The Martello Tower
Seaford’s Martello Tower is now over 200 years old. It was built in 1808 to defend England against threatened invasion by Napoleon, who at one time had a force of 200,000 men and 22,000 boats poised in Calais, Boulogne and other coastal towns just across the channel. Fortunately Napoleon’s plans started to go wrong when he was defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Seven years later he was forced to retreat from Russia and in 1815 he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. So the tower was never used for its intended purpose
Some 103 towers were built from Aldeburgh in Suffolk around the coast to Eastbourne. This one in Seaford, the 74th on the south coast, was built as an after-thought, when it was realised there was not adequate defence for Newhaven and Tidemills. The fort at Newhaven was not then built – it was constructed in the 1860’s as part of Lord Palmerston defence review. Palmerston had been previously petitioned for a harbour to be created across the whole of Seaford Bay, again never to materialise.
The Towers were based on the design of a tower on the island of Corsica. It was noted by Admiral Jervis (commanding HMS Victory) in 1794 when he attempted to recapture it for loyalist islanders from French rebels. The tower withstood the assault by two British warships with a combined force of 160 guns. The Mortella tower, so called because of myrtle bushes growing around, became corrupted to Martello.
The land in Seaford was purchased in 1806 and the tower built between then and 1810 at the cost of £18,000 using half a million bricks. Two others, which would have provided covering fire, were planned but never built so this tower was the last in the chain, although many others have been built worldwide.
A waterproof brick ‘dry moat’ was made before the construction of the tower could be started because it was below sea level. This had a central slate lined cistern to receive rain water through pipes built into the walls from the roof. Above this, a three storey tower (see plan) consisted of:-
a storage area and gunpowder magazine at moat level,
a living area for an officer and 24 men at ground level,
and the roof housed the 24 pounder cannon, now replaced by a 32 pounder.
The access to the tower would have been across a ‘draw bridge’ on the landward side of the tower. Unfortunately this was destroyed when the cannon fell on it while being moved by John Lee in 1880. Admiral Nelson’s victory in HMS Victory at Trafalgar brought the tower’s military life to an end, but the strong construction provided homes for Signallers, Excise men, a company of sappers and miners who came to explode the face of Seaford Head.
Despite its strength, by 1873 it was in danger of being washed away, and was sold by the War Office in 1880.
In 1910 the Tower changed hands again and the new owner replaced the Draw Bridge, opening Tea Rooms and a roller skating rink in the Moat, and building living accommodation on the roof.
In the late 1930s the seaward side of the moat was covered with decking to link with the Esplanade.
It was restored to its original design in the 1970’s and refurbished in 2004 by Lewes District Council, following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is a scheduled ancient monument.
In October 2018 the long awaited access project was completed so that wheel chair users can access the Museum’s main exhibition areas. The step free access includes a new ramp across the most and a lift to the area beneath the promenade. It was mainly financed by the Keith Baker Memorial Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
It’s worth the short detour along to the base of the cliffs at Seaford Head. To follow this and return to the Martello, click here.
Then head westwards along the seafront, leaving the sea at your left, to the first shelter. Opposite, just on the beach, is a plinth with a compass point on it.