KEVIN GORDON - British bulldogs kept French at bay

One of the many Martello Towers built to deter the French
One of the many Martello Towers built to deter the French

I recently had the opportunity to take a tour around Martello Tower 73 – the Wish Tower in Eastbourne.

As I am a steward at Seaford Museum in Tower 74, it was fascinating to see an ‘empty’ Martello Tower. My thanks to the Friends of the Wish Tower for allowing me access.

On my tour of the Wish Tower in Eastbourne

On my tour of the Wish Tower in Eastbourne

Today Tower 73 is empty, as are most of the towers. However some, like tower 60 and 61 in Pevensey Bay, have been converted into dwellings.

The Wish Tower is similar, but not the same, as the other towers built around the south east coast in the early 19th century to counter the anticipated invasion by Napoleon.

On December 9, 1803, William Windham MP (who was later to be Secretary of War and the Colonies) spoke in the House of Commons about the need to protect the coast by towers “a species of edifice so called from a memorial instance of one at Martello in Corsica”.

He said that a 74-gun ship had attempted to take one of these towers and, despite there only being one gun on the roof of the tower, the ship had failed to destroy it and had lost 100 men in the process. He estimated that each tower would cost £1,000. The press seemed to agree and the following week the Morning Chronicle said that “Martello Towers are much better calculated for defence of the coast than low batteries along the shore”.

In fact, the towers cost over £3,000 each to build. Not everyone was so supportive. The author William Cobbett (always quick to criticise the Government) said that the towers were ridiculous piles of brick which were just monuments to William Pitt the Prime Minister. He estimated their cost to be closer to £10,000 each.

Initially, the towers were built on the Kent coast, but here in Sussex there was also concern of invasion. In April 1805, one newspaper reported: “The only part of the coast which the Government was apprehensive that the French may make a successful landing upon is called Pevensea Level. It is situated nearly opposite Boulogne and unprotected by any batteries.

“The Government has therefore come to the resolution of building all along the beach in this quarter, a sufficient number of Martello Towers for its security.”

A few weeks earlier the Sussex Weekly Advertiser had run an advertisement for bricklayers to build coastal fortifications along the Sussex coast.

They were to be paid six shillings for every 1,000 bricks laid.

About half a million bricks were needed for each tower, most of them (the yellowy bricks) were shipped down from London. The local bricks were red and were apparently of inferior quality. The mortar was of ‘hot lime’ which dried to form an immensely hard bond. It would need a siege cannon to breach the towers and it was unlikely the French would ever get one on board one of their ships.

On October 21, 1805, the Royal Navy trounced Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar but the threat of invasion continued and it was decided the last of the series of towers should be constructed in Seaford.

On June 7, 1806, Major General William Twiss of the Royal Engineers visited Seaford and decided that three more towers were needed in the bay, not only to protect against invasion but to guard nearby Newhaven Harbour.

Twiss had been responsible for the other towers and had also constructed the Royal Military Canal between Rye and Hythe as well as defensive projects in Gibraltar, Canada and Ireland. Martello Tower 74 in Seaford was the last to be built and was the most costly – probably about £18,000.

In 1880, when Joseph Hubard died in Seaford, aged 99 years, it was noted that he was one of the bricklayers who built Seaford Martello Tower.

Each of the towers had a garrison of about 24 men drawn from Royal Engineers and local volunteers. It is clear that some towers had families as parish registers show that two babies were born inside the Wish Tower at Eastbourne.

The French called the towers ‘British Bulldogs’ and they were never attacked. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 the threat from France wained but the towers continued to be manned and see service particularly by the Excisemen keeping a wary eye out for smugglers. In 1828, smugglers captured by the customs ship HMS Hyperion were confined at the Seaford Martello Tower.

In 1846, the gun on the roof of the Seaford tower was replaced and it is known that the tower was still manned in 1864.

The Eastbourne Tower has now been empty for many years but still has the feel of a military fort, although it is damp, dark and in places unsafe. Its future is uncertain but the Friends of the Wish Tower are planning events to raise funds to help maintain the structure.

If you want to see the inside of a Martello Tower, probably the best place is Seaford Museum, which will be open this weekend from 2pm to 4pm tomorrow and from 11am to 4pm on Sunday.

After retirement the now General William Twiss, the main architect of the Martello Towers, lived in Myrtle Grove, Bingley, Yorkshire. I wonder if he knew that the word Martello was a mistranslation of ‘Mortella’ a Corsican-French word meaning Myrtle?