Eastbourne’s War Defence
Stroll westwards along the seafront and you can’t help but notice the Wish Tower.
Before the 19th century there was the old Shomer Dyke, a very marshy area, called ‘The Wish’ or sometimes referred to as ‘The Wash’, so we could now be referring to this as the Wash Tower.
It is Martello Tower No. 73, built in 1804, as part of the defence against possible invasion by France. One officer and 24 men were usually stationed in very cramped conditions which anyone who has visited inside will see. There was a heavy cannon on top.
Napoleon worry was great during this period, and a vast south coast sea defence was constructed, from north of Dover right round to almost Brighton. The last one erected, number 74, was a further five miles to the west of Eastbourne.
The Great Military Canal was dug out along the Kent coast, lasting at least thirty miles, and a lot is still there to be seen. The small town of Hythe features the Canal, and has an annual regatta where the decorated boats are towed past judges.
The troops were not stationed at the Martello Towers to assist the Customs authorities, whose role was to combat smuggling, so the soldiers spent the majority of their time completely bored, but some were local ‘volunteers’.
When the French didn’t come it was unoccupied until 1830, when the coastguards took The Tower over. It was the property of the War Office, who leased in 1883 to the town, when it served dual purpose, one as a geological museum and the other as a home to the Hollobon family, who occupied four of the eight rooms. One of the prominent exhibits was a portrait of the 5th Duke of Devonshire.
Nine years previously, in 1874, it had been regarded as an eyesore, and the demolition was actively discussed.
There was no beach path, pedestrians using the cliff walk, with just a flimsy fence to stop them from straying over. However, this stretch has suffered from little appreciable erosion since the Tower was built. In 1919 plans to demolish the tower and turn the area into bandstand with tea rooms were rejected.
The Hollobon family lived there until the 1930s. In 1940 the tower was requisitioned by the War Office, with two WW1 guns placed at the top. 1947 saw the tower return to public ownership, with the concrete roof removed and plans actively pursued that would again involve its demolition and a conference centre erected to bring in much needed post war tourism.
After the plans were shelved a cafe with sun lounge were erected, and the Tower converted to a museum, opening in May 1970 called “Tower 73 Invasion and Coastal Defence Museum”. Admission was 1/6 adults and a shilling for children, with 20,804 visiting during the first season. This lasted for six years, and the next occupation was the Puppet Museum from 1995.
It is occasionally open to the public, and worth a visit if only for the uniqueness of it.
Of the 74 Martello Towers originally erected, approximately half are no more. Some are museums of one type or another, mainly military, and quite a few are used as private houses. These are weird, because the windows have been added, all rooms are round, and the staircases are narrow.
The one at the entrance to the Eastbourne Sovereign Harbour was used as naval target practice in the 1860s, and has only been restored within the last five years. It is still vacant.
But Napoleon never came.