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:

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9 thoughts on “E.W. Barton-Wright’s “overcoat trick””

  1. To answer Chris Gordon’s question there were many of us in my hometown that wore heavy leather dusters and used them in self defense. When I was introduced to Bartitsu and folks who did historical dueling with the cloak I learned a lot of pointers. I still have that ratty old duster as it’s a good friend that’s helped me a few times.

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