The construction of Jersey's coastal towers, popularly, but incorrectly, known as Martello towers, started in the late 18th century, when the island was under constant threat of attack by the French.
Battle of Jersey
Only three years after approval was given in 1778 for the construction of the towers, Jersey was indeed invaded, leading to the Battle of Jersey on 6 January 1781. Ironically one of the first towers had already been built close to where the French landed, but failed to detect the arrival of the invading troops. And although the construction programme continued after the Battle, not a single shot was to be fired in anger from any of them.
Considering how prominently they feature in the island's coastal landscape, it is remarkable how little is known about the coastal towers. Even the scholarly work The Coastal Towers of Jersey by William Davies, published by La Société Jersiaise in 1991 only refers to some of the towers by name, giving no further details on when they were built.
This is because there are no records of the order in which the towers were constructed, nor, indeed, of how and when some of the original towers disappeared over the past 200 years.
What is known is that the towers were the brainchild of Jersey's Lieut-Governor, General (later Field Marshal) Henry Seymour Conway, who was horrified at the state of Jersey's defences when he first came to the island in 1778, six years after his appointment. Using his connections in the English government, Conway was quickly able to obtain approval to build 30 defensive towers.
On 20 May 1778, the same month when he first arrived in Jersey, he wrote to the Secretary of State, Thomas Thynne, Marquess of Bath:
- "The plan I have formed for that purpose [defence] is that of erecting on the shore of the several bays, a number of Round Towers..."
The reason why Conway was able to come up with this plan so quickly was that he was a student of military history and warfare, and the idea of defending a large town with a ring of towers had already been conceived by Maurice, Comte de Saxe, who was appointed Marshal of France by Louis XV. Conway saw that the idea could readily be adapted to the defence of an island the size of Jersey and quickly calculated the number of towers which would be needed to provide a strong defence against invasion. The towers were concentrated in the sections of coastline he thought were most likely to be used for a landing of enemy troops.
The towers were not Martello towers. It is generally agreed that the word is a corruption of Mortella, the name of a Corsican cape where a tower fired on two British warships in 1794, repulsing their attack. This engagement impressed the British Government, which ordered the construction of 150 towers of similar design on England's south and east coasts to defend against a possible invasion by Napoleon.
The Martello towers were of a quite distinct design to those commissioned by Conway. The towers in Jersey which are closer to the Martello design and were all built after 1800 are L'Etacq (destroyed), Fort Kempt and Fort Lewis in St Ouen's Bay; Portelet, Noirmont, Icho, Victoria and La Collette. These are of a much squatter design than Conway's upright towers and do not have the overhanging machicoulis, which are unique to Jersey's towers.
Further proof that Conway was well ahead of his time in defensive thinking is found in a letter he wrote to the Duke of Portland, Home Secretary, on 15 October 1794:
- "The plan I had formed as long as 1779: the same mentioned by Lord Balcarres [Commander of forces in Jersey in 1793] and consisting in the erecting of a number of Towers of Masonry with corresponding Batteries in all the accessible parts of the coast, the whole number at first projected thirty-two, of which twenty-two have been built..."
Although there is no doubt that Conway conceived the idea of building a ring of round towers around the coast of Jersey, it is not known who was responsible for the original design. No drawing has been found and it has been suggested that the design, incorporating the distinctive machicoulis, was drawn up by Conway and his engineer, Frederick Basset. But Basset did not supervise the construction of Jersey's towers, having been transferred to Guernsey, where the towers are of a distinc design. Would Basset have designed towers of a particular design for Conway and then built something different in Guernsey?
H R S Pocock suggests in an article on the towers for the 1971 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise that the Board of Ordnance would have produced the detailed drawings and specifications for the towers, but the fact that Jersey's towers were built of granite, rather than the brick used elsewhere, suggests that there must have been a strong input from the island.
The records of the Board of Ordnance contain details of construction and cost:
- "General Conway (20 May 1778) in his report on Jersey proposed the erection of 30 Round Towers for the defence of the island. Towers to be of masonry, 30-40 feet high and about 500 yeards from each other - to be absolutely solid for 10-12 feet from the bottom. Wall above to be strong, pierced with loop-holes for musketry in two stages, and on top, where it is proposed to place cannon, a parapet of brick ... ... the engineers to estimate the expense of erecting these 30 towers for the King's orders."
- "Board report (3 July 1778) to Lord Weymouth: that they had caused an estimate to be made of the charge for erecting 30 towers in Jersey. £156 each = £4,680. Have order4ed 100 wallpieces and 200 rounds of ammunition to be sent to Jersey.
Responsibility for building the towers passed to a Captain F G Mulcaster, who distinguished himself during the Battle of Jersey by refusing to surrender Elizabeth Castle to the French, and after whom Mulcaster Street was named. Records show that after the rapid sanctioning of his proposals by the British Government, Conway was frustrated that no building work had started by 1779. Mulcaster arrived in Jersey on 14 March 1779 and is believed to have built four towers that year, although it is not known which they were.