The towers were part of defences built when Napoleon threatened to cross the ‘ditch’ (the English channel) in 1803. 103 towers were built from Aldeburgh in Suffolk around the coast to Eastbourne. They were based on the design of a tower on the island of Corsica noted by Admiral Jervis (commanding HMS Victory) when he attempted to recapture it for loyalist islanders from French rebels The tower was on Mortella Point, so called because of myrtle bushes growing there. This name became corrupted by the British to Martello. This one in Seaford, the 74th on the south coast, was built as an after-thought, when it was realised there was not adequate defence for Newhaven and Tidemills.
The land in Seaford was purchased in 1806 and the tower built between then and 1810 at the cost of £18,000 using half a million bricks. Two others, which would have provided covering fire, were planned but never built so this tower was the last in the chain, although many others have been built worldwide.
A waterproof brick ‘dry moat’ was made before the construction of the tower could be started because it was below sea level. This had a central slate lined cistern to receive rain water through pipes built into the walls from the roof. Above this, a three storey tower (see plan) consisted of:-
- a storage area and gunpowder magazine at moat level,
- a living area for an officer and 24 men at ground level,
- and the roof housed the 24 pounder cannon, now replaced by a 32 pounder
The access to the tower would have been across a ‘draw bridge’ on the landward side of the tower, unfortunately this was destroyed when the cannon fell on it while being moved by John Lee in 1880.
Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar (21 October 1805) had already removed the threat of a naval invasion before the Seaford tower was built. However, the war continued until the battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) bringing the tower’s military life to an end, but the strong construction later provided homes for Signallers, Excise men, a company of sappers and miners who came to explode the face of Seaford Head (19 September 1850) in a plan to save further erosion.
By 1873 the tower was in danger of being washed away and it was sold by the War Office in 1880.
In 1910 the Tower changed hands again and the new owner replaced the Draw Bridge with a railway carriage and opened Tea rooms and a roller skating rink in the Moat and finally built living accommodation on the roof.
In the mid 1930s the seaward side of the moat was covered with decking to link the east and west Esplanade.
In the early 1970s, the accommodation on the roof was removed and the tower restored by Lewes District Council to be similar to its original appearance.
After such a chequered life the Tower was occupied in 1979 by voluntary members of The Seaford Museum of Local History now The Seaford Museum and Heritage Society
In 2004, after an intensive refurbishment of the building by Lewes District Council supported by a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources, the Tower became the property of Seaford Town Council.
View a guide to the layout of the museum exhibits in the tower and covered moat.