Felixstowe’s Mighty Fortresses
Turn back the clock just over 200 years ago and you’d find yourself right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. Bonaparte has got it into his head that if he successfully invades England, the rest of Europe will be his for the taking. To this end, he has amassed an army of 130,000 strong along the cliffs on Calais, with 2,000 ships ready to take them across the English Channel.
So Revolutionary France is now a visible threat to our British coastline, which as yet lies pretty much undefended. Britain has got to act fast if it wants to remain the land of hope and glory, rather than baguettes and frog legs.
William Pitt, the Prime Minister at the time, ordered over a hundred small fortresses to be erected along the coastline, fully equipped with an arsenal of gunpowder and cannonballs. These fortresses became known as ‘Martello Towers’ and were inspired by a fortress at Martello Point in Corsica, ironically the birthplace of Napoleon himself.
With the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the threat of French invasion on British soil receded, but it left its mark in the form of the 103 Martello towers scattered along the coastline; silent and empty.
Fast forward to 2015 and only 47 of these towers still survive; 29 on the east coast alone and 5 in Felixstowe itself. Some lie derelict, whilst others have been lovingly restored or renovated, protected for the next generation to enjoy and learn from.
Each tower was named for identification purposes based on its location. Felixstowe’s remaining fortresses are known by the letters ‘O’, ‘T’, ‘P’, ‘U’ and our very own ‘R’ tower is now conserved within the realms of The Bartlet.
Breathing New Life into The Bartlet
It was back in 1923 that work began to build a new convalescent hospital on the grounds surrounding the old ‘R’ tower. The hospital was the result of a bequest from a local surgeon, Dr John Bartlet, whom upon his death in 1917 left the bulk of his fortune, approximately a quarter of a million pounds, for the purposes of building and maintaining a convalescent home in Felixstowe.
The Bartlet Hospital was designed by architect Henry Munro Cautley, who cleverly incorporated the remains of the Martello ‘R’ tower into the structure of the building. All that remained of the tower was the lower magazine level and a walled moat, after the upper levels were demolished around 1835. What was left took centre stage in Munro Cautley’s designs, which culminates in an ‘H’ shaped building superimposed on top of the old tower, and moat which can still be easily seen between the wings of the building.
The Bartlet Hospital was opened by Lord Woodbridge on the 20th of May 1926 and thanks to Munro Cautley’s sympathetic designs, the building continued to protect Felixstowe’s historically important ‘R’ tower for a 80 years until finally, in 2006, the Hospital was closed to patients and left derelict.
Fortunately, both The Bartlet and tower ‘R’ were awarded Grade II* listed status in 2006 acknowledging the complex as a “particularly important building of more than special interest”. Consequently, the buildings are protected from any alterations which might question their historical integrity.
So, the buildings were safe from active destruction and change but not from the passage of time.
The hospital stood neglected for a whole seven years, costing the NHS and the tax payer an estimated £90,000 a year on security and maintenance.
It wasn’t until 2013 that we here at Gipping Homes found ourselves in the privileged position of bringing The Bartlet back to life through an extensive renovation programme. Now The Bartlet’s rooms, halls, and of course fort, will once again bustle with life and activity, preserved for many generations to come and contributing to the Felixstowe community again.