Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous rendering of Bartitsu as “baritsu” is now understood to have been due to a simple mistake. It’s most likely that Doyle, searching for an exotic way to explain how Sherlock Holmes had flung Professor Moriarty from the brink of Reichenbach Falls, had copied the word “baritsu” verbatim from a London Times newspaper review of a Bartitsu exhibition, which had made the same spelling error. At roughly the same time that The Adventure of the Empty House was published, E.W. Barton-Wright’s London Bartitsu Club closed its doors for the last time, thus prematurely ending Barton-Wright’s innovative martial arts experiments.
It would probably, therefore, have nonplussed both Doyle and Barton-Wright to learn that something called “Baritzu” would be practiced five years later by members of the Australian Armed Services.
Between June and December of 1902, soldiers of B Company (10th Australian Infantry Regiment) including Privates Marshall, Emery, Weeks and Verner, performed a series of “Baritzu” demonstrations alongside displays of Indian club swinging, bayonet fighting and sabre fencing. All of these items (apart from the mysterious Baritzu) were typical of military Assault at Arms exhibitions, in which various soldierly feats and skills were performed as public entertainment, often in aid of charitable causes.
In a preamble to one of their first Baritzu exhibitions, a Mr. W.B. Wilkinson addressed the audience and explained Baritzu by means of an almost verbatim quote from Barton-Wright’s 1899 article, The New Art of Self Defence:
He said that Baritzu, or the new self-defence, was composed of 300 methods of attack and counter-attack. This system had been devised with the purpose of rendering a person absolutely secure against any method of attack. It was not intended to take the place of boxing, fencing, wrestling, or any other recognised forms of attack and defence. It was claimed for it, however, that it comprised all the best points of these methods, and that it would be of inestimable advantage when occasions arose where neither boxing, wrestling, nor any of the known modes of resistance was of avail. The system had been carefully and scientifically planned; its principle might be summed up in a sound knowledge of balance and leverage, as applied to human anatomy.
Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation would seem to be that a member of B Company had come across or saved a copy of Barton-Wright’s article, and that the Company used that as the inspiration for their novel Baritzu demonstrations. If so, then Marshall, Emery, Weeks and Verner must have been among the first Bartitsu revivalists, active only five years after the actual art had, for most practical purposes, ceased to exist. It’s diverting to imagine them poring over Barton-Wright’s articles, much as Bartitsu revivalists do today.
It’s even more diverting to speculate as to how the art came to be known to B Company as Baritzu. Barton-Wright’s first article for Pearson’s Magazine (quoted above by Mr. Wilkinson) had not actually referred to Bartitsu by name; the word was, however, used in the introduction to the second article. Doyle’s “baritsu” had, of course, gained some pop-culture currency by 1906. Perhaps the simplest explanation here is that there was a confusion between Bartitsu – the real, but then all-but-extinct self defence method – and baritsu – the entirely fictional fighting style of Sherlock Holmes – by soldiers who were vaguely aware of the connection but even less particular than Doyle was about spelling.
A very peculiar case of life imitating (martial) art ..