Certainly not on any guided tours except the very occasional low water marine walking trips when the tides permit, Icho Tower, on its rocky perch about a mile or so offshore, is nonetheless clearly visible and seen by road users daily from many points along the Coast Road in the south-east corner of Jersey. It looks quite small in comparison to the nearby and more frequently visited Seymour Tower, also offshore a little further east, and is to some, perhaps a little less interesting than the numerous Jersey Round (or Conway) Towers dotted around the Island. Icho does look different and doesn’t have the numerous musket loopholes or the roof top machicolations (mâchicoulis) for a reason.
Icho Tower was constructed slightly later than the Jersey Round Towers and for a different purpose. Generally the Round Towers were designed to prevent infantry which had landed on the Island from being able to progress further than the area of the beach, in other words, to hold them up until reinforcements arrived from elsewhere in the Island. Round Towers were manned by a squad of 12 infantrymen and an NCO armed with muskets and an 18-pounder carronade mounted on the roof. With the only access to these Round Towers via a ladder which was pulled inside behind the defenders, the carronade would have been used to fire upon an invader as the invading force came into range up the beach. However once the invading force got close enough to the Tower, the carronade couldn’t fire downwards and the defenders would take up positions at the musketry loopholes or at the machicolations on the roof to fire down at the invaders, even if they managed to get to the very base of the Tower walls.
The Round Towers were generally built in the 1780s, and seeing them now, one might have assumed that they were built on land behind the sea walls. However they were built on the foreshore at a time when the Island didn’t have sea walls which created a clear division between beach and land, and as a result a number of them succumbed to coastal erosion where sea walls were a late addition (i.e. St Ouen’s Bay where the main sea defences were not added until the 1940s, and indeed had a different primary purpose of a German built anti-tank wall). It can also be said that the Round Towers were generally built in positions around the coast where roads led from the beach inland and therefore one of the Towers’ purposes was to prevent the enemy being able to advance inland along that road.
Archirondel and La Rocco Towers were built ten years or so later at the end of the 18th century. Whilst in the Jersey Round Tower mould, they were ,however, an intermediate design. With the rapid advancement of artillery at the time, each of these new towers had a gun platform constructed at its base. Not only that, they were built on small islets lower down the beach rather than the foreshore (this is not as apparent at Archirondel, as the later southern arm of St Catherine’s Harbour commenced in the 1840s, although never completed, bridged the gap between shore and the Tower). Whilst the Towers still had the musketry loopholes and machicolations, their improved armament and positions meant they could fire at ships at a greater range out to sea. Archirondel had 4 18-pounders and a slightly increased troop compliment of 2 NCOs and 19 soldiers, and La Rocco was even better armed with 5 32-pounders around its base and a compliment of a junior officer, 3 NCOs, a drummer and 18 private soldiers. It is also interesting to note that two additional Round Towers and associated batteries at Anne Port and Rozel were originally approved at the same time. Despite protests from the military at that time, they were not built because of the escalating cost of the added gun platform. However later in the 19th century, barracks were built at Rozel, and Victoria Tower was built above Anne Port, which effectively answered any defence deficiency.
So we then get to the early 19th century with the construction of the next generation of towers. These followed the “Mortella Point”, Corsica derived design and are examples of the Martello Towers also being built all along the south coast of England. In Jersey we have Noirmont Tower (or Tour des Vindes), Portelet Tower and Icho Tower, all built in the first decade of the century. They all have common that they were built on small islets and only have artillery armament. Gone are the musketry loopholes and machicolations, as these towers were designed to fire at an invading force’s ships rather than landed troops. Noirmont and Portelet have added gun platforms at their bases whereas Icho does not. Based on how far out Icho is and the cost and difficulty of building it from granite quarried from the islet itself, tides permitting, it is perhaps understandable why it was omitted. Icho and Portelet had 24-pounders on their roofs, whilst Noirmont had a 12-pounder, but it was more than amply supported in its role of defending the harbour roads by the batteries at Elizabeth Castle. The garrison of these towers would have been a sergeant and 12 men.
Finally, some 25 years later, the final clutch of Martello towers at St Ouen’s Bay (L’Etac, Lewis and Kempt), La Collette and Victoria Tower, were built in the period just before Britain and France became allies and ended what was a six hundred and fifty year war between the two countries. But that is another story!
If you go to Icho Tower now, you will appreciate the difficulties that must have been encountered in building it. You can still see the remains of crude stone huts in which the quarrymen and masons building the tower in 1811 lived. They certainly didn’t get back to the “mainland” every day and were dependent on not only the weather but tides for supplies and to get on and off. You can see parts of the islet reduced by quarrying to produce the stone as well as masons’ initials carved into the rocks (they probably had plenty of time on their hands at the end of their shifts!). You also see that there are only three windows and the door (accessed by a long ladder as all these towers were). But why three windows? I am pretty sure that they were to enable the garrison to see and receive signals from the adjacent towers. Two on the north side appear to face Platte Rocque and Seymour Towers respectively, and the one on the west seems to point towards Noirmont Tower and Fort Regent and Elizabeth Castle. It must be remembered that without telephone or radio at the time, line of sight signalling was imperative, and General Don, Lt. Governor of Jersey, as part of the massive military building programme at the time, included a network of signalling stations around the Island so that any invasion risk was quickly communicated.
The Tower has had a private tenant for many years who no doubt enjoys the solitude as well as a distinctly smelly seabird colony during their breeding season each year! The views are however magnificent for those who have carefully managed to get there, and there are no doubt some secret lobster holes at low tide and some good fishing when the tide is high!
If you pay a visit, make sure that you go with someone who knows the area, weather and the tides. It is only accessible at the lowest of tides and it is not a trip that can be undertaken every day. These factors make the place dangerous for the unwary and it is easy to see how lives have been lost in the past when visitors have been cut off by the fast incoming tide and currents and drowned long before any rescue can be mounted.
Photos of a copy of an 18th century map – Icho and Seymour middle and right bottom.
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