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Martello towers of the Essex shore.

From defending the Essex coast to a Digital Art centre.

The Essex coast has always been vulnerable to attack from the seaward side. The Napoleonic period was no exception. A line of defensive fortresses, known as Martello Towers, were built to defend the coastal towns from Napoleon'ís forces. Some of these can still be seen along the coast, and some have been adapted for more peaceful uses such as the Jaywick Martello Tower which is now a Digital Art centre.

The name Martello is derived from Torre della Mortella, a circular fortress in Corsica which held out to British attack for several days until it was eventually captured. The attackers were so impressed by its defensive capabilities, that its design was adopted and adapted.

The threat of invasion, or at the minimum, coastal naval action by the French navy, prompted the building of a chain of Martello Towers along the south coast; this was to follow with instructions to build a chain of towers along the east coast from Point Clear near St Osyth, to Aldburgh in Suffolk. These were designated with a letter of the alphabet, while the south coast towers were numbered.

Photo of St Osyth, Martello Tower, Point Clear Bay c1955, ref. S38050
St Osyth, Martello Tower, Point Clear Bay
Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Work on the east coast towers commenced in 1808. The bricks were made at Grays in Essex and transferred by boat to the site. The towers were round, over 10 metres high, with the walls 2 to 3 metres thick. It is estimated that one million bricks were used in the construction of each tower. The sand and shingle used in the construction was taken from the nearby beach. The towers were armed with up to three large guns and smaller cannon. The tower at Harwich, said to be the largest, was mounted with ten 24 pounders in 1848. Up to thirty troops occupied the tower and the basement stored ammunition.

The sturdiness of the towers are evidenced by this article from The Times newspaper regarding a recently constructed tower at St Osyth.

"One of the Martello Towers on the coast of Essex near St. Osyth, has given way. Its first inclination was several feet one way; in order to restore it to its situation, the ground was excavated on the other side, and it has not gone back with an inclination in nearly the same proportion the other way. What is very singular, though the fabric must have sustained a great deal of percussion, no crack or fissure appears in the brickwork."
February 11, 1811

By 1812 the towers were completed but none of the towers were used in anger against the French.

Today, out of the Essex towers A to K, only A,C,D,E,F and K remain standing.

Some of these are unused and abandoned, but three have been adapted for other uses.


Exterior of the Jaywick Martello Tower before renovation
Image courtesy of Coast Art.

The Jaywick Martello Tower was opened in September 2005 as a venue for a range of interesting and innovative art projects. There are digital artworks and interactive educational materials, and includes floor to ceiling curved projection screen for immersive 3D video projections and Wi-Fi connections. Full information on the Digital Arts centre can be found on Coast Art. Additional information appears in this BBC Essex article.


Exterior of Jaywick Martello Tower after renovation
Image courtesy of Coast Art.

Sources:
Times 11 February 1811
Essex Countryside August 1968

Photographs of other Essex towers and additional information available below:

East Essex Aviation Society and Museum - Point Clear
BBC Essex article 1
BBC Essex article 2

Tower F Restaurant - Clacton
BBC Essex article

Clacton - unused
BBC Essex article

For additional information on Martello Towers
ecastles.co.uk

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