Martello Tower

Fully restored Martello Tower (No.7) in Killiney Bay, Co. Dublin, Ireland.

The British were never shy about adapting foreign military designs. The Martello towers were a copy of the round fortress at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica, designed by Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino and completed in 1565.

The Corsicans had previously built similar towers at strategic points to protect themselves from pirates. They were two storeys high and measured 12–15m (36–45ft) in diameter, with a single doorway 5m off the ground accessible only by a removable ladder. Watchmen, employed by local villagers, would signal the approach of suspected threats by lighting a rooftop beacon which would alert the local defence forces to the threat.

On 7 February 1794, the British warships HMS Fortitude and HMS Juno unsuccessfully attacked the Mortello tower and were repelled. Only heavy fighting by land troops took the town below the tower. 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, 5ft from the walls, and filled up with sand; and although it was cannonaded from the Height for two days, within 150yds, 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.

The British were hugely impressed by the tower’s effectiveness and copied the design, misspelling the name. When the British withdrew from Corsica in 1803, with great difficulty they blew up the tower.

The classic British Martello tower, built to repel a Napoleonic invasion, consisted of three storeys above a basement. The ground floor held the magazine and storerooms, the first floor housed 24 men and one officer, and had fireplaces built into the walls for cooking and heating. The flat roof was surmounted with one or two cannon on a central pivot that enabled the guns to rotate 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.

Around 140 were initially built, mostly along England’s south coast. Great Britain and Ireland, united as a single political entity in 1801 to 1922, used Martellos as a defensive screen covering both main islands. Chains of Martello towers were built.

Between 1804 and 1812 the British authorities built 103 in England, at regular intervals from Seaford in Sussex to Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Most were constructed under the direction of General William Twiss (1745–1827) and a Captain Ford. There were also three much larger circular forts or redoubts that were constructed at Harwich, Dymchurch and Eastbourne which acted as supply depots for the smaller towers as well as being powerful fortifications in their own right. None were tested in combat against Napoleon’s forces, but they were effective in combating smuggling.

After the threat had passed, of the Martello towers in England, 15 were demolished for raw materials, 30 were washed away by the sea, and four were reduced to rubble as part of an exercise to test the power of new artillery. During the Second World War many were used as observation posts and as anti-aircraft gun platforms. Of the remaining 47, some have become museums and galleries, others distinctive private homes, while a few are derelict.

Three Martello towers were built in Scotland, two at Hackness and Crockness the Orkney Islands, between 1813 and 1815 to guard against the threat of French and American raiders attacking convoys assembling offshore. A third Scottish tower was built on offshore rocks facing the Firth of Forth in 1807–09 to defend Leith Harbour.

A small number of Martello towers were also built in Wales but few survived. The most notable exceptions are in Pembrokeshire Dock.

Around 50 martellos were built around the Irish coastline, from Drogheda, to Bray on the easy coast, around Dublin Bay and around Cork Harbour. The most famous, but for non-martial reasons, is that along the coast from Dublin at Sandycove. James Joyce lived there for a few days with the surgeon, politician and writer Oliver St John Gogarty. In Ulysses, Joyce’s fictional character Stephen Dedalus lives in the tower with a medical student, Malachi ‘Buck’ Mulligan. During the 1980s, the rock star Bono owned the Martello in Bray, County Wicklow.

Martellos were built across the Channel Islands. Three, built in 1804, are in Guernsey: Forts Grey, Hommet and Saumarez. The oval Brehon Tower, built in 1856, represents the final evolution of the Martello tower.

Eight were built in Jersey, three between 1808 and 1810 and five between 1834 and 1837, one of which, L’Etacq, the German occupation forces destroyed during the Second World War. The three original towers are the Tower, Portelet, and la Tour de Vinde. The four surviving, later towers are Lewis’s and Kempt, both in St Ouen, Victoria and La Collette. In addition, there are the Jersey Round Towers and the Guernsey loophole towers, often called Martellos, built in the late eighteenth century as precursors.

Martellos were copied across the globe until the 1870s, although by then it had long been clear that they could not withstand the new generation of rifled artillery.

The French themselves built similar towers along their own coastline as platforms for optical telegraphs. The United States and the Dutch also built a number. But the greatest number remained British-built, protecting her swiftly expanding empire.

During the British occupation (1798–1802) of Minorca, Governor Sir Charles Stuart ordered Engineer Captain Robert D′Arcy to build 12 Martello towers along the coast. These, when added to the three Spanish towers already in place, gave Minorca 15 towers. One tower, the Princess Tower, or the Erskine Tower, was incorporated into the Fortress of Isabelli, built between 1850 and 1875. The tower was converted to a powder magazine, but when lightning struck, the subsequent explosion destroyed it.

In Minorca the British erected Stuart’s Tower in 1798 on Hangman’s Hill at San Estaban or Saint Stephen’s Bay. In 1756 and again in 1781, batteries on the hill had supported successful attacks on the Fortress. The tower was built both to secure the hill and protect the entrance to the bay. To protect the harbour of Fornells, a tower was built on the rocky headland overlooking the harbour’s mouth, and a small tower on the island of Sargantana. Finally. Another was built at Santandria to protect the old capital of Ciudadela.

During the British ‘Protectorate’ of Sicily after the escape of the Bourbons from Naples, Sicily began to build towers to resist an invasion by Napoleon’s armies. The new higher rate of fire of ships’ guns led to the choice of the Martello tower as the model. The Sicilian Martello towers were built around 1810. One was the Magnisi tower at Syracuse, later used by the Italian Navy as an observation post during the Second World War.

On Bermuda, Martellos were built behind Ferry Island fort and at Ferry Reach. The latter was built of Bermuda limestone from 1822–1823, with walls up to 11ft thick and surrounded by a dry moat. Its role was to impede any attack on St George’s Island from the main island of Bermuda. Two more Martello towers were planned, but never built, to protect the dockyard.

On Jamaica the Spanish slave agent had in 1709 built a fort in Harbour View, to guard his home against attack. The later English Governor, George Nugent, later strengthened the fort to guard the eastern entrance of the city of Kingston Harbour. Fort Nugent was built between 1808 and 1811 at a cost of some £12,000.

Fourteen Martellos were built in Canada, nine of which remain. The Canadian Martellos were fitted with removable cone-shaped roofs to protect against snow. Halifax, Nova Scotia, had five. The oldest, the Prince of Wales tower in Point Pleasant Park, is also the oldest of that style in North America. Built in 1796, it was used as a redoubt and a powder magazine. Quebec originally had four Martellos. Tower No. 1 is on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the St Lawrence River, scene of Wolfe’s earlier victory. Four more were built at Kingston, Ontario, to defend its harbour and naval shipyards. Fort Frederick was constructed with elaborate defences, including earthen ramparts and a limestone curtain wall. The Shoal tower is the only one completely surrounded by water.

In April 2006 that the Canadian military named a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan FOB Martello.

The British built five Martello towers in Mauritius between 1832 and 1835 at Grand River North West, Black River and Port Louis, of which three survive.

A Martello was built at Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1805 to defend the port from attacks by the warlike Temne tribe, one of the two dominant ethnic groups there. It was significantly modified in 1870 when it was truncated to allow the installation of a water tank to supply Government House (Fort Thornton) with water. The tower is now part of the Parliament Buildings.

The British built three Martello towers in South Africa, one at Simon’s Town naval base, one at Cape Town, and one at Fort Beauford. The Cape Town tower was demolished over a century ago, but that at Simon’s Town, built in 1795, lays claim to being the oldest Martello in the world. That is arguable, because it is not a ‘classic’ Martello.

A Martello tower on St Helena, Napoleon’s last home in exile, was incorporated into High Knoll fort.

One Martello was built in Sri Lanka, at Hambantota on the south coast. There is purely circumstantial evidence that it repelled a French attack. British engineers commenced work on three towers to protect Trincomalee but never completed them.

The last Martello tower built in the British Empire is part of the larger Fort Denison, built on small Pinchgut Island in Sydney Harbour, New South Wales. Fortification of the island began in 1841 following a night-time incursion into the harbour by two American warships, but were not completed. Construction resumed in 1855 to provide Sydney with protection against the threat of a naval attack by the Russian navy during the Crimean War. It was not completed until 1857, well after the war had ended.

The tidal wave which followed the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 damaged the Martello tower of Menara that the Dutch East India Company had built in 1850 on Bidadari Island (Pulau Bidadari), a former leper colony, as part of a set of fortifications that protected the approaches to Batavia.

The US government built several Martello towers along the eastern seaboard, two at Key West, and others protecting the harbours of Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Charleston, South Carolina; and New York. Two more sprang up at Tybee Island, Georgia, and Bayou Dupre, Louisiana.

The Americans copied the design from the Canadian Martellos, but there were significant differences. Those on Key West were square instead of round and had thin walls with long gun loops. They were encircled by a curtain wall of heavy guns, making them, effectively, keeps instead of stand-alone towers. The Tybee Island tower built around 1815 was made mainly of wood rather than stone, with gun loops cut into the garrison deck.

Like most Martellos across the world, they were never directly tested in battle.


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