The importance and role of coastal defence in the Maltese islands during the first half of the nineteenth century,
under British rule, has not attracted much scholarly attention from historians and researchers of military architecture.
The vast system of coastal towers and fortifications built by the knights of St John, which the British military inherited on the occupation of the island in 1800, meant that the heavy British investment in coastal towers in Britain and Ireland, which began from around the time of the Napoleonic wars onwards, was not repeated in Malta.
Initially the network of coastal towers, batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments which the British had inherited in 1800 was retained in service, even though the Hospitaller strategy of an island-wide coastal defence had been totally discredited during the French invasion of 1798. Eventually, however, it was realized that most of these coastal works were not strong enough to withstand bombardment, and, as many of the structures decayed with time, there appeared even suggestions recommending the demolition of these seventeenth and eighteenth century defences in order to prevent them, in the event of an invasion, from falling into enemy hands and enable them to afford cover and protection, facilitating the debarkation of troops. As early as 1828, the future of the Hospitaller’s coastal works as part of the island’s defence was already being held in doubt and in 1832 Col. Morshead, then commanding the Royal Engineers in Malta, actually proposed that 15 towers and 25 coastal redoubts be abandoned and demolished, ‘and the ground levelled’. By that time, if we are to believe Col. Morshead, most of the structures had long since been unutilized, their masonry in a dilapidated condition and their woodwork, where not decayed, being ‘in many instance either stolen or carried away’.
Since the Hospitaller towers were conceived primarily as lookout posts rather than as batteries or gun emplacements, they were never designed to receive heavy coastal artillery. Consequently, the British military could not employ them actively in the defence of the Island’s shores in the same way that they had employed the purposely-built Martello gun- towers in Britain and some of its colonies. Moreover, most of the Maltese towers were too small to accommodate sizeable complements of men required to work the guns and defend the batteries. Indeed, whilst still in use, the British fitted many of the small towers with external cookhouses and ablution rooms. One such cookhouse has survived at LippijaTower.
Despite the early efforts made to study the possibility of strengthening the De Redin and LascarisTowers, the majority of the Knights coastal defences (including many of the towers) were being abandoned by 1832 and decommissioned. Among the towers which were retained for use was MadlienaTower (Spelt Madalena by the British). This tower, one of thirteen built by Grand Master Martin de Redin in 1658-59, was the only Hospitaller tower which the British military sought to modify to fulfil a similar active coast defence role to that of the Martello towers built around the shores of Britain and other parts of the empire. This largely involved the heightening and strengthening of the parapet and the construction of a circular emplacement for a single central pivot mounted traversing carriage on the roof of the structure. It is not yet clear when these modifications were undertaken but the fact that the tower plugs in an important gap between FortMadalena and FortPembroke tends to indicate an attempt to strengthen that weak link in the North West Front, possibly in the late 1860s /early 1870s. It is not yet clear, either, if the tower was actually fitted with a cannon. For one thing, it does not feature on any of the approved armament lists for the nineteenth century (see D. Rollo, Guns and Gunners of Malta – Malta, 1999), while the lack of gun mounting fixtures tend to indicate that the gun was never mounted. An external cookhouse, with adjoining w.c. compartment, was also fitted to the tower, but this seems to actually date to an early date prior to the conversion of the tower. No traces of this cookhouse survive today, but it is shown in atleast two record plans, and was already in ruins by 1908. (see plan and 3D animation).
Martello towers were relatively small but sturdy and solidly-built coastal towers erected in Britain and several outposts of the British Empire during the nineteenth century, from around the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Around 140 were built during the first half of the 19th century to guard the British and Irish coastlines, and others were erected in Australia, Barbuda, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Jamaica, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad & Tobago. The United States government also copied the idea and built several similar structures along the east coast of the America, based on the British design.
The MartelloTower’s round structure, thick walls of solid masonry, and low height (12m - 40 feet) made them highly resistant to the impact of iron shot fired from smooth-bore muzzle-loading guns of the period and also an ideal platform for heavy artillery pieces sited strategically around the coastline close to the shore. Inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genoese defence system, at Mortella Point (Myrtle) in Corsica - hence the name - Martello towers usually mounted one or two cannon (larger ones such as that at Slaughden, Suffolk, held up to four guns) on central pivot rotating carriages able to traverse through a 360° arc of fire. Internally the typical British Martello tower consisted of three storeys (sometimes with an additional basement). The ground floor was reserved for the storage of ammunition and provisions, while the garrison lived on the first floor, divided into several rooms with separate quarters for officers and men, having built-in fireplaces for cooking and heating. A cistern at the bottom of the structure within the fort supplied the garrison with water. A few towers were also surrounded by moats for added defence.
Around the Empire, the construction of Martello towers continued until as late as the 1870s but was thereafter abandoned once it became clear that these structures could no longer withstand the new and more-powerful generation of rifled artillery weapons.
From Tower to Battery
Record plans signed by Col E.H. Hemming, CRE West Sub District, show that an area close to MadlienaTower was turned into a two 12-pdr QF gun Night Practice Battery in 1908. The work was completed in March 1909 for the sum of £ 99.17.2. The original authorization had been for an expenditure of £170, which sum was to include an emplacement for two 6-inch Mk VII guns, but this was cancelled in April 1909. The battery’s Direction Range Finder was mounted on the roof of the adjoining tower.
A few remains of this battery, such as the two metal gun-pedestal hold-fasts and cuttings in the rock can still be seen. The battery was fitted with two small store rooms, capable of housing 300 cartridges and 200 shells respectively. According to Rollo, the two 12-pdr QF guns were still there in the 1920s when they were used by the Royal Malta Artillery for practice (Rollo, 376).
The tower was pressed briefly back into service during WWII when it was fitted with an adjoining covered concrete emplacement apparently for a beach gun, while a 90cm (3 degree) Defence Electric Light (search light) is listed as mounted there in 1935.
Author: Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri - MilitaryArchitecture.com
D. Rollo, The Guns and Gunners of Malta (Malta, 1999)