The Islands Home of Victorian Self Defence and The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.
The Bartitsu Club – Isle of Wight has had to suspend training for the present.
A Brief History of Bartitsu
It is still a surprise for many in this day and age, to discover that Europeans have their own martial arts heritage. It is still commonly believed to be the sole preserve of the far east, but this is untrue. Due to the different path that western history has taken to that of far eastern countries, most European hand to hand fighting traditions have either become sport, regulated by sporting rules, or have been largely forgotten. This was not due to a careless western disinterest in hand to hand fighting, far from it. It was due, in part, to there being no separation between self defence and military skill. Military skills were the skills of self defence in the centuries past.
On the hazardous streets of old London, a man may have carried a sword or dagger for self defence. When such weapons were outlawed as part of everyday dress, he may have carried a pistol instead. Small pistols were available for women to conceal in a purse or handbag. However, in the nineteenth century, with the establishment of a full time police force, carrying weapons in the street became increasingly disagreeable and punishable by law. In the frantic moments of a mugging, bullets could go astray and injure indiscriminately. Besides, it was now the job of the police to protect law abiding people. However, the dependable English ‘Bobby’ couldn’t be everywhere at once. With fears rising from the middle of the nineteenth century over violent, organised crime, how could a decent, socially conscious man or woman defend themselves effectively without an offensive weapon and without offending any laws. The question was a serious one as the Victorian press was full of lurid reports of murders and criminality and the ‘Hooligans’ of the street were known to fight without rules or scruples. It was now that a distinction emerged between military skills, which almost entirely centred on fire arms, and a need for unarmed self defence for the civilian. The Victorians were already fond of ‘Physical Culture’, or sports and going to the gym, and the subsequent studies into fighting gave rise to something of a self defence fad that lasted into the early twentieth century. They called it the study of ‘Antagonistics’, we’d call it Martial Arts. It was in this atmosphere that Bartitsu burst onto the scene.
The Sherlock Holmes Connection
In 1903 the public read of the return of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Adventure of the Empty House. Homes was thought to have been dead for some years having apparently gone over the Reichenbach Falls in a life and death struggle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. In explaining to his friend Watson how he defeated Moriarty, Holmes makes mention of a mysterious Japanese fighting art called ‘baritsu’. Holmes describes this as a form of Japanese wrestling. For the best part of a hundred years, Holmes aficionados and martial historians tried to discover if there was any reality to this mysterious fighting system, but to no avail. Conan Doyle had misspelt the name of the mysterious art, it is believed because of a contemporary news paper article which had made the same mistake.
In the nineteen nineties, a breakthrough was made. In the British Library some dusty and long forgotten editions of Pearson’s Magazine, a Victorian publication, were uncovered. In it were photographs of gentlemen practising certain arm locks and throws, much of which looked distinctly Japanese. It also featured fighting moves using a walking stick or cane and aspects of boxing.
A system for Fighting to the Finish
Called Bartitsu, this system of self defence was the work of Englishman E.W Barton-Wright (1860-1951), a consultant railway engineer and an exponent of western fighting skills. The name Bartitsu is a combination of Barton-Wrights name and the systems secret ingredient which he had encountered while working in Japan in the 1890’s. What he encountered was Jiu-jitsu, which was totally unknown in the west at that time. Loosely translated, Bart-itsu denotes Barton-Wrights, system of, fighting to the finish. In 1898 Barton-Wright returned from his three years in Japan, having been trained in Jiu-jitsu by Japanese masters. Already well practised in European fighting methods, Barton-Wright combined jiu-jitsu with aspects of western antagonistics. Bartitsu is believed to be the earliest mixed martial art in history and the earliest introduction of any eastern martial art to anywhere in the western world.
Bartitsu has four disciplines that work at four ranges. These are, a system of defence with a walking cane or stick, savate – a form of French kick boxing, British boxing as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century and jiu-jitsu at the closest range. Amongst the repertoire bartitsu uses surprise and distraction techniques to disturb an opponents focus, intention and physical balance. Such techniques include feints and invitations to attack by way of deliberate gaps in defence. Once the basics of the bartitsu syllabus have been learned, students, or bartitsuka, can begin to piece the four disciplines into one whole, moving seamlessly from one discipline to the next as circumstances dictate. The bartitsuka is always striving to hold the initiative in a fight, controlling space and distance, using the tactics of bartitsu to close down his opponents options and end the fight quickly and favourably. The bartitsuka acts dicisively, directly, with speed, self discipline and panache.
The Master of Bartitsu
Barton-Wright himself was the son of a Scottish mother and Northumbrian father. He travelled widely after completing his education and in interviews Barton-Wright accredited this time with giving him practical experience of applying European martial arts. In Mary Nugent’s interview for Health and Strength in 1901, Barton-Wright talks of being repeatedly attacked during a long stay in Portugal. He claimed to have endured these encounters without serious injury despite the fact that the attackers were often armed with knife or quarter staff.
Barton-Wright impressed Mary Nugent when she interviewed him at his club, The Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture, in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. She described the club as ‘…a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls and electric light, with “Champions” prowling about like tigers.’ (Nugent. M, ‘Barton-Wright and his Japanese Wrestlers: A Man and his Method’, The Bartitsu Compendium; Volume 1, 2005, p.56). Nugent described Barton-Wright himself as about 5’9″, but seemingly taller due to his broad shouldered, athletic build and physical presence. His blue eyes seemed to hold a scrutinising gaze that Nugent felt missed nothing. Although Nugent declared herself to be the kind of person who was not easily startled and did not even blink at sudden loud noise, this was put to the test. As Barton-Wright recalled an anecdote about a fight, he re-enacted a particular moment. His feigned strike was so quick it startled Nugent, causing her to jump. As her article testifies, Nugent left the club suitably impressed with Barton-Wright and the merits of his system of self defence.
The Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in London first opened its doors in 1899 and for a time the club flourished, attracting lords, actors and the well to do. Amongst the original members were Captain Alfred Hutton, the famed historic fencing revivalist and Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon who survived the Titanic disaster, somewhat to the detriment of his public reputation. The original bartitsu club also had connections to militant suffragettes through Edith Garrud. Garrud picked up her fighting skills as part of the women’s self defence classes. She then passed her skills on to suffragettes, some of whom formed a bodyguard for suffragette spokes women. They successfully proved themselves against men and policemen often much bigger than themselves.
Having formed the original bartitsu club, Barton-Wright organised a number of public demonstrations and challenge matches. Barton-Wright and his leading instructors showed off their talents and occasionally fought all-comers. Amongst the instructors were two Japanese experts who drew much interest. Their jiu-jitsu prowess impressed spectators, especially as such fighting skills had never been seen before. Barton-Wright once received a Royal Command Performance to appear before King Edward VII, but he was unable to attend after he was confronted by two would-be muggers while on a cycling trip in Kent. He successfully fought off the two men, but broke his hand when he felled one of them with a blow.
Despite its initial success, the original bartitsu club closed its doors in 1902 under mysterious circumstances. Many of its instructors went on to further greatness. The Japanese instructors laid the foundations for Judo in Britain. Others set up their own schools, contributing to the early British interest in self defence which eventually became part of martial arts history. Barton-Wright remained in the world of health and fitness, but with varying fortune. He died in 1951 and was buried in what has been described as a paupers grave, bartitsu largely forgotten.
The story would have ended there if it hadn’t been for Conan Doyle’s reference to the mysterious martial art of Sherlock Holmes. Since its rediscovery in the 1990’s, The Bartitsu Society has worked hard to uncover a great deal about Bartitsu, its social history and the personalities involved at the original club. Due to this hard work, Bartitsu became a practising martial art again in 2002, a hundred years after the original club closed. Bartitsu is now enjoying a revival alongside a growing interest in rediscovering western martial history. The Bartitsu Club – I.O.W is one of a handful of modern clubs that now exist around the world including six other clubs and venues in England, a club in New York, one in Chicago, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and elsewhere.
A full history of Bartitsu, its founder E.W Barton-Wright and the original instructors can be found at the home website of The Bartitsu Society, www.bartitsu.org.
About club founder, Dan Whitehead
At the age of nine he studied Judo. Later Dan took up historic battle re-enactment. During his sixteen years as a battle re-enactor, Dan fought in a number of period battles using a wide variety of weapons. Covering many time periods such as, Celtic, Romano British, Viking and Anglo Saxon, Medieval and English Civil War. Dan fought in small, local shows and vast events that attracted re-enactors from across Britain and abroad.
Being a keen amateur theatre actor, Dan Whitehead has taught stage fight skills, both in the sword and unarmed, at the Apollo Theatre, Newport, RedTIE Theatre and at Cowes Enterprise College. Dan and his fiancée Gemma, worked together to choreograph the fight scene’s for RedTIE Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet while also having roles in the play. The production won Best Play at the 2012 Island Theatre Awards in which RedTIE theatre Director, Helen Reading paid tribute to the fight scenes. Dan has also been working with Patrick Barry of Cutting Edge Theatre. With Patrick, Dan helped to choreograph the finale fight at the 2011 and 2012 ‘Pirate Days’ events at local theme park Blackgang Chine.
Like many modern bartitsu practitioners or Bartitsuka, Dan recreated bartitsu using his previous experience and the authentic publications of Barton-Wright himself, assembled by The Bartitsu Society and published in two ‘Bartitsu Compendium’ volumes. For further details on Bartitsu and the Bartitsu Society, visit http://www.bartitsu.org/