William Pitt

MARCH 2022


By Geoff Hutchinson

When this talk was first arranged nearly three years ago little did we know that it would take on a topical relevance.   Since the end of February we have all been appalled by the scenes from Ukraine as it attempts bravely to withstand an invasion by a belligerent and ruthless neighbour. It was, therefore, instructive to learn from Geoff’s engrossing talk how we as a nation prepared to resist invasion by another belligerent neighbour back in the very different world of the early 19th century.

When William Pitt the Younger commenced his second term of office in May 1804 the country was in crisis. It had been at war with France since 1792 but with the advent of Napoleon in 1799 the conflict had entered a more intensive phase, now known as the Napoleonic Wars, due to last from 1803 until 1815. Pitt had to put aside pressing domestic concerns and focus on the war and the very real threat of invasion.   To start his talk Geoff re-enacted an impassioned speech made by Pitt on his accession, in which he prepared the country to resist. In it he referred to Napoleon as a “maniac” and defied him in what Geoff referred to as “Churchillian language before Churchill” to “invade if you dare”. Pitt was not prepared to sit back and supinely 0await invasion and within a few months of taking office he authorised a programme for strengthening coastal defences.

In 1794 a British fleet under Lord Hood sent to capture Corsica was initially repulsed by artillery mounted on a stone watch-tower on Mortella Point. The effective resistance provided by this tower made a deep impression on the attackers and re-alerted British military engineers to their defensive possibilities. Earlier they had constructed a number on the coasts of Jersey and Guernsey in the 1780s and between 1796 and 1798 they went on to construct a circular gun-tower at Simons Bay in Cape Colony and three larger towers at Halifax, Nova Scotia to protect British naval installations.  In the spring of 1803 Captain William Ford, a military engineer working on the British defences in Kent, put forward a proposal for a chain of square gun-towers along the coasts of Kent and Sussex. These were to be sited at close intervals, so that their fire crossed for mutual protection and would offer formidable defence against a French invasion force. Even if the French were able to land artillery and subdue a number of towers, the resultant delay would provide vital time for the main British forces to concentrate and to contain the enemy. Ford submitted his scheme to his senior officer Brigadier General William Twiss, commanding officer for the southern district and, after further scrutiny by a range of military experts, during which Ford’s proposed square tower was abandoned in favour of a round one, Twiss was commissioned to oversee the construction of a chain of towers, which were now called Martellos. Around the same time Pitt authorised the construction of the Royal Military Canal – a defensive canal from Hythe to Pett Level designed to form a physical barrier sundering the marshland from the rest of the country and a means for the rapid transport for troops by barges.

In all a total of 103 Martello towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Seaford in Sussex to Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Included in the scheme were three much larger circular forts or redoubts that were constructed at Harwich, Dymchurch and Eastbourne; these acted as supply depots for the smaller towers as well as being powerful fortifications in their own right. Many of the towers were built by a quaker of the name of Hobson and he became immensely rich in the process.

The Martello towers were built to the same basic design. Typically, they had two storeys and were around 40 foot high with a diameter of around 26 foot and 8 foot thick walls. The ground floor served as the magazine and storerooms, where ammunition, water, stores and provisions were kept. In some there was an additional basement for this purpose. The garrison comprised 24 men and one officer; they lived 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, eloquent testimony to the privileges of rank in the army of that time. On the roof there was a gun platform dominated by a 24-pounder gun which was capable of firing in all directions. 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.

In the event, the threatened French invasion never materialised but the stress of the war had taken a severe toll on the hard-working Pitt. He was already a sick man and an alcoholic when he became Prime minister for the second time – his health undermined by his prodigious consumption of wine. He was also greatly affected by the death of Nelson at Trafalgar and in 1806 he died at the age of 46.

Not all were convinced by the need to build the Martello towers. For example, William Cobbett the distinguished politician and future author of Rural Rides was highly critical of their cost and was also scornful of the rationale for the Royal Military Canal, pointing out that an army capable of crossing some of Europe’s major rivers was unlikely to be deterred by a mere narrow canal. However, although the effectiveness of the Martello towers was never tested in combat against a Napoleonic invasion fleet, some proved useful subsequently for other purposes. Some were taken over by the Coastguard and were used to combat smuggling. Fifteen towers were demolished to enable the re-use of their masonry (some of which was used to build a church) and four were used to test the effectiveness of new artillery. During the Second World War, some Martello towers returned to military service as observation platforms and firing platforms for anti-aircraft artillery. The tower at Dymchurch, for example, was involved in the shooting down of a doodlebug.

Over the years some towers have been washed away by the sea but around 43 still survive in England and Geoff went on to give some fascinating examples of how some have been adapted for other uses. A few have been converted to private residences. Apparently, Rudyard Kipling wanted to live in one and went to so far as to write to the First Sea Lord for permission to purchase one, but was turned down. Other would-be residents were more fortunate: in Hythe a converted Martello tower now exists as a white painted private dwelling complete with added windows (now forbidden) in the midst of a housing estate. Other towers have been restored and transformed into water towers, museums, visitor centres, and galleries. For example, Tower 24 has been restored to its origin design complete with its own cannon and is now owned and run by English Heritage. Of the less well-preserved Martello towers on the East coast, one has been converted to serve as a headquarters of a Boy Scout troupe. At the opposite end of the spectrum Tower 25 is now marooned in the middle of a car park in Dymchurch and has even suffered the indignity of being identified as a possible site for a public convenience. Others, sadly, have been left to deteriorate and become derelict.  Nevertheless, all serve as a potent reminder of a critical time in our national history.

Arthur Dewar