Martello tower no 55, 500m south west of Normans' Bay Station
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- East Sussex
- Rother (District Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
- TQ 68073 05307
Reasons for Designation
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
Martello tower no 55 survives well, and retains many of its original components. It is one of the surviving examples of a series of low-lying towers, designed to defend a specific stretch of coastline and, as such, the tower contributes towards our understanding and appreciation of the martello tower system. Its subsequent use for both semaphore communication and wireless telegraphy, and its later conversion to a Battery Observation Post during World War II, signifies the continued, strategic importance of this position well into the 20th century.
The monument includes a martello tower and a World War II battery observation
post, situated at the head of a shingle beach at Normans' Bay, to the south
east of Bexhill. The tower, which is Listed Grade II, lies about 3km north
east of its surviving neighbour (tower no 60), which has been converted into a
private residence. The pair were constructed in 1805-6 as part of a long chain
of low lying towers, spaced at 500m intervals, and designed to guard the
vulnerable coastline around Pevensey Bay.
The slightly elliptical, brick built tower measures up to approximately 13m in
diameter, and rises to a height of about 10m. Its battered (inwardly sloping)
walls, designed to deflect cannon shot, range in thickness from 1.6m to around
4m on the more vulnerable seaward side. Externally, the tower was rendered in
a cement mortar to protect the outer skin of bricks, and much of this will
survive beneath the modern render. The tower was constructed on three levels,
with a thick central column rising between the basement and the top of the
tower, from which springs the barrel vaulted first floor ceiling that supports
the gun platform on the roof.
A first floor doorway on the northern, landward side provided the original
access into the tower, and was reached from the ground by a retractable
ladder. This was later blocked and replaced by a ground floor entrance beneath
it. The first floor was divided into three rooms by wooden partitions, two of
which survive, and provided accommodation for the garrison of 24 men and one
officer. Two fireplaces heated the rooms, and there were windows to the east
and west. The western window was enlarged at a later date, and the eastern
window adapted to form a gun loop during World War II. The tower has been
pierced by several further openings.
Photographic evidence suggests that, by the early 1900s, the western window
opened onto a balcony, attached to the seaward side of the tower. The remains
of concrete steps, and a curving concrete ramp, survive at the base of the
tower below the window. The balcony has been removed, although the cast iron
Access to the ground floor was originally by way of a trap door near the
original first floor entrance, leading down through the wooden floor, which is
suspended on heavy timber joists radiating from the central brick column. A
spiral staircase was later inserted into the thickness of the wall to improve
access to the ground floor level. 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. Rainwater
collection tanks were installed 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. Safety features include a surviving carefully designed
lantern window, in which the lamp was separated from the magazine by panes of
glass to minimise the risk of explosion.
The gun platform is reached from the first floor by an original, internal
stone staircase, constructed within the thickest part of the tower wall. The
circular roof space was originally 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 was traversed on inner and outer iron running rails by a series of
rope pulleys and iron hauling-rings set into the encircling parapet wall. The
gun was removed during World War II, and replaced by a low, concrete Battery
Observation Post, constructed within the roof space to provide information to
an Emergency Battery at Normans' Bay. Further evidence for coastal defence
during World War II, survives in the form of two anti-tank blocks, of unusual
design, located close to the base of the tower; these are also included in the
During the 19th century, tower no 55 became one of four martello towers to be
fitted with a semaphore machine, and in the early 1900s it was used for a
series of wireless telegraphy experiments.
The small, ruinous lean-to building, of concrete block construction, and its
associated cistern, built against the north western side of the tower, are
considered to be later 20th century additions.
All modern fixtures and fittings and all modern material within the tower are
excluded from the scheduling, although the structures to which they are
attached are included. The lean-to and cistern is excluded from the
scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 1 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing