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A safety critique of Steampunk umbrella fencing/dueling (or, “It’s all fun until someone loses an eye”)

Umbrella fencing, also known as umbrella dueling, is a sport or game that has been played at some Steampunk gatherings in the UK and USA. The purpose of this article is to encourage umbrella fencers to enjoy this activity safely, in the light of many years of experience in martial arts, fencing and related areas.

A little history

The concept of umbrella fencing as a sport was first proposed in 1897 by satirist J.F. Sullivan, in his tongue-in-cheek article The Umbrella: A Misunderstood Weapon. The actual teaching of umbrella fencing as self-defence, however, has a pedigree extending back to the earliest years of the Victorian era, reaching a pinnacle in the first decade of the 20th century.

Ominously, 19th and 20th century newspaper archives contain numerous reports of serious injuries and even deaths reported as the result of umbrella thrusts, delivered both accidentally and deliberately.

Parasol dueling: no contact, no problem

For the sake of clarity, it’s necessary to distinguish umbrella fencing/dueling from parasol dueling. The latter, which also features at steampunk gatherings, is a strictly non-contact game, similar to “rock, paper, scissors”, in which players compete by performing various poses and flourishes with their parasols. Because it’s played without contact, parasol dueling is essentially safe.

Making contact

In umbrella fencing/dueling, on the other hand, players attempt to score points by making contact with their opponents. As such, it’s directly comparable to foil fencing, Bartitsu stick fighting and similar combat sports. Unfortunately, the fact that umbrella fencing is played in the fun, friendly context of a steampunk gathering doesn’t lessen the potential danger of thrusting a rigid, pointed object at another person.

There are currently two distinct steampunk umbrella fencing styles or rule-sets, alternately described as “umbrella fencing” and “umbrella dueling”.

It’s OK, I have a sieve

In the first variant, players must stand at a prescribed distance from each other, as delineated by markings on the floor or ground. They are equipped with small umbrellas and with sieves, which are held up in front of the players’ faces in the manner of fencing masks. Two small balls are balanced on the sieves, attached with short cords, and the object is for each player to attempt to knock the balls off his/her opponent’s sieve, while avoiding their attempts to do the same thing. Contact is made with the opponent’s umbrella, the sieve, or the balls themselves.

Even though deliberate contact with the opponent’s face and head is not allowed, accidental contact could still be extremely dangerous. It is too easy for a stray or redirected thrust to bypass the sieve, or for an inexperienced player to inadvertently lower his/her sieve at exactly the wrong moment, as happens at 0.31 in the video above. Essentially, as fun, silly and ironic as it is, a hand-held sieve is not adequate protection for a game that involves thrusting and striking towards someone else’s head and face with a rigid, pointed object.  Whereas a light downward blow to the crown of the head would probably be harmless, a thrust accidentally entering the eye socket could cause horrific injuries.

The best way to keep the spirit of this game intact while ensuring safety will be to have the players wear fencing masks and reposition the balls so that they are balanced on the mask. A similar game is played at Renaissance Faires and is safe enough for young children to take part:

Even a sieve is better than nothing

The second variant (most commonly referred to as “umbrella dueling”) is played with full-size umbrellas. It involves no prescribed fighting distance and may include no protection at all, apart from a rule that any contact with the opponent’s head or face will be grounds for disqualification. Some players also wear steampunk goggles, whose actual protective value against umbrella thrusts is questionable. In any case, the object is to score a thrust with the tip of the umbrella against the opponent’s body.

This variant is essentially limited-target thrust fencing using umbrellas – which are actually heavier and more rigid than fencing foils, and are just as apt to cause serious and even life-threatening injuries if accidentally thrust into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth or throat. The hands, unprotected by either padded gloves or guards on the umbrellas, are also extremely vulnerable.

Click here if you wish to view GRAPHIC pictures of eye and nose injuries caused by impalement on umbrella points.

Again, accepting that players genuinely don’t intend to risk their opponent’s safety, this is still a very dangerous game. It’s extremely difficult for a novice fencer to accurately judge their own speed, power or aim. It’s also far too easy for a thrust aimed at the opponent’s body to be accidentally redirected into their face by his/her own parry or bind (a defensive action in which one weapon pushes or presses the other).

A hidden danger

The type(s) of umbrellas used should also be considered from the safety point of view. Umbrellas with hollow steel, wooden, bamboo or hollow fiberglass shafts can all crack unexpectedly, leaving a jagged, dagger-like splinter projecting from the handle.

The same thing can (and does) happen even with actual fencing foils, which is why fencers wear jackets made of puncture-resistant fabric. The most dangerous scenario in this vein is when a weapon breaks on contact with the opponent’s weapon or body and then continues thrusting forward, allowing no time for anyone involved to realise the sudden danger, as in the tragic death of fencer Vladimir Smirnov in 1982.

According to this article, umbrella duelists at the Steampunk Symposium event in Cincinnati, Ohio used Unbreakable Umbrellas in their duels. Designed and manufactured for real self-defence, the Unbreakable Umbrella features a solid fiberglass shaft. It will not break, but its weight and rigidity are far greater than those of ordinary umbrellas, presenting an additional set of safety concerns. On the bright side, the article notes that future umbrella fencing competitors at this event will be required to wear protective vests and proper fencing masks.

In conclusion

Despite the signing of waivers and the issuing of safety warnings, it’s irresponsible for event organisers to allow umbrella fencing matches without proper protection. It’s too easy to be lulled by the playful, anarchic steampunk ethos into ignoring or laughing off serious safety concerns. Aside from the immediate physical dangers, a successful lawsuit could easily bring about the permanent end of an otherwise successful and enjoyable conference.

With a very small investment into basic safety equipment, however, umbrella fencing has the potential to continue as an enjoyably silly steampunk sport.

“Engaging toughs”: Bartitsu pressure-testing and sparring

“I learned various methods including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of the stiletto under recognised masters, and by engaging toughs I trained myself until I was satisfied in practical application.”

– E.W. Barton-Wright, 1950

Sparring

The Bartitsu revival has gathered real momentum over the past several years, spurred on by the success of the Sherlock Holmes film franchise and by the continuing popularity of steampunk. New clubs and study groups are forming and Bartitsu presentations have become fixtures on the pop-culture convention circuit, especially at steampunk conventions.

The association with Sherlock Holmes and “fantastic Victoriana” means that Bartitsu now holds some appeal for people who might not otherwise take much of an interest in martial arts training, perhaps via taking a “taster” class or just watching a demonstration at a convention. Demonstrations at these events can vary widely, from closely researched presentations of authentic Bartitsu techniques, through to slapstick displays that bear little actual resemblance to the c1900 art.

Thus, a new student’s first exposure to Bartitsu is often in a basically ironic, playful or academic context that is geared towards people with no, or very little, prior background in martial arts training.

Going through the motions …

Under these circumstances, the overriding requirements are that the experience should be safe and enjoyable for all concerned. Thus, in taster classes, techniques are typically taught and rehearsed slowly and carefully, with some attention to correct form but little emphasis on realistic application against a determined, resistant opponent.

Engaging toughs …

Participants in an ongoing Bartitsu course, however, can expect to go beyond the rote rehearsal of pre-arranged techniques, and to be progressively introduced to the crucial element of spontaneous, active resistance.

“Active resistance” in this context can be understood as sparring within safe but realistic levels of speed and contact, in which both participants are determinedly attempting to hit without being hit, to physically dominate their opponent via any agreed-upon techniques in the Bartitsu arsenal of Vigny stickfighting, c1900 boxing and jiujitsu.

In so doing, they may join in the spirit of E.W. Barton-Wright and Pierre Vigny “engaging toughs”, or Bartitsu Club jujitsu instructors Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi, who regularly took on all challengers on the stages of London music halls.

The cliched “sport vs. street” or “sport vs. martial art” argument posits an artificial either/or duality between self-defence/combat training and active competition. Understanding that it’s impossible to safely spar or compete using the totality of techniques from a combat-oriented style, it certainly is possible to spar within
a rule-set that draws as much as is safely practical from that style.

It can easily be argued that the benefits of actually being able to pressure-test those techniques against active resistance out-weigh the objection that one is only using a limited range of techniques.

The case can also be made that it is in the crucible of athletic pressure-testing, via hard sparring or any other form of spontaneous, genuinely resistant training, that the art initiated by Barton-Wright in the late 1890s is really brought back to life.

An updated history of weaponised umbrellas

The release of Kingsman: the Secret Service promises to introduce a new generation of film-goers to the weaponised umbrella, a time-tested motif in anime, comic books, film, literature and television.  The bulletproof Kingsman umbrella comes equipped with all manner of gadgets, from a stunning projectile launcher to a TASER bola, as seen in this video:

However, while this fictional high-tech development in defensive bumbershootery is undoubtedly impressive, it is well worth noting that there has been a hundred-plus year history of attempts to weaponise the humble brolly in real life. These have included the development of martial arts techniques as well as the invention of actual, combat-augmented umbrellas.

As early as 1838, the Baron Charles de Berenger suggested several ingenious methods for using an umbrella in defence against highwaymen and ruffians, including simply shooting straight through it with a flintlock pistol:

In 1897, J.F. Sullivan proposed the umbrella as a misunderstood weapon in his tongue-in-cheek article for the Ludgate Monthy.

Only a few years later, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright took the subject seriously in his two-part article series for Pearson’s Magazine, explaining the use of the umbrella and walking stick in self defence. The cane/umbrella were considered the first line of defence in the Bartitsu arsenal, which also included boxing, wrestling and jujitsu.

After the London Bartitsu Club closed under mysterious circumstances in 1902, instructors Pierre Vigny and his wife, who is known to us only as “Miss Sanderson”, continued to teach the use of umbrellas and parasols as defensive weapons. By 1908 the concept had made its way to the United States, being taught at the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture and featured in Popular Mechanics Magazine.

The remainder of the 20th century has seen the use of umbrellas as weapons of assassination:

… as well as numerous developments of the “umbrella sword” motif:

… and, of course, the Unbreakable Umbrella:

French news reports during mid-2011 suggested that the bodyguards of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy would soon be carrying a new defensive weapon – the Para Pactum umbrella. Reinforced with kevlar, the Para Pactum has apparently been tested against attack dogs and is also proof against knives, acid and thrown projectiles:

Naginata fencing at the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition

Naginata

As shown in this spectacular illustration for The Graphic of May 28, 1910, the use of the naginata was demonstrated alongside jiujitsu at the famous Japan-British Exhibition.

“Jiu Jitsu Downs the Footpads”

A short and sweet “imaginative reconstruction” of the sadly-lost silent film Jujitsu Downs the Footpads, which starred jujitsuffragette Edith Garrud.

“Ancient Swordplay: the Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London”

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.

Armand Cherpillod in 1905

Armand Cherpillod in gi

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.

Gandhi on jiu-jitsu (1905)

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.

“Ju-ji-tsu” at Aldershot (April, 1905)

Acrojitsu

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.

“The Jiu-Jitsu Suffragette” on “The One Show”: BBC 1 Monday May 12

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.

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