Why build a fortress in Eastbourne?
In 1803 Napoleon had subdued Italy and Austria and was preparing to invade Britain. He had assembled 167,000 men at Boulogne waiting for sufficient ships and barges to ferry them across the Channel. In response to this threat the British Government began a massive building program to defend the south coast. 74 Martello Towers were built as well as three circular fortresses at Eastbourne, Dymchurch and Harwich. Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 ended any risk that Britain could be invaded. By 1859 advances in warfare and artillery meant that a British Government report found that the Martello Towers and Redoubts were ‘not an important element of security against attack’. The Redoubt slowly fell into disuse.
Construction of the Fortress
Construction of the Redoubt Fortress was handled by William Hobson with work starting in 1804 and continuing until 1810. Five million bricks were shipped on barges down the east coast from London for the fortress. The Redoubt is made up of 24 Casemates placed in a ring 220 feet in diameter; it is surrounded by a moat 25 ft wide by 24 ft deep but due to the Redoubt standing on shingle the moat could never be filled.
The only entrance was across a bridge which linked the gun platform with the inland face of the fortress.
The sea facing side is protected with a layer of shingle mixed with cement to help the building to survive cannon fire from enemy ships. The interior of the fortress is on two levels, the upper being the gun platform and the lower accommodation for up to 350 soldiers.
Life at the Eastbourne Redoubt
The living conditions for the men were very basic with the Redoubt having no fresh water supply. Four tanks were kept underground capable of holding 3,000 gallons of water but they could become swamped by sea water during high tides. Each Casemate contained a fireplace and was fitted with hooks for storage and hammocks, later replaced by folding iron beds. It is unlikely that more than 200 men lived in the fortress at any one time, the Casemates were designed to hold only 10 men each and with only 24 the parade ground was also used as canvas covered living quarters.
By 1830 the Redoubt housed only seven gunners, a gate-keeper and their families and by 1859 it was felt that along with the Martello Towers it would be unable to survive an attack from a modern warships. In 1867 a sea wall was constructed to try and protect the fortress and in 1884 the
Eastbourne Corporation contacted the War Department about purchasing the Redoubt.
The land around the Redoubt was leased to the local council from 1888 but the War Department maintained ownership of the fortress, using it as a barracks and store for munitions. The London Diocesan Church Lads also used the Redoubt from 1904-10 as their annual camp. During the 1st
World War the fortress was used by the military police as a headquarters and temporary jail.
The Redoubt Fortress in the 20th Century
Following its wartime service the Redoubt was purchased by Eastbourne Borough Council for a ‘nominal fee’ of £150 with the plan to turn it into a venue for leisure activities. During the 2nd World War the building was requisitioned by the army and was used for storage. Canadian troops also spent time at the Redoubt in the build up to the D-Day landings.
After the war, the Redoubt was home to a Model Village, an Aquarium and a Music Garden. It was even possible to play Crazy Golf on the gun platform! The model village was vandalised in the 1970’s while the aquarium closed in 1996. By 1977 a group of ex-servicemen formed the Sussex Combined Services Museum with the intention of using the Redoubt Fortress for displays.