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Martello tower

Related subjects: British History 1750-1900

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Martello towers (or simply Martellos) are small defensive forts built in several countries of the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards. They stand up to 40 feet (12m) high (with two floors) and typically had a garrison of one officer and 15-25 men. Their round structure and thick walls of solid masonry made them resistant to cannon fire, while their height made them an ideal platform for a single heavy artillery piece, mounted on the flat roof and able to traverse a 360° arc. A few Martello towers were surrounded by a moat for extra defence. They were used throughout the 19th century, but became obsolete with the introduction of powerful rifled artillery. Many have survived to the present day, often preserved as historic monuments.

A Martello tower at Clacton-on-Sea on the east coast of England


A Martello tower on the plains of Abraham in Quebec City ( Quebec, Canada), at the top of Cap Diamant and in front of the Saint Lawrence River.

Martello towers were inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genovese defense system, at Mortella Point in Corsica. (see picture here) Since the 15th century, similar towers had been built at strategic points around Corsica to protect coastal villages and shipping from North African pirates. They stood one or two stories high and measured 12-15 m (36-45 ft) in diameter, with a single doorway 5 m off the ground that could only be reached by climbing a removable ladder. The towers were paid for by local villagers and staffed by watchmen (known as torregiani) who would signal the approach of unexpected ships by lighting a fire on the tower's roof. This would alert the local defence forces to the incoming threat. Although the pirate threat subsequently dwindled, the Genovese built a newer generation of circular towers which were used to ward off later foreign invasions.

On 7 February 1794, the tower at Mortella Point was attacked by two British warships, HMS Fortitude (74 guns) and HMS Juno (32 guns), and was eventually captured by land-based forces under Sir John Moore after two days of heavy fighting. 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, five feet from the walls, and filled up with sand; and although it was cannonaded from the Height for two days, within 150 yards, 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."

Design and construction

Diagram of the interior of a Martello tower

The British were impressed by the effectiveness of the tower against their most modern warships and copied the design. However, they got the name wrong, misspelling "Mortella" as "Martello".

The interior of a Martello tower was divided into three stories (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. The roof or terreplein was surmounted with one or two cannon on a central pivot which enabled them to be turned through up to 360 degrees. A well or cistern was provided within the fort to supply the garrison with fresh water. An internal drainage system linked to the roof enabled the cistern to be refilled with rainwater.

Martello towers around the world

Distribution of Martello towers worldwide

During the first half of the 19th century, the British government embarked on a large-scale programme of building Martello towers to guard the British coastline and strategic points in British colonial possessions around the world. Around 140 were built, mostly along the south coast of England. Others were constructed as far afield as Australia, Canada, Ireland, Minorca, South Africa and Sri Lanka. The construction of Martello towers abroad continued until as late as the 1850s but was discontinued after it became clear that they could not withstand the new generation of rifled artillery weapons.

France built similar towers along its own coastline, which they used as platforms for communication by optical telegraphs (using the Chappe Telegraph). The United States government also built a number of Martello towers along the east coast of the US, copying the British design with some modifications.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Portmarnock Martello tower, one of many on Ireland's east coast

Great Britain and Ireland were united as a single political entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from 1801 to 1922, spanning the time during which the Martello towers were erected (the initial scheme started under the previous entities of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland). Consequently the Martello towers of Great Britain and Ireland can be considered to be part of a single defensive system, designed to protect Great Britain and Ireland as a whole. This is most clearly visible on the south and east coasts of England and the east coast of Ireland, where chains of Martello towers were built. Elsewhere in the world, individual Martello towers were erected to provide point defence of strategic locations.


An aerial view of a Martello tower

Between 1804 and 1812 the British authorities built a chain of towers based on the original Mortella tower to defend the south and east coast of England, Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey to guard against possible invasion from France, then under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon. A total of 103 Martello towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Seaford, Sussex, to Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Most were constructed under the direction of General William Twiss (1745–1827) and a Captain Ford.

The effectiveness of Britain's Martello towers was never actually tested in combat against a Napoleonic invasion fleet. After the threat had passed, the Martello towers in England met a variety of fates. Many were taken over by the Coastguard to aid in the fight against smuggling. Fifteen towers were demolished to re-use their masonry. Thirty were washed away by the sea, while four more were destroyed by the military in experiments to test the effectiveness of the new rifled artillery. During the Second World War, some Martello towers returned to military service to serve as observation platforms and firing platforms for anti-aircraft artillery. Forty-seven have survived in England, of which a few have been restored and transformed into museums (as in the case of the tower at St Osyth), visitor centres, and galleries (such as Jaywick Martello Tower). Some are privately owned or private residences and the remainder are derelict.


Three Martello towers were built in Scotland, two at Hackness and Crockness near Longhope in the Orkney Islands. They were constructed between 1813 and 1815 to guard against the threat of French and American raiders attacking convoys assembling offshore. The Hackness tower has been preserved and is now a museum operated by Historic Scotland. A third Scottish tower was built at Leith in 1807-09. The tower was built on offshore rocks to defend Leith Harbour, but now lies land-locked within the eastern breakwater.


Martello tower at Balbriggan

A number of Martello towers were built around the coast of Ireland, especially along the east, from Millmount (Drogheda), to Bray, around Dublin Bay but also around Cork Harbour on the south coast. On the east coast, concentrated mainly around Dublin Bay, the towers were in line of sight of each other, providing the ability to communicate with one another, or warn of any incoming attacks. Possibly the most famous is the Martello tower in Sandycove, near Dún Laoghaire, in which James Joyce lived for a few days. Joyce shared the tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty, then a medical student but later to become famous in Irish history as a surgeon, politician and writer. The fictional character Stephen Dedalus lives in the tower with a medical student, Malachi "Buck" Mulligan, in Ulysses. The character Buck Mulligan was based by Joyce on Gogarty. Known as the James Joyce Tower, it is now a museum dedicated to Joyce. A number of other Martello towers are extant nearby at Bulloch Harbour, Dalkey Island, Williamstown Seapoint and Sandymount and Martello towers feature in many literary works set in Dublin. On the north side of the city, Martello towers can be found in Portmarnock, Howth, Sutton and on both Ireland's Eye and Lambay Island. During the 1980s Bono owned the Martello tower in Bray, County Wicklow.

During the 19th century Fenian uprising, the tower near Fota island in Cork Harbour was briefly captured and held by the famous Captain Mackey and is believed to have been the only one ever captured. The tower at Seapoint, County Dublin, is the headquarters of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, while the restored tower at Ilnacullin is a feature of an island garden in Glengarriff, County Cork. Several other towers are still extant, including one at Rathmullan (the flight of the Earls), County Donegal.



Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour

The last Martello tower built in the British Empire is said to be that at Fort Denison, a small island in Sydney Harbour, New South Wales. It was built to protect Sydney against the threat of a naval attack by the Russians during the Crimean War of the 1850s. It is well preserved and is now a popular tourist attraction.


There is a Martello tower on the island of Barbuda in the West Indies. It is attached to a pre-existing fort, probably built by the Spanish. It was used to guard the southwest of the island, and is located approximately seven miles south of the island's main village at Codrington.


There is a Martello tower located at Ferry Reach in St George's Parish. It was completed in the 1820s.

British Virgin Islands

Fort Recovery on the west end of Tortola was rebuilt by the British with a Martello tower.


Restored interior of Carleton Martello Tower at Saint John, New Brunswick

A total of sixteen Martello towers were built in Canada, of which eleven still survive. Canadian Martello towers were built with removable cone-shaped roofs to protect against snow, and many of the restored towers now have permanent roof additions - for ease of upkeep, not historical accuracy.

Four towers were built in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The oldest martello-style tower in North America is the Prince of Wales Tower , located in Point Pleasant Park. It was built in 1796, before such structures were to be considered built elsewhere in Canada, and was used as a redoubt, a powder magazine and has been restored as a National Heritage site. The Duke of York Martello Tower was built in 1798 at York Redoubt. Its lower level still stands, though it has been boarded up for conservation purposes. The Duke of Clarence Martello Tower stood on the Dartmouth shore. Sherbrooke Martello Tower stood opposite York Redoubt on McNabs Island. Another Martello tower stood on Georges Island.

Martello tower after a snowstorm at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario

Quebec City originally had four Martello towers. Tower No. 1 stands on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the St Lawrence River. It has been restored as a museum and can be visited during the summer months. Tower no. 2 stands close nearby, and it currently hosts an 1812 Murder Mystery Dinner. Tower No. 3 was demolished in the 1900s after being used as a residence, and the fourth surviving Martello Tower in Quebec, No. 4, is located in a residential area on the north side of the Upper City.

No less than four were built at Kingston, Ontario to defend its harbour and naval shipyards in response to the Oregon Crisis. Two thin towers were added to the existing fortifications at Fort Henry between 1845 and 1848. These are considered dry ditch defence towers, rather than true Martello towers. The four independent towers were built as redoubts to defend against marine attacks. Two of Kingston's towers, Murney Tower and the tower at Point Frederick (at the Royal Military College of Canada) are maintained as museums which are open during the summer. Frederick Tower is further defended by earthen ramparts and a limestone curtain wall. The only Martello tower completely surrounded by water, the Shoal Tower, stands in Kingston's Confederation Basin and is opened to the public as part of Doors Open Ontario for one day only in June each year, (since 2005). The fourth, Cathcart Tower, stands unused on Cedar Island near Point Henry.

Line of defense: three Martello towers (Shoal, Frederick, Cathcart) in Kingston, Ontario

Carleton Martello Tower, overlooking the harbour of Saint John, New Brunswick, is now a museum and National Historic Site.

The Canadian Press reported on April 16 2006 that the Canadian military is using the same name to name a base in Afghanistan. The new base will be called Forward Operating Base (FOB) Martello.


There is a Martello tower located at Fort Nugent, built to guard the eastern entrance of Kingston Harbour. It was probably built in 1802, with a reported cost of £12,000.


A total of five towers were built in Mauritius. One, near the La Preneuse public beach in Tamarin, has been restored by the Friends of the Environment and operates as a museum open for visitors. The original entrance to the tower is raised above ground but a new entrance has been constructed at ground level. Another one was built between Beau Bassin and Port Louis.

Sierra Leone

A Martello tower was built on Tower Hill at Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1805 to defend the port from attacks by the Temne people. 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 has now been incorporated into Sierra Leone's Parliament Buildings.

South Africa

Two Martello towers were built in South Africa, one at Simon's Town Naval base near Cape Town and the other at Fort Beaufort - an unusual example of a Martello tower built inland.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has one Martello tower, located at Hambantota on the south coast. It was restored in 1999.

United States

Ruined Martello tower at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the late 19th century

Several Martello towers were built by the United States government in various locations along the eastern seaboard. Two were built at Key West, Florida; others were built at the harbours of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Charleston, South Carolina and New York City. Two more Martello towers stood at Tybee Island, Georgia and Bayou Dupre, Louisiana.

Although the design was copied from the towers erected in Canada by the British, the American Martello towers differed in some significant respects. The Martello tower built at Tybee Island, Georgia was constructed around 1815 utilising wood and tabby, a common local building material at the time, instead of the brick used for the British towers. Also unlike the British towers, the Tybee tower featured gun loops on the garrison floor that enabled muskets to be fired through the walls. It was never tested in battle and by the time of the American Civil War was in a state of disrepair. Its unfamiliar design confused local writers, who often said that the Spanish had built the tower when Georgia was Spain's colony.

A martello tower figures in the arms of the 41st Infantry Regiment of the United States Army.

List of Martello towers outside Great Britain

Country Location Tower name Built Current status
Australia Sydney Fort Denison 1850s Museum
Barbuda Near Codrington
Bermuda Ferry Reach 1823 Can be visited
British Virgin Islands Tortola Fort Recovery Private (hotel)
Canada Halifax, Nova Scotia Prince of Wales Tower 1796 Open to public
Kingston, Ontario Fort Frederick 1846/7 Museum
Kingston, Ontario Murney Tower 1846 Museum
Kingston, Ontario Shoal Tower 1846 Closed to Public
Kingston, Ontario Cathcart Tower 1846 Closed to Public
Quebec City, Quebec 1808-1812 Tower #1 - Museum

Tower #2 - Open for group activities through National Battlefields Commission
Tower #3 - Destroyed
Tower #4 - Closed to Public

Saint John, New Brunswick Carleton Martello Tower 1815 Museum
Ireland Achill Island
Banagher Private residence
Bray Private residence
Bulloch Harbour Private residence
Dalkey Island
Fota Island, Cork Harbour
Howth Museum & radio station
Ireland's Eye
Lambay Island
Portmarnock Private residence
Sandycove James Joyce's Martello tower Museum
Seapoint Headquarters of the Genealogical Society of Ireland
Shenick Island
Sutton Private residence
Jamaica Kingston Fort Nugent 1802?
Mauritius Tamarin Museum
Sierra Leone Freetown Tower Hill Martello Tower 1805 Part of Parliament Buildings
South Africa Fort Beaufort 1822
Simon's Town
Sri Lanka Hambantota
United States Lake Borgne, Louisiana Tower Dupre 1830? hexagonal; originally built on shore, 150 ft (46 m) from water, near Bayou Dupre's entrance to Lake Borgne; private fishing camp; threatened by subsidence and tidal erosion
Charleston, South Carolina
Key West, Florida
New York Harbour Destroyed
Portsmouth, New Hampshire Walbach Tower, Fort Constitution 1814 Ruined
Tybee Island, Georgia 1815 Destroyed
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