M. L. P, 19th Century
The Wish Tower , Eastbourne, Sussex 1871

inscribed in the margin " Martello Tower Eastbourne / Sussex 1871"

pencil and watercolour
13 x 17.50 cm.


The Wish Tower is one of 103 gun towers built on the south and east coasts of England to defend against a potential invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s. It was built when Eastbourne was four or five small settlements and, along with the Redoubt Fortress about a mile to the east, is probably Eastbourne seafront’s oldest surviving resident.

There were 74 Martello Towers built on the south coast between Folkestone and Seaford – these towers were numbered. Originally the tower immediately to the east of the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress was numbered 1. Later on, the Wish Tower and the Seaford Tower were built and instead of a number, were just named. Later still, the towers were renumbered from the Folkestone end and the Wish Tower became Tower 73.

In addition to the Kent and Sussex Towers, there were 29 added in Suffolk and Essex, but these were designated with letters, rather than numbers. Of the 103 towers built, only 43 remain – and only two remain in public hands and largely unspoiled: one in Dymchurch owned, and recently restored by English Heritage and The Wish Tower. The Dymchurch tower is not set within a moat so all these factors together serve to make Eastbourne’s Wish Tower unique.

Martello towers are gun towers constructed to defend the vulnerable south eastern coast of England against the threat of ship-borne invasion by Napoleonic forces. Built as a systematic chain of defence in two phases, between 1805-1810 along the coasts of East Sussex and Kent, and between 1808- 1812 along the coasts of Essex and Suffolk, the design of martello towers was based on a fortified tower at Mortella Point in Corsica which had put up a prolonged resistance to British forces in 1793. The towers take the form of compact, free-standing circular buildings on three levels built of rendered brick. The towers of the south coast were numbered 1-74 from east to west, while those of the east coast were identified by a system of letters (A-Z, and then AA-CC) from south to north. Although they exhibit a marked uniformity of design, minor variations are discernible between the southern and eastern groups and amongst individual towers, due mainly to the practice of entrusting their construction to local sub-contractors. Most southern towers are elliptical in plan, whilst the eastern group are oval or cam-shaped externally, with axes at the base ranging between 14.4m by 13.5m and 16.9m by 17.7m. All are circular internally, the battered (inwardly sloping) walls of varying thicknesses, but with the thickest section invariably facing the seaward side. Most stand to a height of around 10m. Many martello towers are surrounded by dry moats originally encircled by counterscarp banks, and/or have cunettes (narrower water defences) situated at the foot of the tower wall. The ground floor was used for storage, with accommodation for the garrison provided on the first floor, and the main gun platform on the roof. The southern towers carried a single 24 pounder cannon, whilst the eastern line carried three guns (usually a 24 pounder cannon and two shorter guns or howitzers). Three large, circular ten- gun towers known as redoubts were also constructed at particularly vulnerable points, at Dymchurch, Eastbourne and Harwich. All three survive. As the expected Napoleonic invasion attempt did not materialise, the defensive strength of the martello tower system was never tested, and the tower design was soon rendered obsolete by new developments in heavy artillery. Many were abandoned and fell into decay or were demolished during the 19th century, although some continued in use into the 20th century as signalling or coastguard stations and a few saw use as look out points or gun emplacements during the two World Wars. Of the original 74 towers on the south coast, 26 now survive, and of the 29 on the east coast, 17 now survive. Those which survive well and display a diversity of original components are considered to merit protection.

Martello tower no 73 survives well, and retains many of its original components and associated features, including part of its glacis bank. It represents one of a series of six low lying towers, originally constructed along the beach at Eastbourne and, together with the Eastbourne Redoubt, it therefore provides a significant contribution towards our understanding of the strategic integration of the martello towers and associated fortifications, and their role in the defence of Britain during the early 19th century.

The monument includes a martello tower, set within a dry moat and a portion of the outer glacis, situated between King Edward's Parade and the promenade, on elevated ground, overlooking the beach to the south west of Eastbourne Pier.

The tower, which is Listed Grade II, was the most westerly of the original 73 towers constructed along the south coast in 1805-6, although a final tower, no 74, was added to the chain in around 1810, at Seaford. The Wish Tower was the last in a series of six towers, designed to guard the vulnerable coastline between Langney Point and Eastbourne. The other five towers of the group have not survived, but the Eastbourne Redoubt, constructed for their support, stands around 1.7km to the north east.

The slightly elliptical, brick built tower measures up to around 13m in diameter and was constructed on three levels. It stood to a height of about 10m, with battered (inwardly sloping) walls, designed to deflect cannon shot, ranging in thickness from 1.6m to 4m, the most substantial section being on the seaward side to give greater protection from attack. A cement render was applied to the outer surface of the tower to protect the brickwork, and this has been restored. Internally, a thick central column rises from the base to the top of the tower, from which springs the barrel vaulted first floor ceiling which supports the gun platform on the roof.

The upper half of the tower protrudes above the lip of the brick retaining wall of the moat, which encircles the base at a distance of around 12m and was intended to protect the tower from cannon fire and ground assault. An earthen bank, or glacis, using soil excavated to form the moat, was constructed against the outer face of the retaining wall, and this extends for a distance of up to 40m, beyond which the natural slope continues to the north.

Work to demolish the tower began during the 1950s, resulting in the loss of part of the glacis and retaining wall to the south west, and the moat was partly infilled after demolition work was halted.

Access into the tower is by way of a first floor doorway to the north west, originally approached by a footbridge which spanned the moat. The section nearest the tower was designed as a drawbridge, capable of being raised to seal the entrance in times of attack. The bridge does not survive although part of the drawbridge mechanism remains in place inside the tower. The door is now reached by modern steps from ground level. A stone tablet, displaying the number of the tower, remains above the door. An additional, ground floor entrance was inserted, below the original doorway, during a later phase in the development of the tower, but this has since been blocked and externally rendered.

The first floor was originally divided into three rooms by wooden partitions, and provided accommodation for the garrison of 24 men and one officer. Two fireplaces heated the rooms, which were lit by two windows to the north east and south west. The eastern window was enlarged at a later date to provide an additional entrance.

The ground floor was reached by a trap door near the main entrance, leading down through a suspended wooden floor. The floor has been replaced by modern timbers and access maintained via a modern spiral staircase. The ground floor was used to store ammunition and supplies, and provision for these included a single, vaulted magazine, partly recessed into the thickness of the outer wall. At the entrance to the magazine, the original copper covered door surround remains in place. A rainwater collection tank was constructed beneath the floor, to supplement the water supply, and air vents, linking the ground and first floors, were set into the thickness of the walls.

The open gun platform is reached from the first floor by an internal stone staircase constructed in the thickest part of the tower wall. The circular roof space was designed to accommodate a 24-pounder cannon, which had a range of around 1.5km and could be turned through 360 degrees. The cannon was mounted on a wooden carriage, supported on a central pivot and traversed, on an inner and outer running rail, by a series of rope pulleys and iron hauling-rings set into the parapet wall. The roof retains many of its original features, including ammunition stores in the form of arched recesses, also set into the encircling wall.

The tower was used during the later 19th and 20th century by the Coastguard, and an observation post was added to the roof during World War II, although this was subsequently removed. The tower, which houses a puppet museum, was restored in the 1960s and 1970s, work which included the re-rendering of the exterior brickwork and the replacement of the suspended timber floor.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are the public lavatory to the north west of the tower, raised beds, the surfaces and edges of all modern paths and steps, trellises, benches, lamp posts, handrails, fences, signs and litter bins, the modern steps leading up to the first floor entrance, the interior spiral stairs, and all other modern fixtures, fittings and displays within the tower, and all components of the modern electrical systems, although the ground beneath and/or the structures to which these features are attached is included.