards to Langney Point and Pevensey Bay.

But in 1806 or 1807 the number of towers between Hythe and Sea-ford was seventy-four. They were identified by numbers running from east to west; thus, the tower at Pevensey Bay was "No. 55"; from Eastbourne to Hastings stood a row of thirty-four in all, designed, for the most part, to hold nine men and to mount one gun. The end tower, at Seaford, was "No. 74," and this was designed to accommodate twenty-five men, the cost being 18,000.

As time passed some of the towers were undermined by the sea. Storms and high tides have changed the Sussex coast; from an historic survey of nearly a thousand years it will be found that the Hastings known to the Normans has disappeared under the waves, while "Old Winchelsea" was engulfed nearly six hundred years ago On the other hand shingle now lies deep where once the waves ran "inland" for miles within recorded time. Two or three of the towers have suffered demolition as the result of being made targets for gun practice; others have from time to time been broken up and used for building material.

One suffered destruction a few years after the War, and an Ordnance Map of 1925 marks the sites of eleven from and including the "Wish" at East bourne to Cooden Beach close to Bexhill.

The year 1806, or 1807, saw the completion of the last Martello, and it was in 1804 that Napoleon held that grand review at Boulogne of "The Army of England" upon the same heights where the mad Caligula had pranced nearly 1,800 years before. The ignorant and enthusiastic admirers of the Emperor had, with great confidence, expected him to lead his army across the Channel and return laden with the spoils of London.

It is easy, after the event, to wax satirical at the expense of Napoleon's pyrotechnics; easy to say that the Martello Towers were erected by a government anxious to meet a scare half way. That there was a popular scare is not to be questioned, but it was not shared by the better informed. In the "Farington Diary" we read: "Sep: 6, 1804. I met James Moore (brother of Sir John Moore) to-day. He told me General Sir James Craig told him a few days ago that it was reported the French had 1,200 gunboats at Boulogne, and might attempt to land 60,000 men in England, which, were they to do, the English force is so arranged that in 24 hours an army of soldiers consisting of 54,000 men. regulars and militia only, could be assembled in the County of Kent, and in addition as many volunteers; so that nothing is to be apprehended." Serious defensive measures had been planned as early as 1796. In July 1801, it must be remembered, Napoleon had assembled nine divisions of gunboats and 40,000 troops at Boulogne. But Nelson thought that there was little danger. "This boat business" (he wrote from the "Medusa") "may be part of a great plan of invasion, but can never be the only one; " and, referring to Augereau, who was in charge of the invading force at Ostend, "I hope to let him feel the bottom of the Goodwin Sands."

Then, in 1802, after the truce of Amiens, Napoleon revived the scheme. This time 150,000 men were to be transported, great basins were prepared in which a thousand gunboats could ride, 2,000 flat-bottomed transports were built, and above Boulogne was a camp for 130,000 men.

The English reply to this threat may be summarised from the Report of the Duke of York on coast defence, 1803. He planned for a defensive force of 139,000 men, allocating 55,000 to Kent and Sussex. He advised the strengthening of the coast defences and their extension by means of Martello Towers, the plan of which had been drawn up by Colonel Twiss and Captain Ford. Their advantages, he claimed, were, firstly, their cheapness - they would cost less than 3,000 each; secondly, that they would need but a small garrison in time of war, and none in time of peace; thirdly, the impossibility of taking them, save after a heavy artillery fire. They would afford mutual support, and their protective effect would be equivalent to that afforded by troops.

As to the origin of the Martello tower - or rather, of the name, for the round tower as a means of defence must be as old as history - it is generally assumed that the name was adopted after a naval action that took place off Cape Mortella, Corsica, during the earlier period of the French Revolutionary wars; one in which the "Fortitude" and the "Juno," after a bombardment of a tower on the cape, were obliged to haul off, the former vessel being on fire and having sixty-two men killed or wounded. The tower mounted one 6-pounder and two 18-pounders; and, in the end, had only lowered its flag when a red-hot shot had set fire to the interior.

But Lord Stanhope in his "Recollections," following a suggestion of Sir G. C. Lewis, derived them from Torre da Martello, towers with a hammer for striking a bell and so giving an alarm against pirates. ("Martelled," meaning "hammered," occurs in Spenser.) The towers were certainly common on the Italian coasts, and their device has been credited to Charles V (1500-1558). The Austrian Government thought sufficiently well of them to erect similar towers along the coast of the Adriatic and on the Danube; calling them, however, " Maximilian Towers."

On the coast of Kent and Sussex they were built close to the sea on exposed parts of the shingle 1,600 feet apart. They are built in two stages, the basement containing storerooms and magazines, the upper storey serving as a casemate for the defenders. Solid up to a certain height, the walls are from seven to eight feet thick; the armament was a single traversing gun. The entrance was a doorway twenty feet up, and the towers were in many cases moated. Begun in 1804, they were finished about two years later; for Parry, the Sussex historian, notes (in 1806) that "from some cause, no work has been done on the Martello Towers erecting on the South Coast since November." But in a valuable paper ("Permanent Coast Defences of England," 1886) by Mr. Walter H. Tregellas, of the Royal Engineers, we learn that "1806 did not see the end of the activity on the south coast; work was resumed on the Martello Towers, and the military camps formed at Beachy Head, at Southbourne (the old part of Eastbourne), Bexhill and Hastings were strengthened, Rye and Winchelsea were strongly held." From "History of Brighton and Environs," by Henry Martin, we learn that large camps were constructed on the hills round Brighton, and that the troops there, and in barracks in the town, sometimes numbered as many as 15,000.

Thus the Martello Towers were part of a huge scheme of defence which was begun in 1796. As for the details of the scheme more or less directly connected with the towers, we find, about 1796, Sir David Dun das, in conjunction with Sir Henry Calvert, formulating a plan, beginning with the country south of the Thames. The dangers of a landing at Bexhill or Pevensey are recognized, the flooding of Romney Marsh from the sea at Dymchurch advocated. The rising ground at Eastbourne is to be held in force and communications established with the centre behind Pevensey Castle and Bexhill and the left wing at Hastings. This division of force over fifteen miles of country was an arrangement which has not secured the admiration of modern critics. If and when driven from this extreme front, the defenders would rally at Wytch Cross or Ashdown Forest. West of Beachy Head, possible landings at Seaford or Littlehampton are debated. "To the west of Folkstone there are no defences except a battery at Shorncliffe, the weak Sandgate Castle, three temporary redoubts near Hythe, and an enclosed work of no strength at Dungeness. Rye Harbour is poorly protected, and there are no defences between it and Beachy Head, except batteries at Hastings and Langney Point." West of Beachy Head there were small works at Cuckmere Haven, Seaford, Newhaven, Rottingdean and "Brighthelm-stone" - the Brighton of to-day; with insignificant works at Littlehampton and Selsey Bill.

In 1803 Dumouriez comes on the scene - "the Monk of the French Revolution," as he has been called. His long and romantic career does not concern us here; but, as he had much to say about the defence of his adopted country, one or two points of interest relative to the foreshores of the South Coast should be mentioned. He notes the five rivers - the Pevensey Haven; the Cuckmere, between Eastbourne and Seaford; the Ouse, at Newhaven; the Adur at Shoreham, and the Arun at Littlehampton; and that the coast affords five points open to landing- Pevensey, Brighton, Shoreham, Arundel and Pag-ham; plans a camp on Mt. Caburn, arranges for sluices near Pevensey, recognizes the vulnerable section between Hythe and Rye. The construction of the Hythe canal was doubtless due to his foresight.

A quaint sidelight is thrown on his exertions when it is remembered that Dumouriez had (on behalf of "our sweet enemy") known and studied a project for a descent on the Rye and Romney coast in 1778. He strongly advocated batteries on the coastline where the water was shallow and the shore intersected by marshland and canals. On a coast such as Sussex, he says, there should be several batteries, "so as to keep up a continuous fire from several points." Dungeness was a danger-point; it could be embraced on two sides by a landing force whose right wing would descend on New Romney and whose left wing would descend on Rye. He does not specifically mention Martello Towers, but his scheme certainly included beach forts, supported by camps a mile or so inland. He assumed that no extensive coast defence, alone, was impregnable; preparations must be made to outflank, hamper and overwhelm an enemy who chanced to make a landing.

Finally, he made an extremely shrewd forecast of events when he wrote: "Very shortly Buonaparte will be only too glad, under the pretext of continental war, to break off his immense and puerile preparations for invasion, and march off all his troops to Germany and Italy."

The government of the day adopted the Martello-tower system, rightly or wrongly. Perhaps the best engines of war, like the best men, " are moulded out of faults," but as they never fired a shot-unless it was to test the range of the guns-speculation is more than usually futile. The Martello Towers stood, not idle, but inactive, and the people sang:

"When, O when, does this little Boney come?
P'r'aps he'll come in August, and p'r'aps he'll stay at home."

And if he did come, what then? There are popular songs enough to tell us what would happen; one old Sussex rhyme ran:

If Boneypart
Should have the heart
To land on Pemsey Level,
Then my three sons
With their three guns
Would blow him to the Devil.

We have Parry's view that the towers would be efficient, but that appears to have been founded upon no better authority than a rumour that the French had found a nickname for the towers equivalent to our "bulldogs." But in spite of the natural tendency for nations to belittle each other in time of war, there was probably some truth in Napoleon's complaint that his sailors felt seasick as soon as ever they boarded a ship. In any case, to rush troops over to the spot where William the Norman had landed was one thing, but to hold the seas was another.

We have some good evidence of the power of resistance of these towers to attack. In August 1860 an experiment was conducted at St. Anthony's Hill-just to the east of Eastbourne-when a battery of Armstrong guns was planted, and a test made of the effect of that ordnance by the method of an assault on "No. 71" of the towers, one which was rapidly being undermined by the ocean. The guns were a 100, an 80 and a 40-pounder, and the range 1,000 yards. The Duke of Cambridge, Sir J. Burgoyne, and Sir W. S. Armstrong were witnesses of the experiment. Excellent as the firing was, a great many rounds were necessary to force a breach in the walls of the tower. Once this was accomplished, percussion shells were thrown in with much effect; yet, after a vigorous assault extending over two days, the Martello remained standing "in reparable condition." It is recorded that the greatest penetration effected by a direct shot was 4 ft. 6 in.

A few years after the shadow of Napoleon had passed away from the Channel, William Cobbett- "Peter Porcupine" - goes riding through Kent and Surrey and Sussex. On his way to a farmers' meeting at Battle he passes through Rye and catches sight of the Martello Towers.

"I had baited my horse at New Romney," he says in "Rural Rides," "and was coming jogging along very soberly, now looking at the sea, then looking at the cattle, then at the corn, when my eye in swinging round lighted upon a great round building standing on the beach. I had scarcely time to think what it might be when twenty or thirty others standing along the coast caught my eye; and if anyone had been behind me he must have heard me exclaim in a voice to make my horse bound, 'The Martello Towers! O Lord!' To think that I should be destined to behold these monuments of the wisdom of Pitt and Perceval."

Later the towers used to house "preventative" officers, and, with fine irony, they were frequently receptacles for smuggled goods. When smuggling went out of fashion the Martellos became, in many instances, private dwelling houses, or they sheltered coastguard men.

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