Martello Towers, Kent & Suffolk

These strange, circular structures dotted along the coastal shores of southern and eastern Britain, have formed part of the landscape for nearly two centuries. Although a familiar sight, the history of these rather bland, solitary towers may not be widely known.

England has weathered the threat of invasion many times over the last millennia, but one of the most significant times was in the early 19th century. Napoleon Bonaparte, having rampaged across Europe in the name of France, had set his sights firmly on Britain. Reacting to this very real threat, the British government set about urgently improving defences along what it considered to be the most vulnerable stretches of coastline.

Some years earlier, the British Navy had suffered heavy damage to two ships off the coast of Corsica. A solitary gun tower at Mortella Point (hence the name Martello Towers) had inflicted this damage, and the significance of this action was brought to the attention of several leading military men. A prominent engineer at that time, Captain William Ford, put forward the proposal to create a chain of similar towers, spread at regular intervals along the coast. If one tower could repel two heavily armed British ships, then a strategically placed series would surely have a devastating effect on any invading fleet.

Plans were approved for work to commence on the South Coast Martello Towers in 1805, under the direction of William Hobson. This programme continued until 1808, by which time some 73 Martello Towers had been erected from Eastbourne to Dover, supplemented by two Redoubt Forts located at Eastbourne and Dymchurch. Further work was put in hand to erect a chain of East Coast Martello Towers running from Brightlingsea to Aldburgh. Slightly larger than their southern counterparts, these Martello Towers maintained the same basic design with the exception of the final tower at Aldburgh, which was quatrefoil in design and built some distance from its neighbour. A later Martello Tower was also constructed near Newhaven on the South Coast, in an attempt to protect the harbour. For ease of identification, the Martello Towers on the South Coast were numbered 1 - 74 (east to west), while the Martello Towers on the East Coast were labelled A - CC (south to north). By 1812 all work had been completed, and England stood ready for an invasion that, in the event, never materialised as the threat was finally extinguished with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

Despite differing in size, all the Martello Towers followed a standard plan. Built of brick, bonded with lime mortar for additional strength, they were each in excess of 30ft (10m) high, and consisted of three floors. The outer surfaces were stuccoed to give a smooth finish, and each Martello Tower was roughly circular in shape, tapering towards the top. This arrangement was a specific design feature to help deflect canon shot. For extra protection, the seaward facing walls were constructed to double the thickness of the landward facing walls. The ground floor level of Martello Towers, which could only be accessed from the floor above, was used for storage of food, munitions, and gunpowder.

Reached by a portable ladder that could be hauled inside the Martello Tower, the first floor provided accommodation for a garrison of 24 men and a commanding officer. At the top level there was a platform for a single 2.5 ton cannon, capable of delivering a 24lb shell over one mile in distance. This cannon was mounted on a central swivel, allowing it to be fired in any direction and resulting in a devastating crossfire between each Martello Tower and its neighbour. Twenty-one of Martello Towers were surrounded by a dry moat, in this instance access to the first floor was by a retractable drawbridge in place of the ladder.

Once the threat of invasion had subsided, garrisons were stood down and the Martello Towers were employed in other ways, most notably in the fight against smuggling. During the 1850s and 1940s the Martello Towers were again readied for possible invasions that thankfully never arrived.

Today some 43 of the original 103 Martello Towers survive, the condition of each varying enormously. Some, like tower 28 near Rye, are now overgrown romantic ruins, some have been converted into private dwellings and others, like tower 24 at Dymchurch (pictured), have been fully restored and opened to the public. Inhabitants of the south-east either love them or hate them, but for the many people who have an interest in Britain's military history, these Martello Towers can give a different dimension to a simple stroll along the beach.


Royal Military Canal
Also in the area...
MilitaryRoyal Military Canal
read more about this location
The London Pass – find out more here