Kingston Historical Society
P.O. Box 54
Kingston, Ontario

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Kingston Historical Society
murney-drwg_5399.jpgmurney-tower-2006-300.jpgKingston Historical Society, est. 1893

What Is a Martello Tower?

The name Martello is a corruption of the word Mortella, which refers to Mortella Point on the Mediterranean Island of Corsica. In 1794, the British Navy attacked an ancient watch tower on Mortella Point that was armed and manned by the French military. The British fired at the tower with two ships and a total of 104 guns. Despite the heavy bombardment, the tower experienced little damage. Eventually the tower was captured, but not until it was invaded from the landward side.

The British were so impressed by this resistance that they copied the simple concept of the tower for use in their own defensive systems, particularly along the south coast of England during the Napoleonic era, and later in British North America. The towers were consequently called Martello Towers. A Martello tower is typically a squat, round, thick-walled tower with guns mounted on a flat roof. Their purpose was to provide concentrated fire on ships, thus repelling an enemy landing. They were capable of withstanding a siege of considerable duration.

In 2007, the four Martello towers in Kingston; Murney Tower, Shoal Tower, Cathcart Tower and Fort Frederick Tower, became part of the Rideau Canal and Kingston Fortifications World Heritage Site - the 14th World Heritage Site in Canada and the only one in Ontario.

Origins of the Name “Murney Tower”

The Murney Tower Redoubt was built in 1846 because of the Oregon Crisis to defend the western approaches to Kingston and the St. Lawrence River from an American invasion. In dispute during this crisis (resolved by treaty 15 June 1846) was the boundary between British North America and the United States west of the Rocky Mountains, but there was concern hostilities might break out elsewhere. Similar Martello towers can be found in Quebec City and in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The four Martello towers (Murney Tower, Shoal Tower, Cathcart Tower and the Fort Frederick Tower) in Kingston - along with Fort Henry and the Market Battery - represented the city’s contribution to the defence of British North America.

Even though a suggestion was made officially to name the tower after Sir George Murray (1772-1846), Master General of the Ordnance from 1830-1835 and again from 1841-1846, it became known very early in its history as the Murney Tower, named for Henry James Murney (1759-1835), datestone-murney-towera lake captain, who owned the land, Murney Point, since 1809. The name “MURRAY,” carved in stone on the tower, was later altered by changing one “R” to a letter “N” cast in lead and resulting in a hybrid name, “MURNAY.” Operated as a museum since 1925 by the Kingston Historical Society and five years later declared a National Historic Site, it is now known formally as Murney Tower National Historic Site of Canada.

In 2007, Murney Tower became part of the Rideau Canal and Kingston Fortifications World Heritage Site - the 14th World Heritage Site in Canada and the only one in Ontario.

Bibliography on Martello Towers

Cohoe, Margaret. “Sir John A. Macdonald Memoralizations and the Red Rose League.” Historic Kingston. 26 (1978): 59-60.

“The Construction of the Murney Tower - A Diary of 1846”. Historic Kingston. 29 (1981): 42-52.

Flynn, Louis. “In Retrospect: The Kingston Historical Society Since 1906.” Historic Kingston. 12 (1964): 21-22.

“The History of Kingston’s Martello Towers.” The Daily British Whig, Kingston, ON, 8 February 1893.

Lavell, W. S. as revised by R. A. Preston. “A Few Interesting Facts about the Murney Redoubt.” Historic Kingston. 11 (1963): 47- 51.

Moorhead, Earl. “Murney Point: Its Evolution within a Civilian/Military Dialectic.” Historic Kingston 35 (1987): 64-86.

Saunders, Ivan J. “A History of Martello Towers in the Defence of British North America, 1796-1871.” Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archeology – No 15. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1976.

Stanley, George F.G. “Historic Kingston and Its Defences.” Ontario History v. 46. no. 1 (1954): 21-35.

________. “Kingston as Early Tourists Saw It.” Historic Kingston 1 (1952): 24.

Stewart, J. Douglas and Ian Wilson. Heritage Kingston. Kingston: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 1973.

Sutcliffe, Sheila. Martello Towers. Devon, UK: David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1972.

Murney Tower Museum

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