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The History of Kent

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Martello Towers

Martello towers are small defensive forts built in several countries of the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards.
They stand up to 40 feet (12m) high, with two floors, and typically had a garrison of one officer and 15-25 men. Their round structure and thick walls of solid masonry made them resistant to cannon fire, while their height made them an ideal platform for a single heavy artillery piece, mounted on the flat roof and able to traverse a 360 degree arc. A few towers had moats for extra defence. The Martello towers were used during the first half of the 19th century, but became obsolete with the introduction of powerful rifled artillery. Many have survived to the present day, often preserved as historic monuments.

Martello towers were inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genovese defence system, at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica. The designer was Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino (el Fratin), and the tower was completed in 1565.
Since the 15th century, the Corsicans had built similar towers at strategic points around the island to protect coastal villages and shipping from North African pirates. The towers stood one or two storeys high and measured 12-15 m in diameter, with a single doorway 5 m off the ground that one could access only via a ladder which the occupants could remove. Local villagers paid for the towers and watchmen, known as torregiani, who would signal the approach of unexpected ships by lighting a beacon fire on the tower's roof. The fire would alert the local defence forces to the threat. Although the pirate threat subsequently dwindled, the Genovese built a newer generation of circular towers that warded off later foreign invasions.

On 7 February 1794, two British warships, HMS Fortitude (74 guns) and HMS Juno (32 guns), unsuccessfully attacked the tower at Mortella Point. The tower eventually fell to land forces, under Sir John Moore, after two days of heavy fighting. What helped the British was that the tower's two eighteen pounders fired sea-ward, while only the one six pounder could fire land-ward.
Vice-Admiral Lord Hood reported:

'...The Fortitude and Juno were ordered against it, without making the least impression by a continued cannonade of two hours and a half; and the former ship being very much damaged by red-hot shot, both hauled off. The walls of the Tower were of a prodigious thickness, and the parapet, where there were two eighteen-pounders, was lined with bass junk, five feet from the walls, and filled up with sand; and although it was cannonaded from the Height for two days, within 150 yards, and appeared in a very shattered state, the enemy still held out; but a few hot shot setting fire to the bass, made them call for quarter. The number of men in the Tower were 33; only two were wounded, and those mortally.'

Late in the previous year, the tower's French defenders had abandoned it after HMS Lowestoffe (32 guns) had fired two broadsides at it. Then the French were easily able to dislodge the garrison of Corsican patriots that had replaced them. Still, the British were impressed by the effectiveness of the tower when properly supplied and defended, and copied the design. However, they got the name wrong, misspelling 'Mortella' as 'Martello'. When the British withdrew from Corsica in 1803, with great difficulty they blew up the tower, leaving it in an unusable state.

The interior of a classic British Martello tower consisted of three storeys, sometimes with an additional basement. The ground floor served as the magazine and storerooms, where ammunition, stores and provisions were kept. The garrison of 24 men and one officer lived in a casemate on the first floor, which was divided into several rooms and had fireplaces built into the walls for cooking and heating. The officer and men lived in separate rooms of almost equal size. The roof or terreplein was surmounted with one or two cannon on a central pivot that enabled the guns to rotate up to 360 degrees. A well or cistern within the fort supplied the garrison with water. An internal drainage system linked to the roof enabled rainwater to refill the cistern. During the first half of the 19th century, the British government embarked on a large-scale programme of building Martello towers to guard the British and Irish coastlines. Around 140 were built, mostly along the south coast of England. Governments in Australia, Canada, Minorca, South Africa and Sri Lanka also constructed towers. The construction of Martello towers abroad continued until as late as the 1870s but was discontinued after it became clear that they could not withstand the new generation of rifled artillery weapons.

The French built similar towers along their own coastline that they used as platforms for communication by optical telegraphs. The United States government also built a number of Martello towers along the east coast of the US that copied the British design with some modifications.

Great Britain and Ireland were united as a single political entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from 1801 to 1922, spanning the time during which the Martello towers were erected (the initial scheme started under the previous entities of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland). Consequently the Martello towers of Great Britain and Ireland can be considered to have been part of a single defensive system, designed to protect the coastlines of the two main islands of the British Isles as a whole. This is most clearly visible on the south and east coasts of England, and the east coast of Ireland, where chains of Martello towers were built. Elsewhere in the world, individual Martello towers were erected to provide point defence of strategic locations.

Between 1804 and 1812 the British authorities built a chain of towers based on the original Mortella tower to defend the south and east coast of England, Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey to guard against possible invasion from France, then under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon. A total of 103 towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Seaford, Sussex, to Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Most were constructed under the direction of General William Twiss (1745-1827) and a Captain Ford. Included in the scheme were three much larger circular forts or redoubts that were constructed at Harwich, Dymchurch and Eastbourne; they acted as supply depots for the smaller towers as well as being powerful fortifications in their own right.

The effectiveness of Britain's Martello towers was never actually tested in combat against a Napoleonic invasion fleet. They were, however, effective in hindering smuggling. After the threat had passed, the Martello towers in England met a variety of fates. The Coastguard took over many to aid in the fight against smuggling. Fifteen were demolished to enable the re-use of their masonry. The sea washed thirty away and the military destroyed four in experiments to test the effectiveness of the new rifled artillery. During the Second World War, some Martello towers returned to military service as observation platforms and firing platforms for anti-aircraft artillery.

Forty-seven towers survived in England, a few of which have been restored and transformed into museums, visitor centres, and galleries, some are privately owned or used as private residences; the remainder are derelict. A survey of the East Coast towers, in 2007, found that the remaining 17 were in a reasonable condition.


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