New uses for old bunkers #19: Cobbett, Martello and the Tax–Eaters

“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 [1830]) 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

Kennedy, P. (2001) The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Penguin:  London.


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

8 Responses to New uses for old bunkers #19: Cobbett, Martello and the Tax–Eaters

  1. dianajhale says:

    I’m sure I have walked past this one, have definitely walked past the one on the Suffolk Coast path – love the first photo, somewhere near the wonderful Shingle Street I think!

  2. liminal city says:

    Great post, it’s a shame an eccentric millionaire hasn’t converted those Sealand towers, though they have a more William Gibson cyberpunk quality to them. I thought of your marvellous blog when we cycled along the Kennet and Avon west of Reading the other day. Nestling in the trees by the still water are the remains of the many bunkers of the GHQ line, sadly my associated blog post has yet to get past the planning stage…

    • Thx Diana +Matt. The Sealand Towers will get a NUFOB treatment someday – plenty to work with on territoriality issues there. I will look forward to reading your GHQ bunkers post Matt. Cheers, Luke

  3. Brian Lewis says:

    Great post, Luke. I walked a few miles of the military coast in early 2005; Hythe to Dungeness in poor light and hard rain. Pausing near the barracks at Hythe, I was confronted by a plain-clothes security type (no introductions or ID offered, but presumably attached to the MOD) who demanded to know why I had stopped to take photographs of a communications mast on common land (‘for an arts journal’, I mumbled weakly but truthfully) and whether I had been ‘interfering with the camps’ (I hadn’t). On leaving Hythe (sooner than I’d anticipated) I passed the first of the Martello towers that would serve as markers for the journey; it struck me that their air of unattainability had less to do with their defensive posture than their value as real estate (as the photos above would appear to confirm).

    I spent the night (or two hours of it) on the bench of a promenade shelter near St Mary’s Bay and then proceeded to Dungeness, where I photographed some odd structures poking out of the dunes. Drifting towards the access roads near the power stations, I had the (unfamiliar but unmistakable) sense that I was being watched. I took the north-west road out of Dungeness (towards Lydd), pausing every few minutes and looking back along the road. A man, in plain-clothes, had been tailing me a distance of 80 yards or so since leaving Dungeness. I had first seen him in the back of an unmarked van near the access road (with two or three other men). Every time I stopped, he stopped. This continued until I reached Lydd, at which point he disappeared. Interesting place, Dungeness.

    • Thanks Brian. I remember this evocative account from our interview / conversation about wandering a few summers back. It’s great to have it here alongside Cobbett’s trek. All the best, Luke.

  4. A bit late to this one Luke. It’s a challenge to keep up with your productivity!. Interesting post. What Martello Tower conjures up for me is staggering off the Dún Laoghaire ferry and heading off to find the nearby one which now houses The James Joyce Museum. It is also the location of the opening scenes of Ulysses. Maybe you can extend your research to include representations of ‘the bunker’ in literature 🙂

    • Thanks Fifepsy, I keep trying to slow down the output, but these ruminations are better out than in…

      I came across the Joyce angle when looking at the Martello stuff last week, but left it out to keep the post focussed. In keeping with the naval/imperial priorities of the time Martello Towers were – according to a quick peek at Wikipedia – also scattered around the pink bits of the world map, in addition to their denser sowing along the south eastern coast of England, including some in Ireland (50), the Channel Islands (7), Canada (14), Australia (1) and South Africa (3) amongst others. Thus, even more tax-eating was involved.

      And as for bunkers in literature? yep, I’m sure NUFOB#I will get to that sooner or later…

      All the best,


  5. Sonya Chasey says:

    As a child I spent many summer holidays at Sandgate & your interesting post has conjured up many memories for me-thank-you! I feel like there was one martello tower that had been turned into somebody’s house. But perhaps I’m muddling that up with my child memories of my own imaginings of living in one myself. There are ruined bunkers on parts of the coast where I now live in SW France – but these ones, built by the Germans in the Second World War are a chilling reminder of how there was a time when people here were under a Nazi occupation.

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