New uses for old bunkers #19: Cobbett, Martello and the Tax–Eaters
August 17, 2012 8 Comments
“From DIMCHURCH to HYTHE you go on the sea beach, and nearly the same from Hythe to SANDGATE, from which last place you come over the hill to FOLKESTONE. But, let me look back. Here has been the squandering! Here has been the pauper-making work! Here we see some of these causes that are now sending some farmers to the workhouse and driving others to flee the country or to cut their throats!”(150)
So wrote William Cobbett, looking back along the line of Napoleonic era forts – the Martello Towers – built in a chain along England’s south eastern coast twenty years earlier to ward off the then imminent threat of invasion from France.
In a characteristically corrosive depiction, Cobbett positions these towers as a physical embodiment of the vast military spending recently foisted upon the British by the Government of William Pitt the Younger in the form of high customs duties (e.g. the Corn Laws) and new taxes. During the Napoleonic War years Income Tax, introduced in 1799 in the opening stages of the war raised £142Million from a population of less than 14 Million. But even the combined array of new taxes and customs duties could not fully meet the cost burden of the Anglo-French arms race, and Pitt’s Government created an elaborate architecture of borrowing, swelling the National Debt from £299Million in 1793 to £834Million in 1815.
As Kennedy (2001) shows, even in the mid Eighteenth century defence accounted for over 50% of state expenditure, but the Napoleonic War saw a ten-fold increase in military spending, with all of the ensuing taxation burdens for the nation’s taxpayers and consumers. For Cobbett, these politicians and their schemes were the ‘tax-eaters’.
Cobbett was a farmer and a politician, a blend of modernising reformer and nostalgic conservative. In his early 1830s Rural Rides (2001) he toured the southern English countryside depicting the traditional rural culture that he saw under threat from the burdens of government debt and rapid economic and social change.
Standing on the brink of Folkestone, Cobbett witheringly surveyed the military landscape that he had travelled through since Hythe, recalling hills covered with barracks, a thirty mile long defensive canal, and summating that:
“All along the coast there are works of some sort or other; incessant sinks of money; walls of immense dimensions; masses of stone brought and put into piles. Then you see some of the walls and buildings falling down; some that have never been finished” (151)
For Cobbett the Martello Towers were follies, pointless money-pits with little if any defensive power; they were warts upon the land, an infection of military debt that had left the citizens “in ruin in consequence of the Debt” (151). They were for Cobbett, shameful monuments to a Government that had spent well beyond its means, burdening future generations with the cost of these questionable schemes.
In total 103 Martello Towers were built between 1805 and 1812. The need for them had been identified in the heat of the 1803 anticipation of imminent invasion. Pitt had commissioned the Tower building programme in 1804, but by 1805 (and the Battle of Trafalgar’s demonstration of British naval superiority) the risk of invasion had receded. Yet the construction of these forts (named after an equivalent French emplacement in Martella, Corsica reported up the British military lines by a Captain William Ford) continued unabated over the following seven years, each tower consuming 450,000 bricks to create their 13 feet thick curved walls.
Unlike Cobbett, Cruickshank (2001) whilst noting that most of the towers were built after the threat of invasion had receded, and that they were widely derided as follies once built, ascribes an important deterrent effect to them, pointing to the French having named them ‘bulldogs’, stretched out at 600 yard intervals across 200 miles of the south coast.
This network of forts remains to be seen along the south eastern coast today. Some of the towers lie in ruins, some have been co-opted to other uses – cultural centres, museums, designer-homes.
Writing of one stylish conversion (pictured here) of ‘Tower Y’ in Suffolk, Glancey (2010) rhapsodises that:
“The overall effect is magical: brick fort on the outside, palatial home within. The main space, approached from the entrance lobby, is breathtaking, with the climb up the spiral stairs enjoyably spooky, and the top floor a revelation: all light, space and comfort, with little hint of ostentation. But then you don’t need decoration when you have the sea and all its moods just beyond the parapet, with ships hoving in and out of view, and sunlight playing over that lichen-encrusted brickwork throughout the day.”
Perhaps now a beauty and purpose has now been found in these bunkers, something quite different to the “desolation of abomination, standing in high places” depiction given curse-like to them by Cobbett.
Cobbett, W. (2001 ) Rural Rides, Penguin: London.
Cruickshank, D. (2001) Invasion – defending Britain from attack, Boxtree: London.
Glancey, J. (2010) ‘Napoleon-proof your home: convert a Martello tower’ The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/dec/20/martello-tower-conversion
Kennedy, P. (2001) The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Penguin: London.