Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon: Bartitsu Club member and Titanic survivor

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (22 July 1862 – 20 April 1931) was a prominent Scottish landowner and athlete who is today best known as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic Sea on April 15, 1912.

A keen fencer, Duff Gordon was also a member of the Bath Club, a London Club that featured an indoor swimming pool (a great novelty in the late 1800s) and counted many athletes among its members. He may well have witnessed Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright’s demonstration there in 1899.

Fencing and Bartitsu at the Bath Club, 1899

Duff Gordon’s colleague William Grenfell, the first Baron Desborough, was at that time the president of the Bath Club and likewise went on to become associated with Bartitsu, accepting the presidency of the Bartitsu Club.

In Bartitsu Club instructor Armand Cherpillod’s memoir La vie d’un champion: Cours de culture physique et de jiu-jitsu (1933), Cherpillod recalled a compliment paid to him by Duff Gordon, who had been one of his students. Cherpillod had successfully represented the Bartitsu Club in a challenge contest against the wrestler Joe Carroll. Duff Gordon, remarking on the public reaction to the Swiss Cherpillod defeating the English champion, was reported to have said “you did not only beat Carroll, but you punished England.”

Both Duff Gordon and Grenfell were members of the organising committee of the 1908 London Olympic Games.

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (right) poses with W. Bean and Captain MacDonnell,  holding duelling pistols and protective masks.

In 1912, Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife, the famous fashion designer Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon, became embroiled in a massive scandal surrounding the circumstances of their surviving the wreck of the Titanic. It was popularly alleged that the wealthy Duff Gordon had bribed members of the crew of their lifeboat not to return to help people left swimming for their lives as the ship sank.  He was fully cleared of these charges after an exhaustive inquiry, which accepted that, among many other details, Duff Gordon had not bribed the crewmen but rather gave each of them some money out of gratitude and to compensate them for their lost wages and jobs. Sadly, however, the unjust stigma of the scandal ruined his reputation and he spent much of the rest of his life shunning the public eye.

A recently discovered cache of letters by Cosmo and Lucy Duff Gordon offers a poignant perspective on one of the great tragedies of the early 20th century.

6 thoughts on “Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon: Bartitsu Club member and Titanic survivor”

  1. As usual, the recent ABC miniseries took the shorthand version and branded him a craven coward.
    My personal opinion is that many men died because the social rules were not explicit. Many lifeboats were half full, waiting for women or children who never arrived.

  2. Unfortunately after most tragedies, the politicians, press and a lot of times, the public, need a scapegoat. Since most of the people, who were really responsible, sunk with the ship, a number of the survivors received this kind of treatment.

  3. Very interesting. Cosmo is a distant relative of mine and I learned that he also won silver in epeé for Great Britain in Athens, the summer of 1906. Coincidentally, I spent 8 years doing martial arts (Shotokan to be exact) and I now fence epeé as a hobby.

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