During the final decades of the 19th century, a cabal of fencers and historians led by Captain Alfred Hutton and his colleague, the writer Egerton Castle, undertook a systematic study and practical revival of combat with long-outmoded weapons such as the rapier and dagger, sword and buckler and two-handed sword. Their efforts presaged the current revival of historical fencing, a rapidly growing movement that directly parallels the modern renaissance of E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu.
The book Ancient Swordplay details the origins, colourful heyday and ultimate decline of this unusual late-Victorian revival movement. Highlights include reports on many historical fencing exhibitions throughout the 1880s and ’90s, Hutton’s and Castle’s work as theatrical fight choreographers (who paid strict attention to historical accuracy) and Hutton’s determined efforts to revolutionise military sabre fencing with an infusion of “ancient swordplay”, especially that of the Elizabethan English master, George Silver.
Of particular interest to Bartitsu enthusiasts, Ancient Swordplay includes a chapter on Captain Hutton’s collaborations with E.W. Barton-Wright. In his book The Sword and the Centuries (1902), Hutton was moved to note that “the fence of the case of rapiers, as of all the other Elizabethan weapons, is much in vogue at the present time at the Bartitsu Club, now the headquarters of ancient swordplay in this country.”
For all their efforts, though, the Hutton/Castle revival did not directly survive their own generation. The final chapters examine the reasons why, coming to a conclusion that may surprise modern readers, and attempt to trace their legacy into the following decades of the 20th century, via actress/swordswoman Esme Beringer and French antagonisticathlete George Dubois.
Including numerous rare illustrations and a foreword by author Neal Stephenson, Ancient Swordplay is available now from the Freelance Academy Press website or Amazon.com. For a thorough historical context and commentary, please also see the new article Renaissance Swordplay, Victorian-style on the Freelancer blog.
A promotional postcard featuring Bartitsu Club wrestling and physical culture instructor Armand Cherpillod, shown posing in typical early 20th century jujitsu garb.
According to his 1929 biography, Cherpillod was invited to teach at the Bartitsu Club by his fellow Swiss martial arts instructor, Pierre Vigny, who had traveled to Switzerland at the behest of E.W. Barton-Wright specifically to find a champion wrestler. Upon arriving in London, Cherpillod quickly made his mark in the wrestling circuit and successfully represented the Bartitsu Club in several significant challenge matches. He also cross-trained in jujitsu with fellow instructors Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi.
Cherpillod’s most famous student at the Bartitsu Club was Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, an eccentric athlete and aristocrat who later became famous as one of the few male civilians to have survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Following the closure of the Bartitsu Club in 1902, Cherpillod returned to Switzerland where he pioneered the instruction of Japanese martial arts. He also wrote several books on that subject, including one that is the first known manual on jujitsu as self defence for women.
Some wry commentary on jiujitsu from Mohandas K. Gandhi (Indian Opinion, April 2, 1905):
The eyes of Europeans are slowly being opened. Narmada-shankar, the Gujarati poet, has sung:
The Englishman rules, the country is under his heel.
The native remains subdued;
Look at their bodies, brother,
He is full five cubits tall,
A host in himself, match for five hundred.
The poet here tells us that the main reason for the rise of English is their sturdy physique. The Japanese have shown that not much depends upon the physique of a man. The fact that the Russians, though well set up and tall, have proved powerless before the short and thin Japanese, has put the English officials in a quandary. They gave thought to the matter and discovered that Europe was very much behindhand in physical culture and knowledge of the laws governing the body. The Japanese understand very well how the various joints and bones of the (opponent’s) body can be controlled, and this has made them invincible. Many of our readers must be aware of the effect produced when a particular nerve of the neck or leg is pressed during an exercise. This very science the Japanese have perfected.
A Japanese coach* has, therefore, been employed to train the English army, and thousands have already been taught the art. And
jiu-jitsu is the Japanese name for it. The problem will now be to find something else after all the nations have learnt jiu-jitsu. This process is bound to go on endlessly.
* The Japanese coach in question was former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi.
This illustration by artist L. Daviel represents a jujitsu exhibition by former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi at the Public Schools Gymnasium, Aldershot.
An alternative caption for the same drawing refers to Uyenishi as coming from “Seiboukan, Japan”, which was presumably a typographical error for Senboku District, Osaka, in that Uyenishi was a native of Osaka.
Bartitsu instructor James Garvey and historian Emelyne Godfrey appear on screen and instructor Tony Wolf served as a consultant for this One Show presentation on the life of Edith Garrud, the pioneering female martial arts instructor who trained members of the suffragette movement. The item was produced by Icon Films.
Edith Garrud is the subject of Tony Wolf’s book for young teenage readers, Edith Garrud: the Suffragette who knew Jujutsu. She also makes a cameo appearance in Wolf’s upcoming graphic novel trilogy about the adventures of the secret society of female bodyguards who protected suffragette leaders circa 1914.
One of the first modern female martial arts icons, presenter Honor Blackman – a real-life judo enthusiast and the author of Honor Blackman’s Book of Self Defence, as seen in the picture above – made good use of her judo prowess in playing Dr. Cathy Gale, John Steed’s partner in The Avengers. She later took on James Bond himself as Pussy Galore in the movie Goldfinger.
The explosive success of the Sherlock Holmes movies have embedded an awareness of Victorian-era martial arts into the popular imagination. In the wake of that success, it may be useful to offer some recent history and an explanation of the terms “canonical” and “neo” in the context of the Bartitsu revival.
Back in the very early 2000s, Bartitsu Society conversation turned from purely academic chat to considering how to bring the art back to life. At that time, although the active participants came from a wide range of martial arts backgrounds, almost all of us had experience in the historical European martial arts (HEMA) movement.
The task of reviving Bartitsu was seen very much in HEMA terms, with several caveats; it was uniquely a cross-training method between certain Japanese, English and French/Swiss antagonistics, and, unlike many HEMA revivalists, we did not have a complete technical catalog to work from. Thus, we would effectively be reviving an experimental work-in-progress rather than a finite system.
Many of the first generation of Bartitsu revivalists had been active martial artists long enough to have seen the worst of politics in other arts; friendships destroyed and long-running inter-group feuds arising over matters of technical interpretation, etc. Forewarned is forearmed, and so we decided early on that the Bartitsu Society would remain an informal association of colleagues rather than a bureaucratic “governing body”. To mitigate the chance of our efforts being sidetracked by tiresome politics, we proposed a two-tiered structure for the nascent Bartitsu revival.
The Bartitsu Canon
The first level or approach would be “canonical”, a term borrowed from Sherlock Holmes scholarship to describe “Bartitsu as we know it was”. This included the formal self defence set-plays and techniques presented under the Bartitsu banner by Barton-Wright and his colleagues, circa 1899-1901. Originally, the canon was restricted to Barton-Wright’s article series for Pearson’s Magazine, which had then only recently been publicly broadcast via the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences website. As we continued our research, the canon gradually expanded to include:
* B-W’s four articles for Pearson’s Magazine, covering jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting
* Mary Nugent’s article on the Bartitsu Club for Health and Strength Magazine, which included a couple of jiujitsu techniques
* Captain Laing’s 1902 article on the “Bartitsu Method of Self Defence”, covering Vigny stick fighting
* fragments from other sources including a single unarmed combat technique that appeared only in the American edition of Pearson’s, another that was specifically credited to B-W that appears in Longhurst’s Jiujitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence, B-W’s technical comments in other sources and what can be gleaned from incidental material (illustrations accompanying Bartitsu articles produced during the Club era, etc.)
The canonical set-plays from Pearson’s provided a “common language” for Bartitsu revivalists, offering a finite corpus of technical and tactical guidelines. They were also our most direct link back to the original art, as presented by its founder and original practitioners, comprising a body of “living history” knowledge. This was a crucial point, and of intrinsic value, from the HEMA perspective.
It was clear, however, that there was more going on at the Bartitsu Club than the set-plays that happened to be recorded on paper. Barton-Wright and his associates had offered numerous clues and hints as to the full scope of the art via their interviews and demonstrations. In order to fill in the gaps in the historical record, we also proposed a second, complementary approach, referred to as neo-Bartitsu. As with all HEMA revivals, the object was to recreate the original style as closely as possible, via highly educated guesswork.
Within the context of the Bartitsu revival, “neo” refers to using a body of “old” techniques in a new context; it describes both “Bartitsu as it may have been” and “Bartitsu as it can be today”. Specifically, neo-Bartitsu refers to the modern practice of the canonical material augmented by the vast body of martial arts, self defence and combat sport lore recorded by Bartitsu Club instructors and their first generation of students, dating into the early 1920s.
In designing, compiling and editing the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium (2008), we deliberately presented a set of interlocking resources for neo-Bartitsu, rather than a prescription of lesson-plans. It was felt that establishing a single “unified curriculum” would stifle individual initiative and takemusu (martial creativity), homogenising the revival and ultimately leading to the political entanglements we all wanted to avoid. By leaving the curriculum open to experimentation and the revival movement unregulated, we hoped to foster a grassroots consensus of what Bartitsu may have been and could be.
Thus, the material in Volume 2 was very carefully selected from mostly “Bartitsu Club lineage” sources, edited to avoid redundancies and repetitions while offering great scope for individual variations. It was unified by a set of principles and themes redacted from Barton-Wright’s own writings.
“Krav Maga (etc.) in straw boater hats”
For almost all practical purposes, every modern Bartitsu revivalist trains in a combination of canonical and neo- forms of the art. “Neo-“, however, is not interpreted as carte-blanche license to promote any given melange of fighting styles under the Bartitsu banner. Prior to the success of the Sherlock Holmes movies, members of the Society used to joke about that eventuality, on the assumption that the art would never become popular enough for it to actually happen.
The substantial addition of techniques from disparate, historically unrelated sources is sometimes justified by the assumption that Barton-Wright “would have” done the same thing if, for example, Krav Maga, Thai kickboxing or Filipino stick fighting had been available to him. Alternatively, it has been argued that, since Bartitsu was originally an eclectic method, adding considerable new (“neo-“) material from various sources is in the spirit of his original method.
The counter-argument is that the further one moves from the original, canonical and lineage sources, the less sense it makes to refer to the result as “Bartitsu”, neo- or otherwise. By the same token, since numerous effective arts combining stick fighting, kickboxing and grappling already exist, proponents of the “anything goes” school of thought run a strong risk of re-inventing the wheel.
While (neo-)Bartitsu does represent the art as it may have been and as it can be today, that presupposes a truly thorough understanding of what it probably was. The revival is, therefore, deliberately and specifically anachronistic, focussed on the Bartitsu Club of London circa 1901 and on the people who began the cross-training experiment that we have “inherited”, one hundred years later.
A tip of the straw boater hat to Threadless.com user mmviolet for her clever melding of classic Bartitsu stick fighting images with the stick figure cypher motif from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. This design is an entry in a competition to develop a Sherlock Holmes-themed t-shirt.
… if only as the second of thirteen possible life-saving, death-faking scenarios worked out in painstaking detail prior to Sherlock’s confrontation with Moriarty atop the St. Bart’s Hospital roof.
“A system of Japanese wrestling”, indeed …