“Attacked by a man with a stick in his hand”: an Interpretation of Captain Laing’s First Bartitsu Set-Play

Captain F.C. Laing’s 1902 article The ‘Bartitsu’ Method of Self Defence is an often-neglected resource for canonical Bartitsu stick training.

As with all choreographed set-plays, Laing’s “examples” are best approached as formalised representations of certain technical and tactical options.  It would be naive to assume that, for example, an active, aggressive opponent would allow any given action by the defender to take effect without attempting to defend and counter it, let alone that any set sequence of techniques could be relied upon in the chaos of a real fight.  Thus, Barton-Wright’s precept of adaptability should be taken into account in all set-play training:

It is quite unnecessary to try and get your opponent into any particular position, as this system embraces every possible eventuality and your defence and counter-attack must be based entirely upon the actions of your opponent.

Bearing that principle in mind, the practice of set-plays offers four significant advantages.

1) Given that Bartitsu was effectively abandoned as a work-in-progress during 1902 and that no complete traditional curriculum exists, preserving the canonical set-plays constitutes our strongest practical link back to the first generation of Bartitsu practitioners.

2) Mastery of the set-plays as formal exercises conveys many of the essential, fundamental technical and tactical elements of Bartitsu as a martial art.

3) The set-plays can be “brought to life” via the addition of Bartitsu Club lineage material, as detailed in the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium, which offers a lifetime’s study.  Combat improvisation training – including numerous failure drills and other exercises introducing progressive elements of spontaneity and active resistence – may be applied to any set-play, offering a bridge between martial choreography and free sparring/fighting.

4) The canon of formal set-plays offer a “common language” for modern Bartitsu practitioners, which is especially useful when training with people from different clubs.

Here is an interpretation of Captain Laing’s “First Example” of Bartitsu stick fighting, which he described but did not illustrate in his article:

First.–We will suppose you are attacked by a man also with a
stick in his hand; in nine cases out of ten a man who doesn’t know “Bartitsu” will rush with stick uplifted to hit you over the head.

Assume “first position,” guard head, then, before he has time to recover himself, hit him rapidly on both sides of his face, disengaging between each blow as explained, the rapidity of these blows will generally be sufficient to disconcert him; the moment you see this; dash in and hit him in the throat with the butt end of your stick, jump back at once and as you jump hit him again over the head.

The defender (right) assumes the “first position”, equivalent to the Front Guard described and illustrated in Barton-Wright’s articles but with the guard held wide to the defender’s right, inviting the attacker’s strike to the top of the defender’s head.
The attacker takes the bait and strikes to the top of the defender’s head.  The defender wards the attack, allowing it to “shed” past him.
The defender immediately strikes a backhanded blow across the right side of the attacker’s face …
… disengages …
… and then strikes a forehanded blow across the left side of the attacker’s face.
Taking advantage of the attacker’s stunned state, the defender jumps in and delivers a point (jab) to the throat with the butt end of his cane …
… and then jumps back again out of distance, finishing with a backhand strike with the ball handle of his cane to the top of the attacker’s head.

“A man without a stick rushes at you with his fist”: an Interpretation of Captain Laing’s Second Bartitsu Set-Play


Captain F.C. Laing of the 12th Bengal Infantry (Kelat-I-Ghilzai Regiment) spent several months of intensive training at the London Bartitsu Club.  He then produced a uniquely useful article, The “Bartitsu” Method of Self Defence, which was originally published in the Journal of the United Service Institution of India (1903) and which was reproduced in the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium (2008).

Like most members of the Bartitsu Club, Laing was a keen fencer and physical culturist who took an interest in unusual antagonistics systems.  He would later prototype the “sword-lance” for the British Army in India, incorporating a radically novel sword design equipped with a spiked pommel; Laing recommended the Bartitsu stick system for its use.

Captain Laing’s brief gloss of canonical Bartitsu stick fighting is significant in that it offers a system of “basics”, including some progressive drills, which were not covered in E.W. Barton-Wright’s articles for Pearson’s Magazine. Although Laing’s essay included some simple sketches of basic cane attacks and defences, however, he did not illustrate the more elaborate defence sequences or “set-plays” that he had learned at the Club.

He did, fortunately, offer brief written “examples” detailing several of these set-plays for his presumed readership of soldiers interested in the “New Art of Self Defence”.  These set-plays are clearly similar to those that were featured in Barton-Wright’s own articles for Pearson’s, but they also include several details that Barton-Wright had omitted, notably including the use of the point (thrust or jab) with the butt or “short” end of the cane at close-quarters.

This feature of the Vigny system was frequently remarked upon by Barton-Wright himself and by observers of the system in action, with several commentators likening it to the use of a dagger.  Laing reported that “Points are made with the butt end of the stick at any part of the body, the most favourable places being at the throat and ribs”.

Here is an interpretation of Laing’s second example, in which the Bartitsu-trained defender is armed with a walking stick and opposed by a man who punches at him.

Second.—A man without a stick rushes at you with his fist.  He will probably strike out at your face or body with his left hand; if so, take up the ” rear guard” position and as he strikes guard with left arm, seize his left wrist, and hit his left elbow with your stick, advance right leg and point with butt end of your stick at his throat, then follow this up by thrusting your stick between his legs and so levering him over.

The defender (right) assumes the rear guard, inviting the attacker’s left lead-off punch.
The defender guards and controls the attacker’s punch and strikes with his cane into the attacker’s extended elbow. Right: the same technique from a 1904 article on the Vigny system.
Stepping forward with his right leg, the defender draws the attacker’s injured arm down and prepares a backhanded strike.
The defender jabs the point (butt) end of his cane into the attacker’s throat.
Still controlling the attacker’s left wrist, the defender thrusts his cane between the attacker’s legs, pressing against the upper inside of his left (lead) thigh and the upper rear of his right thigh.
Dropping his weight through his straight arm so that the cane scissors powerfully downwards against the attacker’s left thigh, the defender exerts a leverage takedown, causing the attacker to fall backwards.
The defender stands and prepares to belabour, should he see fit.




Shades of Esme Beringer: double-weapon fencing in “Penny Dreadful”

The final season of the popular dark fantasy/drama series Penny Dreadful introduced the character of Catriona Hartdegen, a historian, thanatologist and expert swordswoman played by actress Perdita Weeks.

As the series is set primarily in London during the 1890s, Hartdegen’s skill at a stylised form of double-weapon fencing is an interesting creative choice.  In real history, that style had been long-obsolete by the end of the 19th century, its heyday having been during the Elizabethan period.  It was, however, revived, starting in the 1880s, primarily through the efforts of fencing antiquarians Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton, both of whom were still very active in promoting “ancient swordplay” at the time Miss Hartdegen is shown to be practicing it.

Also during the 1880s, a Viennese fencing/performance troupe began touring throughout the United States and parts of Europe, with a show that included theatrical re-enactments of gladiatorial combats as well as a stylised double-weapon method:



Above: Captain Hutton and W. Grenfell demonstrate the art of rapier and dagger fencing at the London Bath Club (March 9, 1899).

Hutton and Castle, however, placed an unusual emphasis upon serious historical research and sought to revive these antique fencing methods as practical fighting arts.  One of Hutton’s most famous exhibitions took place at the London Bath Club in March of 1899. The rapier and dagger style was demonstrated, along with the fencing of the sword and buckler, the two-handed sword and the rapier and cloak:

The next exhibition of the “ arme blanche” was a fight between Captain Hutton and Mr. W. H. Grenfell, both armed with rapiers and daggers, and a very pretty game they made of it. Thus doubly weaponed, the fencer’s game is very much the boxer’s. The slip, the pass, the feint, are all very similar. And we can sympathize still with old George Silver’s indignation at those new-fangled Italian masters who “fought as you sing prick-song, one, two, and the third in your bosom”, and used the point in manner far too deadly for these English, “who were strong, but had no cunning.”

The Bath Club exhibition also included a demonstration of Bartitsu by Edward Barton-Wright. Shortly thereafter, Hutton joined the teaching staff of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, instructing students in both historical and modern (circa 1900) forms of swordplay.  He also learned from his fellow instructors, picking up some jiujitsu kata from Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani and enthusiastically practicing the unique, self-defence oriented cane fighting system of Pierre Vigny.

One of Hutton’s most skilled and prominent students was the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer, who became an expert in the theatrical as well as martial forms of the art.

Above: Esme Beringer strikes a pose with the rapier and dagger.

Esme Beringer had first taken up fencing as a girl, under the instruction of a Sergeant Elliot.

During the first decade of the 20th century, she participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and bouted during an “ancient swordplay” display for the Playgoer’s Club. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:

The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.

Esme Beringer went on to become an instructor with the Actresses’ Foil Club, which had originated as the “ladies’ branch” of the Actors’ Sword Club. While the Actor’s Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses’ Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.

Meanwhile, in France, a similarly stylised method of double-weapon fencing had been developed by the fencing masters Albert Lacaze and Georges Dubois.  It’s interesting to compare the style displayed in this 1927 newsreel with that used in the Penny Dreadful fight choreography above:

See the book Ancient Swordplay: The Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London for more information about Captain Hutton, Esme Beringer, Georges Dubois and the recreation of historical sword combat during the 1890s.

“Self-Defence as a Fine Art” (London Daily News, 29 October, 1902)

Last night, his School Arms at 18, Berners-street, Professor Pierre Vigny gave a striking exhibition of the possibilities self-defence afforded by a simple walking-stick. In these days, when the papers are full of “Hooligan” outrages, some such easy form protection may be considered almost necessary for late wayfarers.


Holding a malacca cane by one hand at each end, the Professor calmly awaited the onslaught of a skilled opponent with a similar stick. The spectator never knew which hand was deal the blow, the released end moving with lightning speed, and a short hold was taken, that the assailant, in guarding against an impending blow, often found himself instead hammered or prodded with the butt.

Forteza Bartitsu

Then came an exhibition of stick swinging by which every part of the body was protected on all sides. With perpetual loud hum the cane made circles, in front and behind, so that no-one could reach within the guard without instantly receiving a blow that would splinter any bone to pieces.

After this the Professor showed the spectators how to take knife or dagger from an advancing assailant. It looked so simple that one had to be assured that the trick really wanted learning.

Vigny knife-pistol defence

And then, with the amateur heavy-weight champion, Mr. Frank Parkes, the Professor showed his skill in boxing and the French system of boxing with both hands and feet, “la savate.” With a sprinkling of people about, who had learned Professor Vigny’s system, the Hooligan would find his occupation gone.

Vigny demonstrates savate in Bartitsu Club

La Savate at the Alhambra Music Hall (The Graphic – 29 October, 1898)

Events during the years immediately preceding E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu initiative had not predisposed the average Londoner to look kindly upon the French arts of self-defence. In October of 1899, just as Barton-Wright was beginning to promote his new Soho Bartitsu Club,  there took place the infamous savate vs. boxing contest between Joseph Charlemont and Jerry Driscoll, which ended in much controversy and recrimination.  The nationalistic ill-will generated by that contest may have spurred Barton-Wright’s curious comments to the effect that the savate taught at the Bartitsu Club was “not as the French do it”, and very likely also fuelled his vehement argument with Charlemont’s father a few years later.

A year before the Charlemont-Driscoll match, a small group of savateurs had travelled to London under less truly antagonistic circumstances, in order to demonstrate their art for audiences at the Alhambra Music Hall.  As has been discussed previously, their display was not especially well-received by lay-people, due largely to the insular English bias against foreign sports in general – and against kicking in particular.

The following report from The Graphic is typical, but also includes two rather nice sketches of the French athletes demonstrating  their style:

Our French visitors, the apostles of “La Savate,” will doubtless find it a hard task to persuade English athletes and amateurs of the “noble art of self defence” that kicking comes within the rules fair play, and to do them justice “les Boxeurs Francais,” now exhibiting their skill and prowess nightly in Leicester Square, have never put forth any such pretension. Their motive, as they have long proclaimed, is simply to show us what French boxing is like.  This they have done to the infinite amusement of spectators at the ALHAMBRA.


Some one parodying Wordsworth’s sonnet,  apropos of this exhibition, has expressed a wish that John Leech (a famous mid-Victorian caricaturist – Ed.) were living at this hour; and it is not difficult to imagine how that sturdy contemner of foreign professors of “le sport” in all its branches would have revelled in this nightly encounter with its wire masks, its padded gloves with gauntlet wrists, and its singlesticks without basket hills.


The performers are M. Arnal, professor of the Salle Castere, and M. Boudin, a pupil of the same academy. Into the mysteries of the “coup de savate,” the “coup de figure,” and other technicalities we cannot pretend to penetrate; but the reader may get some help from the little pamphlet which these enthusiasts have prepared for the instruction of their patrons, and also from our illustrations. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that M. Arnal’s feat in felling his opponent by the “coup d’arret” provoked on Monday audible tokens of disapprobation from various parts of the House. It might be French, but in the opinion of these malcontents it was “not fair.”

“Seize him …” – the Active Free Hand in Canonical Bartitsu Stick Fighting

Above – the active use of the free hand in several canonical Bartitsu set-plays.

Going by all historical evidence, the transition from cane-fighting distance to close-quarters combat was one of the defining characteristics of Vigny stick fighting as it was taught at the original Bartitsu Club.  Of the 22 set-plays demonstrated in Edward Barton-Wright’s 1901 article series Self-Defence with a Walking Stick, over half involve some form of trap, “seizure” or open-hand press, leading into a counter-strike and/or a throw or takedown.

Vigny poster

Clearly, this emphasis upon the active use of the “free hand” – i.e., the non-weapon-wielding hand – was a notable distinction between Bartitsu stick defence and the more orthodox systems of stick fighting commonly practiced during the late 19th century, which typically treated the stick as if it were a substitute sabre.  Likewise, the Vigny style’s use of ambidextrous attack and defence from deceptive two-handed guards was much remarked upon by observers, and of course Vigny’s eschewing of fencing-style guards and parries in the third and fourth positions in favour of a dynamic range of both high and low guards was a radical departure from the tactical norm.

Here follow a selection of close-combat traps, seizing and pressing techniques drawn from Barton-Wright’s articles:


Above: Pierre Vigny (right) seizes Barton-Wright’s weapon hand and prepares a scissoring stick takedown against Barton-Wright’s lead thigh.


Above: Vigny (right) seizes and traps Barton-Wright’s stick and executes a backhand strike with his own stick.


Above: Having parried Barton-Wright’s thrust with an alpenstock (spiked walking staff), Vigny (right) again seizes Barton-Wright’s weapon and counters with a backhand strike to the face.



Above: After parrying Barton-Wright’s attack with a heavy staff, Vigny (right) traps and seizes the staff and demonstrates two alternative counters; a downward cut to Barton-Wright’s lead wrist and a low backhand strike to Barton-Wright’s left knee/shin.


Above: Barton-Wright (left) presses below the elbow of Vigny’s weapon arm, disrupting his balance and opening him to a variety of follow-up attacks.


Above: Barton-Wright (left) presses into Vigny’s chest as he prepares a foot sweep against Vigny’s lead (right) foot.


Upcoming Bartitsu stick fighting DVD

German Bartitsu instructor Alex Kiermeyer is teaming with production company Agilitas.TV to create an instructional DVD on the art of Bartitsu stick fighting.

image-1 image

Agilitas.TV has produced a series of high-quality historical martial arts training DVDs, covering subjects from medieval wrestling and dagger combat to longsword fencing. A number of their productions are also available as streaming downloads via Vimeo.

Watch this space for more details of this exciting project!

Why Bartitsu is for everyone

By Tony Wolf


The HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) blogosphere and social media networks have recently caught the edge of the prevailing cultural debates about political correctness, social justice, cultural appropriation, racism and related issues.  Inevitably, Bartitsu (as a fringe-of-a-fringe interest) has now been referenced in that context, so I hope you’ll indulge this “editorial” commentary from one who has been, it’s fair to say, closely involved in Bartitsu revivalism from the outset.

Above: Tony Wolf (right) teaches a Bartitsu seminar at the 2006/7 International Sword and Pen workshops in Banff, Canada.

Nearly ten years ago – well before the “Bartitsu boom” generated by the recent Sherlock Holmes craze, at a time when any online reference to Bartitsu by “outsiders” was noteworthy to those very few of us who were paying attention – I came across a discussion on a martial arts message board in which one of the correspondents had described E.W. Barton-Wright as a “racist”.  I was curious because I couldn’t recall anything in B-W’s own writings that might justify such a description, so I contacted that person and asked for proof.

Atemi montage
Above: some of the photographs illustrating Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” articles.

There was none, as it happened – the writer had simply bought into  the modern stereotype of “Victorian Englishmen” as being irredeemably imperialistic and racist, and then assumed that to have been a historical fact in the case of E.W. Barton-Wright.  Similar assumptions have occasionally been made by others in subsequent discussions, most recently just a few days ago, when a short mainstream media video item on Bartitsu re-surfaced on a message board and was met with an anonymous comment charging cultural appropriation.

(So far, so much a tiny tempest in a very slightly larger teapot.)

Above: Herman Ten Kate

In fact, the accusation that Barton-Wright had “misappropriated” jiujitsu was first made by one of his close contemporaries.  That case is instructive, so here’s the gist of it; Herman Ten Kate was a Dutch anthropologist who had trained at the same Kobe Shinden Fudo-ryu jiujitsu dojo as Barton-Wright and who later came across B-W’s New Art of Self Defence articles, in which B-W first referred to “Bartitsu” by name.

Because Ten Kate apparently had not, however, seen any of Barton-Wright’s other articles, which demonstrated that Bartitsu was a “new” art because it combined jiujitsu with other systems, the anthropologist believed that B-W had simply had the gall to re-name jiujitsu after himself.  Thus, lacking crucial context, Ten Kate had jumped to a mistaken and unfair conclusion, which he published in his own article for De Gids, a popular Dutch magazine, during 1905.

Back to the present day and to more immediate concerns; there is an individual who has, periodically over the past several years, offered a series of Bartitsu-related posts on the Stormfront “white power” forum.  These posts have obviously been calculated to encourage an interest in Bartitsu among white supremacists, although they have failed in that attempt.

Recently, a screen capture of one of those posts has appeared on a Tumblr page dedicated to exposing racism within the HEMA community.  That particular post quotes the introductory text from the Wikipedia page on Bartitsu and then ends with the words “the Bartitsu Society”, the latter taken out of context.

At worst, this juxtaposition may leave casual visitors to the Tumblr page with the impression that the Society somehow endorses a racist point of view.  That impression is itself encouraged by the Tumblr author’s comment that “The white supremacists of Storm Front include fans & practitioners of Bartitsu and wider HEMA”, which allows the casual reader to imagine any number of “fans and practitioners” as opposed to the one individual who has, in fact, been responsible for those threads.

In a similar vein, there have been recent “incursions” into Bartitsu-oriented social media by a few proud bigots; people whose religious, racial and cultural prejudices are clear to anyone who bothers to look.  And here we must be very careful.  Obviously, the fact that someone is, for example, a virulent anti-Semite, or that they may indiscriminately hate and fear members of the Muslim faith, has no intrinsic bearing on their interest in/contributions to martial arts, history nor other subjects. The same person may also be congenial company over dinner.

We who are fortunate enough to live in intellectually free societies regularly navigate these tricky waters – hence the conventions that certain contentious topics are best not broached in “polite company”.  But as social media are changing those conventions, at a certain point, it pays to do the contextual homework and, if so moved by one’s own conscience, to draw a line in the ethical sand.

With that in mind:

Bartitsu was originally, and now is again, an ongoing experiment in inter-cultural martial arts cross-training.  At least one third of the art is of eclectic Japanese heritage via the jiujitsu styles of Barton-Wright, Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi; another third is Swiss/French via Pierre Vigny’s stick fighting system; the remaining pot-pourri of European boxing, kicking and wrestling techniques exist mostly in the “neo” realms of modern revivalism because they weren’t detailed in the canonical sources.

Vigny stickfighting in Bartitsu Club

K. Tani and Yamamoto in Bartitsu Club
Above: instructors in action at the original Bartitsu Club.

Thus, in the racialist language of the late 19th century, Bartitsu itself could be described as “miscegenated”; it is, incontrovertably, the product of deliberate inter-cultural blending.  English boxing and Vigny stick fighting are strengthened by tests against, as well as amalgamation with Japanese jiujitsu, and vice-versa.  This is necessary progress towards the utopian ideal of martial arts cross-training pioneered by Barton-Wright and his Japanese and Swiss colleagues at the turn of the 20th century, later taken up by many others (famously including Bruce Lee) and most recently proven in the MMA arena, in Dog Brothers gatherings and in many other venues.

As such, Bartitsu intrinsically refutes both the PC notion of “cultural appropriation” and the segregationist stance beloved of racial supremacists.

Further, although we know precious little about the private life of Edward Barton-Wright, the scattered evidence of his social and political leanings indicate a decidedly progressive direction.  The original Bartitsu Club offered classes for women and children at a time when it was extraordinary for “antagonistics” training to be given to anyone other than adult males.  All of the politicians who were members and supporters of the Bartitsu Club were affiliated with the Liberal Party.  By his own example and by the ethos of his Club and system, E. W. Barton-Wright encouraged an approach to martial arts training that rewarded curiousity, rational skepticism and a willingness to think (and fight) “outside the box”.

Therefore, far from the “fear of the foreign” sometimes assumed to characterise the people and institutions of Edwardian England, the Bartitsu Club was a melting pot of intensive competition, experimentation and collaboration between wildly diverse individuals and martial arts styles.

For the past fifteen years, the Bartitsu Society has succeeded as an exemplar of individualistic, “open-source”, grass-roots martial arts revivalism within an informal “community of colleagues”.  We have consistently resisted the temptation to create a bureaucratic, hierarchical organisation, in favour of offering the fruits of our research to everyone who has an interest in this (still) rather obscure martial art.  The result is that there are as many different “Bartitsu” approaches as there are clubs and study groups that have taken up the revivalist challenge – about fifty groups, at present.

Fortunately there is, to date, no evidence of any serious attempt to co-opt Bartitsu by misogynists, racial supremacists, religious bigots nor any other xenophobes on the wrong side of history.  I’m very confident that the vast majority of Bartitsu revivalists would be repelled by any such attempt.

Above: attendees at a Bartitsu seminar by instructor Mark Donnelly (kneeling, second from right), hosted by the Bartitsu Club of New York City.

Bartitsu is for everyone.