Martello Towers, sometimes known simply as Martellos, are small defensive forts that were built across the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Many were built along the Kent coast to defend Britain against the French in the early 1800s, then under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon.
Martello Towers were solid, low and circular, massively built of stone or brick with guns mounted on a flat roof. Their purpose was to provide concentrated fire on ships at sea to repel an enemy landing, and they were capable of withstanding a siege of considerable duration.
A total of 103 Martello towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Aldeburgh in Suffolk, around Kent to Seaford in Sussex.
It was summer 1803 when a Captain William Ford and local General Sir John Moore proposed a scheme of small towers as a defence against Napoleon. This was not the first kind of tower used as a fortification. Towers were already being built around the Mediterranean to combat piracy and protect naval positions. Ford got his idea from a French structure tower (see picture right) on the Isle of Corsica, ironically the birth place of Napoleon. The tower was situated at Mortella Point in the Bay of Fiorenzo. It was armed with one six pounder and two eighteen pounders.
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-based forces under Sir John Moore after two days of heavy fighting. What helped the British was that the tower's two 18-pounder guns fired seaward, while only the one 6-pounder could fire land-ward.
Mortella Tower Corsica 1794
General Moore was involved in this campaign in Corsica and had been impressed by the defensive capabilities of the Mortello Tower, particularly the stout resistance the tower had offered to the British land and sea forces.
Captain Ford's and General Moore's plan was approved in 1804 and William Pitt, who was Prime Minister at the time, laid down plans for the towers. Towers were built from Folkestone to Seaford in East Sussex. Between 1805 and 1812 seventy four towers were built in all, six of these in Dymchurch and two in St Mary's Bay on the Marsh. See map right below
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 towers were about 40 feet (12m) high with walls about 8 feet (2.5m) thick. Entry was by ladder to a door about 10 feet (3m) from the base above which was a machicolated (slotted) platform which allowed for downward fire on attackers.
Martello Tower No. 24 in Dymchurch Today
The flat roof, which was the tower's gun platform,was covered with lead and surrounded by a solid parapet usually 6ft high and at least 6ft thick. The was a raised platform in the centre with a pivot for a 360 degrees traversing gun or cannon, with the gun being turned by the use of ropes and pulleys. The walls had narrow slits for defensive musket fire.
The walls were made of bricks set in a mixture of lime, ash and hot tallow, which gave them extrordinary strength, with cannonballs bouncing off the walls
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.
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.
Diagram of a Martello Tower
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 towers 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 Martello towers have survived in England, a few of which have been restored and transformed into museums (e.g., the tower at St Osyth), visitor centres, and galleries (such as Jaywick Martello Tower). Some are privately owned or are private residences; the remainder are derelict.
Diagram of Martello Towers, and Redoubt, still standing
Martello Towers on Romney Marsh
Given that the coast of the Marsh was only some 22 miles from the coast of France across the English Channel, it was one of the areas that was most at risk from invasion by Napoleon's forces.
Along its coastline from south of Hythe to St Mary's Bay, there were nine Martello Towers and one Redoubt. Towers Nos. 19, 20, 21, 22, 26 and 27 have since been demolished, but three of the towers and the redoubt remain in Dymchurch.
Martello Tower No 22 was located about 2 miles to the north of Dymchurch village but was demolished in 1956 when the A259 was widened.
Martello Tower No. 23 in Dymchurch (Ack. 32)
Martello Tower No 23 is located on the A259 Hythe Road, just north of Dymchurch. It is now a grade II listed building and has been converted for use as a private residence.
This tower together with Tower 24 had an additional role in guarding the main Marshland Sluice at Dymchurch.
Video of Martello Tower No. 23
Martello Tower No 24 is located between Dymchurch High Street and the beach. It has been fully restored and re-equipped with its 24 pounder cannon. Now an Ancient Scheduled Monument managed by English Heritage, it is open to the public by prior appointment.
Find out more on our Martello Tower No. 24 page.
Martello Tower No 25 is located in the Dymchurch Martello car park just as you enter Dymchurch on the A259 from New Romney. The outside of the tower, incluing the roof, has been restored. It is currently unused and closed up.
24 Pounder Cannon on Martello Tower No.24
Martello Towers Nos 26 and 27 were the first brick-built structures to appear on the St. Mary's Bay shoreline. Tower 26 was built on the eastern side of the Gobsden Gut (now Cobsden Sewer), an outfall which ran into the sea near the present Dunstall Lane. Tower No. 27 was built approximately a quarter of a mile to the west.
Neither tower stands today. Damaged by sea erosion, No. 27 was demolished in 1841 and No. 26 lasted until 1871. The site of Tower 26 was on what is now the sea wall next to the car park opposite Dunstall Lane, roughly in front of where the toilet block now stands.
Dymchurch Redoubt was built between 1804 and 1812 to support the chain of Martello Towers that stretched between Hythe in Kent and Rye in Sussex, and to act as a supply depot for them.
More about Dymchurch Redoubt
Martello Tower No. 25 In Dymchurch
Officers and soldier of the time from the 16th Foot Re-enactment Group
Impression of Martello Towers No. 26 and 27 in St Mary's Bay