KEVIN GORDON - Picking fights with our neighbours

Martello tower and Seaford seafront - Kevin Gordon 08-03-13
Martello tower and Seaford seafront - Kevin Gordon 08-03-13

If you search Google for “Anglo-French War” you come up with a list of 22 wars to choose from, starting in 1202 and ending with the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

Admittedly many of these are parts of other conflicts, but it seems that the 20th century was the first century since the reign of bad old King John that we have not been at war with our close neighbours.

In 1793 French Revolutionaries popped the head of King Louis XVI under the guillotine and a few days later they declared war on Spain, Portugal, Holland and Great Britain.

Later on in the year, a Corsican general asked the Royal Navy to help remove some revolutionaries from the north of the island. HMS Lowestoft obliged by quickly taking a round defensive tower at Mortella Point near the town of San Florenzo.

Unfortunately, a few months later, the revolutionaries were back and this time it was the turn of HMS Fortitude (74 guns) and HMS Juno (32 guns). This time the French put up a fight and the ships were damaged, with six sailors killed and more than 60 injured. Marines had to land four artillery pieces to fire at the tower from the rear and even then it took two days for the occupants to surrender.

The Navy were impressed with how this round tower, with thick defensive walls had stood up to a sustained attack. Plans and drawings were made and a Captain Packenham of the Royal Artillery even made a wooden model. Happy that they now had the measure of the place they blew the tower to pieces.

In 1795, the Royal Navy thought they would have a go at making a similar tower to defend their base at Simon’s Town in South Africa.

It should have been called a “Mortella” tower but the name got transmogrified and it became the first “Martello” Tower. Meanwhile back in England, Yorkshireman General William Twiss (1745-1827), another member of the Royal Engineers, was tasked with protecting the south-east coast from French attack.

He strengthened defences at Dover Castle, built the Royal Military Canal across the Romney Marshes and had Martello Towers built – 74 around Kent and Sussex with others built along the Suffolk and Essex Coasts.

Other Martello Towers were built too; in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands, Spain, USA, West Indies, Canada and Sri Lanka.

The last one was built in Australia as late as 1841.

Most of the Sussex Martello Towers were built from 1805 and on February 18, that year the Sussex Weekly Advertiser ran an advert for bricklayers to build them, at a rate of 6 shillings per 1,000 bricks laid (plus food and accommodation).

Each of the towers was surmounted by a cannon. It is often said that these towers never saw action but I would dispute this. Although there was no full scale invasion attempt, French Privateers (official enemy pirate ships) and later smuggling ships were often fired on by men in the towers.

Historically, Sussex has tended to have had two enemies, the French and the sea and it was the latter that caused the demise of most of the local towers. Shifting tides and a rise in the sea levels caused most of the towers along our coast to crumble into the waves.

There are of course several exceptions and several of the surviving ones have been turned into residences. But there is one tower in Sussex that you can still visit; the most westerly one, Tower 74 at Seaford.

This is now a wonderful museum containing a vast eclectic display of local, maritime, military, domestic and local history. (According to the Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry it is one of the best museums in the world!)

Next weekend (March 16) the museum will be open for free between 11am and 4pm due to the opening of a special exhibition about the shoreline of Seaford Bay. Seaford Museum are actively seeking assistance to help maintain and keep the building open to the public. Between 10am and noon tomorrow, there will be a coffee morning for potential volunteers. You can pop along and meet committee and other helpers. For details call the museum on 01323 898222.

Information leaflets are available from the local Tourist Information Bureaux. There is even one in French!