1794-1808: Design Inspiration & Construction1808-1872: Early uses of the Tower1873-1945: Ownership changes & WW21950-2012: Protests, Puppets, & Café2013-Present: Wish Tower Friends Take Over

Napoleonic Wars

In 1789, France was in a state of revolution. The young Corsican military officer and future Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired French armies to sweep to victory throughout Europe. France declared war on England in 1793.

By 1804, Bonaparte had assembled an army of over 130,000 troops. His success in England depended on gaining control of the Channel, in order to ship his troops over to England. The British Navy kept constant watch over French ports and the Channel, and the Government decided to further strengthen coastal defences to see off any potential French attack. They determined any invasion would need to land on flat, open beaches, which meant the most vulnerable areas of the country included the south coast between Folkestone and Beachy Head – and so the priority would be to strengthen defences in these areas.

Mortella Point, Corsica

Design inspiration for the Martello Towers, such as The Wish Tower, came from the success of one tower in Corsica in temporarily repelling British attack.

The Torri di Mortella, present day. Image taken from Wikimedia.

Towers had been built around the island of Corsica to protect their coastal villages from North African pirates. Local villagers paid for the build of the towers and for watchmen to light a fire on the roof when a new ship came in. In 1768, Corsica had been annexed by France but support for independence from France remained strong on the island.

In 1794, the British military launched a campaign against the French garrison controlling three main towns in the north of the Island – San Fiorenzo, Bastia, and Calvi. Due to the geography of Corsica, being located near to the south coast of France, and the northwest of Italy, the British saw it as being of vital strategic importance.

The British started by attacking the defences of San Fiorenzo, with two warships, HMS Fortitude and HMS Juno. One of the defences the British shot against was the ‘Torri di Mortella’, on the 8 February 1794. The failure of this attack would go on to be the inspiration for the construction of Martello Towers across the country. The British fire failed to cause any significant damage to the Torra di Mortella, with the thick walls resisting the fire. The tower’s two large 18-pounder guns returned fire, and ignited an ammunition box onboard HMS Fortitude – killing six sailors and wounding 56, as well as damaging the ship.

Plan of the tower. The artist was probably a British army officer. c. 1794.
Plan of the tower. The artist was probably a British army officer. c. 1794. Image taken from Wikimedia.

The Torra di Mortella had successfully resisted British attack, and indeed inflicted serious damage in return. Ultimately, however, the British exploited a design flaw in the tower. The larger 18-pound guns were only able to fire out to sea – only the smaller, six-pounder could fire towards land. Once the British were able to open fire on the tower from the land with less retaliation, a shot caused an explosion and resulting fire that caused two fatalities of those in the Torra di Mortella. The tower’s commander surrendered, and the surviving men inside were taken prisoner.

Nevertheless, Vice-Admiral Lord Hood, who was Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet – and regarded by Horatio Nelson as ‘the best Officer […] that England has to boast of’ – was left impressed by the resistance offered by the Torra di Mortella. He wrote that:

‘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 […] The walls of the Tower were of a prodigious thickness’.

It is also likely that Hood is responsible for the ‘Martello’ naming now widely used, changing from Mortella. In a letter from 5th August 1794, several months after the Siege of San Fiorenzo, he repeatedly mis-spells ‘Mortella Bay’ as ‘Martello Bay’. Another plausible explanation is that there was confusion with ‘Torri di Martello’ – watchtowers in Western Italy. These had a bell, struck with a hammer (‘martello’, in Italian) – to give a warning of incoming ships.

Towers arrive in England

The government knew it was crucial to protect the coast of the south of England and in July 1803, Captain William Ford proposed building square towers along the coast as a defence mechanism. At a national defence conference in 1804, it was agreed the towers should be built circular like the tower at Mortella Point.

Work on the majority of the towers began in 1805 and most were completed by 1808. Building the towers was no easy feat – each required 250,000 bricks. Each of the south coast towers featured broadly the same design with brick walls up to 3m thick. The lower floor would be used for supplies and powder, the first floor the living quarters, and then an internal staircase in the thickest part of the wall (always seaward, to add extra protection from incoming shots from ships) up to the gun platform. This had a 24-pounder gun that could rotate around on the platform. Underneath the lower floor in some towers was a food store and water tank. The circular support column added additional structural integrity.

The modern-day drone photograph shows the sea-facing wall is the thickest. Thanks to Eastbourne Drones for the picture.

The first county to host them was Kent – twenty-seven were constructed, starting in Folkestone and working west to St Mary’s Bay. Each one was numbered in order of its construction, from 1 to 27.

Construction then resumed across the Sussex border, with a further 47 constructed in the county from no.28 in Rye through to no.74 in Seaford. Eastbourne’s Wish Tower was the penultimate built and numbered tower – although there were plans to build additional towers, stretching as far west as Littlehampton. These never happened as by the time the Seaford tower had finished construction, the threat of invasion from Napoleon had finished.

It’s not known exactly when the Wish Tower was built – but the best estimate is between 1806 and 1808. In 1805 a house that was standing on top of the Wish Tower slopes was demolished and a moat was dug. The likelihood of invasion around the beaches of Eastbourne was deemed so severe that 17 towers were built from Pevensey Bay through to Eastbourne. The towers were arranged close together for mutual protection, and Eastbourne also had the Reboubt fortress.

Another 29 towers were constructed later in Essex and Suffolk, between 1809 and 1812, to protect the eastern coast of England. These were assigned letters rather than numbers, running from A at St Osyth through to Z at Alderton, and then, having run out of letters, AA and Shingle Street, BB at River Ore, and CC at Aldeburgh. These were larger than the ones on the south coast, constructed in a ‘quatrefoil’ design – roughly four towers joined together into a clover leaf style. This meant they could carry three guns instead of one.

Further reading


1794-1808: Design Inspiration & Construction1808-1872: Early uses of the Tower1873-1945: Ownership changes & WW21950-2012: Protests, Puppets, & Café2013-Present: Wish Tower Friends Take Over