“Always prepared” – the Boy Scouts and self defence

Although Bartitsu slightly pre-dates Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement, both were original and novel products of their founders’ Edwardian ideals. Scouting quickly captured the international imagination and went on to become the most successful youth movement in the world, whereas Bartitsu had only a brief moment in the sun and was then all but forgotten throughout the 20th century.

One of E.W. Barton-Wright’s most historically significant achievements was his introduction of Japanese unarmed combat to the Western world. Whereas jiujitsu had occasionally been glossed in popular magazines and academic journals prior to 1898, it was Barton-Wright’s articles for Pearson’s Magazine, his public demonstrations and classes via the Bartitsu Club that began the pre-WW1 jiujitsu boom.

Circa 1906, as Baden-Powell was formulating the concepts and practices of his nascent youth movement, he was impressed by former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi‘s jiujitsu exhibition at Windsor Castle. Along with campfire lighting and first aid, jiujitsu was among the skills demonstrated during the final day of Baden-Powell’s initial, experimental Scout camp on Brownsea Island during August of 1907.

Shortly thereafter, the first set of Boy Scout merit badges were produced, intended to reward practical skill in any of a number of areas including one for “Master-at-Arms”. To qualify for this badge, a Scout was required to participate in one, two or three of the following sports – fencing with the foil, singlestick or quarterstaff, boxing, wrestling and jiujitsu.

Curiously, the Master-at-Arms badge appeared in the US Boy Scouts Association handbook in 1910, but was dropped the following year.

In 1912 Baden-Powell, who had recently returned to England after a world tour visiting Scouts in many different countries, offered these observations on the martial arts training he had witnessed in Japan:

I went and saw a lot of them at their daily practice of fencing with bamboo sticks and practicing jiu-jitsu to make themselves strong and active and good-tempered. I say good-tempered because it is very much like boxing; you have to take a good many hard knocks and take them smiling. If a fellow lost his temper at it, everybody would laugh at him and think him a fool. In jiu-jitsu they learn how to exercise and how to develop their muscles, how to catch hold of an enemy in many different ways so as to overpower him, how to throw him and, what is very important, how to fall easily if they get thrown themselves. I expect the Scouts of Japan, if they visit England later on, will be able to show us a thing or two in this line.

The Scottish physical education specialist W. Bruce Sutherland was, along with William and Edith Garrud, Percy Longhurst and W.H. Collingridge, among the second generation of European jiujitsu instructors. By circa 1915, as well as teaching classes for the Special Constables and the 17th Royal Scots Battalion, Sutherland advocated jiujitsu training for the Boy’s Brigade, the Cadet Corps, Junior Officers’ Training Corps and the 12th Company City of Edinburgh Boy Scouts:

Thus, Sutherland was probably among the first, if not literally the first instructors to teach jiujitsu to the Scouts. His contemporaries William Garrud and Percy Longhurst wrote simplified technical articles explaining jiujitsu “tricks” for young readers, and former Bartitsu Club fencing instructor Captain Alfred Hutton produced a monograph entitled Examples of Ju Jitsu, or Japanese Wrestling, for Schoolboys.

At about this time in faraway New Zealand, a home-grown alternative to the Scouts’ sister movement, known as the Peace Scouts, was also training youngsters in jiujitsu along with camping. The N.Z. Peace Scouts, who eventually amalgamated with the Girl Guides, was perhaps the first national organisation to promote martial arts training for girls.

In 1923 H.G. Lang, a British police Superintendant stationed in India, produced a book entitled The Walking Stick Method of Self Defence. Lang’s stick fighting method was closely based on that of Pierre Vigny, who had been the chief instructor at the Bartitsu Club. Lang’s method was endorsed by several leaders of the Scouting movement in India and he included exercises specifically for the “Training of Organised Bodies”, such as Scout troupes. He even went so far as to suggest that the Scout’s traditional staff might be profitably replaced with a walking stick of the length advocated in his system.

Two years later the British Scouting Association produced a manual for the master-at-arms badge, setting out simplified instructions for singlestick, quarterstaff and foil fencing and well as boxing, wrestling and jiujitsu. Kirk Lawson has recently made available a facsimile copy of the 1925 manual, based on an original found by Robert Reinberger.

In many cases it seems that the stated requirements for achieving the Master-at-Arms badge did not quite keep up with the practical options available to most Scouts. Certainly, Scouting manuals continued to refer to singlestick and quarterstaff fencing long after those sports had largely faded from popularity, although anecdotal evidence suggests that some older Scoutmasters continued to teach them even into the 1970s.

Master-at-Arms badges (or equivalents) are still available in some national Scouting associations, but the requirements have changed according to local and national policies and social trends. The Health and Safety Guide of the present Boy Scouts of America organisation, for example, states that

“Boxing, karate, and related martial arts—except judo, aikido, and Tai Chi—are not authorized activities.

… presumably due to liability concerns. The Master-at-Arms badge was never re-instated within the American Scouting movement.

The present incarnation of the Master-at-Arms badge of the (British) Scout Association recognises only fencing, shooting and archery. However, the Baden-Powell (or Traditional) Scouts still maintain the Master-at-Arms badge in close to its original form, requiring candidates to:

1. Demonstrate proficiency in 1 of the following: Single stick, Quarterstaff, Fencing, Boxing, Judo, Wrestling, Archery or any recognised martial art.

2. In all the ‘contest’ events, Scout must have taken part in an encounter under proper ring conditions and be able to demonstrate the correct methods of attack and defence.

3. Give evidence of being in training for the scheduled item for a period of not less than 3 months.

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6 thoughts on ““Always prepared” – the Boy Scouts and self defence”

  1. Hi Colin,

    we don’t know very much about your great grandfather, apart from what he wrote in his book “Ju-jitsu Self Defence.” Any background information you or your family could offer would be much appreciated.

  2. Hello again!

    My great grandfather William Bruce Sutherland (12 Aug 1879, Edinburgh – 27 Jul 1933, Edinburgh) also wrote another book “Physical Culture The Bruce Sutherland System” – he was a big promoter of physical culture and ran a school of physical culture in Edinburgh. I believe for a time he also ran a school in Glasgow as well. He was a very big promoter of physical culture.

    I have some newspaper articles about him as well, one of which told of a World Record he accomplished playing continual rounds of golf circa June 1927. Sure enough there was mention of the 14th Rover Scouts who assisted in the event. I have scanned in these articles and if you are interested, I can send them over to you.

  3. Hi Colin,

    we’d be particularly interested in his involvement in self defence instruction, especially from whom he learned jiujitsu and whether he was associated with any of the other prominent instructors of his day.

  4. I have been involved in the Boy Scouts of America as an adult leader for five years. I accidentally ran across this website. I have never been told about this part of our Scouting history. Is this for real? Sir Baden Powell really taught his scouts Jiu Jitsu?

  5. Yes, the history is all real, but note that there’s no evidence that Baden-Powell taught jiu-jitsu himself; it was one of a number of activities offered during that early encampment and the assumption is that he would have brought in a specialist instructor.

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