Inside Suffolk's mysterious Martello Towers
- Credit: Sue Walker
The squat, solid brick mini fortresses dotted along the Suffolk coast are an enduring curiosity for visitors and locals alike. Some of them are abandoned. Some have been converted into wonderfully remote homes (with no neighbours within shouting distance).
Some have been made into quirky places to spend a relaxing weekend away from it all, as comedian and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig discovered when she stayed in one at Bawdsey for the BBC's Extraordinary Escapes series. But what are they?
They are Martello Towers and they’re part of a long-standing legacy of our coastal defences. Standing up to 12 metres high and with walls up to four metres thick, Suffolk’s Martellos were built to repel a possible invasion by Napoleon and his armies in the early 19th century.
Originally 103 towers were built along the south-east coast of England between 1805 and 1812, each equipped with a cannon on the roof. Suffolk had 18, Essex had 11, strung out between St Osyth in the south and Aldeburgh in the north. Seventy-four were built along the Kent and Sussex coastlines from Folkstone to Seaford. There are 45 remaining, 11 in Suffolk.
What is a Martello?
Martello towers were inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genoese defence system at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica, designed by Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino and completed in 1565.
From the 15th century, the Corsicans 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 up 15 metres across, with a single doorway five metres off the ground accessible only by a ladder which could be pulled up.
It was this design that inspired military engineer Captain William Henry Ford, and his friend and colleague William Twiss, to come up with a version for England’s towers more than two centuries later.
Life in a typical Martello
Martellos typically had three levels - the fighting platform on the roof, the first floor where the garrison lived and the basement used for storage of ammunition and supplies. The only access to the tower was through the first-floor doorway, placed there for defensive reasons, using a ladder which would have been taken up as necessary and stored within the tower.
Inside the entrance was a vestibule with a trap-door to the basement. Stores were hauled up from below by rope. To the left of the entrance was a small store room and beyond it a room used by the officer in charge of the Martello. This had its own window and fireplace. There were circular vents above the window leading up to the parapet designed to dissipate musket smoke in times of siege.
The rest of the space on this floor was allocated to the 24-man garrison - one room with a window and fireplace. A staircase within the thickness of the wall provided access to the roof. The total floor area allocated to the 24 men was only marginally greater than that given to their commanding officer.
The basement was accessed via a steep staircase below the trapdoor. It was here that garrison provisions - water, salt beef, butter, cheese, bread and other foods, plus coal for fires - and ammunition were stored.
On one side, partly recessed into the thickness of the outer wall and with its own brick vault, was the gunpowder magazine. To keep the powder dry in the damp coastal air, the walls were built double-skinned with narrow ventilation slits. Cannon balls were stored in the main area of the basement.
While the basement had some provision for drainage via sumps created beneath the timber floors there were no permanent latrines in the towers. In times of siege, temporary facilities would have been organised in the basement.
Up on the roof
The gun platform on the roof was reached by the stairs from the first floor. The main armament of a Martello Tower was normally a 24-pounder, smooth-bore muzzle-loading gun mounted on a carriage capable of traversing 360°. A few towers had 32-pounder cannons. Both were used by the Army and on Royal Navy ships of the time.
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The cannon weighed about 2.5 tons and had a range of about a mile at 5 degrees elevation which could have caused enormous damage to invasion craft as they approached the shore, and even worse to troops who reached the beach. A single shot could kill 40 men at a range of 550 to 730 metres.
At closer range, the Martello gunners fired case-shot, either `heavy' (84 6oz balls contained in a thin metal canister) or ‘light’ (232 2oz balls). When fired, the canisters burst, spraying a deadly hail of bullets. A single round of heavy case-shot was almost as lethal as a volley of musket-shot from an infantry company of 100 men, and an efficient crew would be expected to maintain a firing-rate of three canisters a minute. Napoleon wouldn’t have got very far up the beach.
England’s Martello Towers are identified alphabetically and numerically, starting with Martello L at Shotley Point in the south and ending with Martello CC in Aldeburgh.
Martello Tower L and Martello Tower M at Shotley Point are within the now closed HMS Ganges training establishment, and both have been surmounted by water tanks and, in the case of L, a radar arm. Towers L and M are both associated with the defence of the Shotley peninsula. There were two associated batteries and the area was re-fortified in the 1860s. In the 20th century the site had many training buildings constructed for the Royal Navy.
Between 1805 and 1812 eight Martello Towers were built on the Felixstowe Peninsula. Four can still be seen along Felixstowe’s coastline today. A fifth Tower 'R' is incorporated into the fabric of the former Bartlett Hospital, which has been converted into stylish apartments and townhouses.
Recently restored Tower 'P' set within Martello Park to the south of the town incorporates about 750,000 bricks and cost approximately £2,000 to build. With the end of the Napoleonic wars, the tower was transformed into a station for the forerunners of today's Coastguards and Revenue and Customs services. During World War I, the building became a signal station intercepting secret German radio messages. Today the tower's lookout is one of the stations of the National Coastwatch Institution - www.coastwatch-felixstowe.co.uk.
Tower Q just off South Hill, behind the promenade, has been converted to a home. Tower T stands unused on Felixstowe Ferry golf course and U has been converted into a home at Felixstowe Ferry.
Bawdsey, on the north side of the Deben estuary, has four Martello towers. Martello V was demolished and made into a sunken garden when Bawdsey Manor was built by Cuthbert Quilter in late 1800s.
Martello W was converted into a house in 1985, while Martello X washed into the sea in the early 20th century, a result of ongoing coastal erosion.
Martello Y was converted into a house in 2010 for which architect Stuart Piercy and designer Duncan Jackson won a RIBA award.
Heading north, Martello Z at Alderton is unused, while Martello AA at remote Shingle Street has been converted to house.
Martello BB on the River Ore was demolished in 1822 and, finally, Martello CC at Slaughden, the southern end of Aldeburgh, is a unique quadruple tower owned by The Landmark Trust and available to rent.
More information at martellotowers.co.uk