E.W. Barton-Wright’s “overcoat trick”

In the March edition of Pearson’s Magazine, 1899, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright demonstrated a curious self defence technique making use of an overcoat as a defensive weapon. The provenance of this technique is unclear. It could be an aspect of the Shinden Fudo Ryu jiujitsu that he had studied in Kobe, Japan; an adaptation of a French Apache (gangster) street-fighting trick, or perhaps Barton-Wright’s revival/update of the classic “cloak in the face” manoeuvre recorded by historical fencing masters such as Salvator Fabris:

Fabris’ technique had been revived as part of the historical fencing curriculum developed by Captain Alfred Hutton, who taught both Elizabethan and modern forms of fencing, as well as theatrical stage combat, at Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club:

According to Barton-Wright:

There is, however, one simple and effective way of meeting an attack with a knife that I will explain. We will suppose that you have to pass through a locality late at night where there is a likelihood of such an attack, and you do not wish to run the risk of bringing yourself within the law by relying upon a revolver.

Carry your overcoat upon your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves, in the style of a military cloak, with your right hand ready upon your left shoulder to use your coat in the way explained below, should the necessity arise. Be careful always to walk in the middle of the road. Directly your assailant attacks, face him and wait until he is within a distance of two or three yards. Then envelop his head and arms by throwing your coat at him, with a sweeping, circular motion of the arm. This will obscure his view momentarily, but not your own, and will give you plenty of time to deliver your attack, which should take the form of a right-handed knock-out blow in the pit of the stomach.

Or while he is still enveloped in the folds of your coat, slip round behind him, seize him by the right ankle, and push him under the shoulder blade with your left hand. You will thus throw him very violently upon his face, and in his endeavour to break his fall and protect his face he will put out his hands, and in doing so, involuntarily drop his weapon. He will then be disarmed and in a position where you can break his leg immediately if you so like, or if you do not wish to proceed to such extremes, you can hold him down in the position shown in No. 6 until the police arrive.

This is only one of the many ways I have of meeting such a contingency.

A tongue-in-cheek reference to the overcoat technique then appeared in the April 8th, 1899 issue of Guy’s Hospital Gazette:

Mr. Higgins has been taking lessons in the new art of self-defence. At his first meeting with Mr. Barton-Wright he attempted to floor him with the usual knock-out blow, but soon found himself presenting an inverted image moving against the shadow. This led him to think that there was more in the method than met the eye.

It appears that there is a good deal to learn in this new art. There are several hundreds of different manoeuvres for as many different forms of attack, and the trouble begins, I imagine, when you work off the wrong defence for the particular variety of attack.

There is one trick with an overcoat which strikes us as particularly “fresh.” All you have to do is to walk in the middle of the road with your arms removed from the sleeves of your overcoat. (The only drawback to this is that it rather spoils the set of the overcoat and necessitates wearing one all the summer). Then you meet your assailant—this is the hardest part of the business, but it can generally be managed by a judicious use of opprobrious epithet. Having met him, all you have to do is to seize your coat by the shoulder and plug it round his head.

If you are successful you can jump on his chest while he is getting untangled; if not, he will probably move off with the overcoat down a side-street. You lose the overcoat, but win the game. I must try it on a policeman.

And finally, here is the same trick, executed by Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes (2010) as a prelude to belabouring his antagonist with a frying pan:

Another “new” canonical Bartitsu technique

From Percy Longhurst’s “JiuJitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence”, 1906 (pp 77-78):

A different defence to a similar attack – one which considerably surprised me when I was first introduced to it by Mr. Barton-Wright several years ago, and which is by no means too much for feminine strength – is that illustrated in Figure 46. The descending hand of the assailant is jerked up, his wrist seized, and the defender simultaneously steps outside the assailant’s advanced leg so that her knee – the leg being bent – is pressed against his bent knee. A sideways and downwards jerk of the captured hand will lay the assaulter on the ground, the whole secret of the move being, of course, the disturbance of the balance.


Considerable confidence and great quickness are required for the satisfactory accomplishment of this throw, and, admittedly, there are better defences which may be used if the assailant has a very great superiority of weight. If the thrower makes a slight backwards kick with her advanced foot at the same moment that she jerks the captured arm round, it will facilitate her assailant’s downfall.

“A Few Practical Hints on Self Defence” (1900)

A longtime wrestling, boxing and general “antagonistics” enthusiast, Percy Longhurst’s precise connection with Bartitsu is a matter of some speculation.

He was among the audience at some of E.W Barton-Wright’s early self defence exhibitions in London (1898-99) and actually volunteered to try his considerable wrestling skill against one of the newly-arrived Japanese jiujitsuka; by his own account, Longhurst put up a game defence but was quickly defeated, apparently with some sort of arm-lock. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he was likely among the original members of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, as he later credited a particular throwing technique to Barton-Wright; he was definitely a student of Yukio Tani’s and Sadakazu Uyenishi’s, but the chronology is not clear.

Longhurst was a prolific writer on all manner of athletic topics. His commentaries on, for example, the disadvantage of European wrestlers being required to fight under Barton-Wright’s submission grappling rules during the latter’s music hall challenge performances, and his balanced and realistic take on the “boxing vs. jiujitsu” controversy of 1906-7, reveal a canny and pragmatic approach to personal combat. Longhurst’s book “Jiu-Jitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence“, likewise, offered a very Bartitsu-like combination of wrestling, jiujitsu, boxing, kicking and stick fighting techniques, and is, in fact, the closest thing to a “Bartitsu manual” to have come out of England in the early 20th century.

Longhurst’s article “A Few Practical Hints on Self Defence” (reproduced below) was originally published in Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture between January and June of 1900. It presages “Jiujitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence” in several ways and is also notable for including a veiled reference to the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira (!)

Click on the images below to see them in full size.

Along with his colleagues William Garrud, W. Bruce Sutherland and Percy Bickerdike, Longhurst later became a founding member of the British Jiujitsu Society, and he continued to write on judo, jiujitsu and self defence topics throughout the early-mid 20th century.

A Bartitsu display from 1901

A report on a Bartitsu demonstration at E.W. Barton-Wright’s Academy of Arms and Physical Culture, from the Illustrated London News, November 30, 1901.

The Art of Self Defence

The various methods of self defence adopted by followers of the “Bartitsu” system were demonstrated at their School of Arms on Nov. 23, when they were opposed by English and Continental wrestlers and boxers. Great interest was aroused by the contest between a professional wrestler in the Cornish and Devonshire style and Uyenishi, champion light-weight wrestler of Osaka. The Japanese won each of the three throws. A professional boxer defended himself against the school’s “savate”, with an indecisive result.

The Bartitsu method of wrestling was illustrated and demonstrations were given of the use of a walking stick as a defensive weapon. Four members of the audience were then invited to attempt to strangle one of the two Japanese by means of a rod placed across his throat. Needless to say, their efforts were unavailing.

Bartitsu exhibition at Starfest

A snapshot from a lighthearted Bartitsu display by the Victorian Antagonistics League at the recent Starfest pop-culture/entertainment convention in Denver, Colorado:

“Belabour Him As You See Fit”: Steampunk Self-Defense”

Chastise blackguards! Repel ruffians! When your steam-powered radium gun fails you, upon what must you rely? Why, Bartitsu, of course — the only mixed-martial art of the Steampunk era. Employ walking stick, umbrella, and scientific boxing skills, blended with jiu-jutsu from the mysterious East, and savate from the less-fashionable quarters of Paris. With suitably bold maneuvers you might buy yourself time for the airship to arrive and spirit you and your companions to safety.

Seminar footage from Eugene, Oregon

Footage from the Bartitsu seminar that took place at the NorthWest Fencing Academy in Eugene, Oregon on March 13-14, 2010.

The Eugene seminar included training in both the “canonical” or classical set-plays of the art and also in neo-Bartitsu drills, which are used as a transition between the set-plays and free-sparring. In these neo-Bartitsu exercises, the “opponent” can spontaneously resist or counter the “defender’s” scripted techniques and the defender is challenged to improvise to regain to control of the fight.

The focus in this seminar was on Bartitsu as a recreational martial art, rather than purely as self defence.

Bartitsu seminar in Eugene, Oregon from Tony Wolf on Vimeo.

Partnering instructor Tony Wolf are David Borland, Provost d’armi (classical Italian fencing) in the black shirt, Matthew Lowes, aikido shodan and certified Systema instructor in the grey shirt and Maestro Sean Hayes (classical Italian fencing) in the white shirt.

Bartitsu seminar at the Gallowglass Academy

Here is Allen Reed’s report on a Bartitsu seminar he gave recently at the Gallowglass Academy in Leaf River, Illinois:

The seminar at Gallowglass Academy on Saturday went well. I had seven students turn out for the class, four gentlemen, two members of the constabulary and a lady.

I started with a short discussion of the history of Bartitsu then we did Farmer Burns’ warm up set and went right into the pugilism section of the seminar. Most of the pugilism techniques I took from Allanson-Winn but I also included other strikes and some techniques from Owen Swift’s book on pugilism.

After lunch we started on the canonical jujutsu. portion of the day. I did show how to use the two techniques for removing someone from your room for self defense.

When we finished with the jujutsu we segued into Vigny’s cane. Again, we covered canonical cane techniques and did some modifications to make them a little more street applicable.

The last part of the day, with help from my fellow law enforcement officers, I discussed modern self defense law and then had all of the students work through their own use of Bartitsu techniques for modern self defense.

Everyone left expressing their satisfaction at attending the seminar.

… and here is a review from attendee Dan Maloy:

Saturday I drove to Leaf River, IL, to attend the Bartitsu seminar at the Gallowglass Academy. For those not familiar, Bartitsu is a martial art developed in late 19th century England. It combines Jujitsu, savate, pugilism, and modifications of the cane-fighting techniques already in use in Edwardian England.

At the seminar, Bartitsu was presented within its cultural context. By this I mean that by and large the instructor, Allen Reed, taught the techniques as they would have been taught by Barton-Wright. I’m quite glad that he did this as it allowed some new perspectives on skills that I’ve already gained, and gave some much-needed context to some of the contemporary fighting manuals I have.

The seminar started with an examination of 19th/early-20th century pugilism, concentrating largely on the basic techniques. While the dodge, slip, and cross-punches were largely familiar to me from previous training with boxing, the jab used in Bartitsu was entirely new. Anyone who has seen some of the older boxing manuals, back when bare-knuckle boxing was the norm, has probably noted the odd stance taken by the boxers: the leading arm extended far out and holding a very upright and stiff posture. Indeed, this image has been much caricatured, used to make anyone adopting it look like a rank amateur or someone with terrible training. Finding out the actual use of that stance, where the leading jab landed more like a sword lunge than a modern punch, gave me some interesting ideas I fully intend to test on my students in the weeks and months to come. The technique has a surprising amount of power, though I am not sure of its recovery time. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I try it out within the context of my own art.

After the pugilism we moved on to Barton-Wright’s jujitsu techniques. These were largely throws, with very little joint manipulation used. Throughout this part of the seminar, Allen took great pains to point out that inserts (“discommodes” he called them, using the vernacular of the historical period) were essential whenever entering into a throw or lock. Though the techniques were familiar to me there were again some small points that were different, mostly having to do with hand/arm placement during throws, that I look forward to trying out.

After lunch we moved on to the walking-stick defense portion of the class. Bartitsu uses a very high guard, almost comically high by today’s standards. According to Allen this was intended to keep the combatant’s hand out of the window of combat, while still leaving the stick in a strong position to both attack and defend. He said that many of the other cane arts of the time were largely exported from saber techniques, but that they failed to account for the lack of a guard/basket-hilt to protect the hand. Barton-Wright tried to address this in Bartitsu by having the hand wielding the cane held over the head.

I cannot say that I would use any of the cane techniques in my own teaching, at least not without some heavy modification to account for both the shorter sticks used in arnis and for the century of refinement that stick techniques have undergone since Bartitsu’s heyday. Still, the instruction was excellent and I had a great time learning and practicing the techniques.