“Susan Swayne” and the Bartitsu School of Arms

Announcing a new addition to the attractions of the second annual Bartitsu School of Arms (September 7-9 at Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts in Chicago, hosted by the Bartitsu Club of Chicago).

After visiting the stately Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle, IL, and an extended private tour of the mansion’s 1870s-vintage gymnasium, School of Arms participants are invited to a Friday evening meal in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, followed by the play Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride. Susan Swayne has been described as “Mary Poppins meets the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and features fencing, knife fighting and Bartitsu fight scenes.

Registration for the School of Arms also includes your complimentary ticket to see Susan Swayne. So, a visit to a historical gymnasium, a night of Victorian-era action theatre, two days of Bartitsu training and an Antagonisticathlon; better register for the 2012 Bartitsu School of Arms today!

“Waylaid by a ruffian!”

A cautionary tale of urban maleficence. Don’t let this happen to you! Ladies and gentlemen alike are invited to arm themselves against the tide of ruffianism by attending the second annual Bartitsu School of Arms in Chicago (September 8-9, 2012) – see this page for all details!

Jujitsu in “Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride”

Victorian-era detective Susan Swayne (played by Lisa Hercig) applies a deft jujitsu arm lock to Isabelle Fontaine-Kite (Kimberly Logan) in a scene from the play Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride, produced by the Chicago-based Babes With Blades theatre company. For further information on the play, and to book tickets, click here.

“Corps-a-corps fighting” in the French Army (1918)

From The Medical Record: Volume 94, Issues 1-12, Page 31.

When Lieutenant Desouches of the French Mission attached to the American Army, was in Paris last, he expressed surprise that Dr. McCurdy, head physical instructor of the Y. M. C. A. for the American Army, was not aware that jiu-jitsu was taught in both the French and British Armies. He said: “Go to the Ministére de la Guerre and see Commandant, or, as you say, ‘Major,’ Royet, directeur de l’infanterie. He is at the head of the physical instruction.”

Commandant Royet received me courteously and at once spoke of jiu-jitsu in the French Army. “Why, we have had this going on for more than half a year, and all the men in the French Army have to learn jiu-jitsu, adapted to our requirements, and the feature is an enormous success. We encourage the men in every way to perfect themselves in what we call “corps-a-corps fighting,” and this feature is of immense use. Before the war the method of combat was with the bayonet and was simply a system reduced to movements, manual exercises, and fencing. But since the war we have gone into the thing with entirely new motives. We have adopted real hand-to-hand fighting, such as is imposed by the circumstances of this war. We require our men to kill their adversaries in this new corps-a-corps work. The bayonet is all right, but suppose you have no bayonet – which sometimes happens – well, a man can clutch his knife and attack his adversary. But suppose he has no knife, or, for some reason, cannot make use of it, at the psychological moment? What then? Why, he simply relies on his knowledge of jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu is an art which takes time to learn thoroughly, but a soldier can learn enough in a month to give him complete confidence in himself when he has nothing but his hands, head, and feet to help him out, minus his gun, bayonet, grenade, or sword, as the case may be. What we teach enables our men to master their adversaries in almost all circumstances – even when the adversary is armed. He can disarm his adversary. You can see this in our schools. You simply kill a man with this jiu-jitsu properly applied.

“The one thing above all, in this jiu-jitsu work is that a soldier has complete confidence in himself. We have found it a splendid thing for the morale. When they advance at the front they are sure they can grapple with their adversary. Is not this a good thing to learn? The English Army has taken this up and it has found its value, and I can heartily recommend it to all the Allied Armies. The Minister of War is getting out a brochure containing this system of instruction and it will soon appear with illustrations and at the same time our Ministry will issue an English translation.

“Boxing is all right, so is the savate, or French substitute for boxing, so is wrestling, and so is also, of course, the Japanese jiu-jitsu. All come into our system of instruction. Let us take an example: suppose a man boxes his adversary, knocks off his helmet. There is a fraction of a second of surprise. Then is the time to disarm him and finish him off with jiu-jitsu. Our system does not give jiu-jitsu the monopoly to the exclusion of all other means of getting rid of one’s enemy, but it is an adaptation to our requirements. We use bayonet, knife, savate, boxing, and jiu-jitsu, all combined for practical purposes. When I say one month is sufficient for a man to learn our army physical development exercises, I do not mean any one at random; I mean a man who has had some physical development to start with. A man who never had physical development exercises cannot be expected to pick up jiujitsu in a short time. He takes longer to get the required skill. But he gets it. Believe me, our men are delivering the goods all right.”

Bartitsu as a “steampunk martial art”

Steampunk applies post-modern artistic imagination to 19th century culture and technology, and vice-versa. There is an undeniable affinity between Steampunk and neo-Bartitsu, a martial art which is likewise inspired by (and experiments with) Victorian-era aesthetics and resources; both can be appreciated as aspects of the neo-Victorian movement.

Neo-Bartitsu describes the contemporary revival of a self defence system first promoted by its founder, a stalwart son of the British Empire named Edward William Barton-Wright, at the end of the 19th century.

Born in Bangalore, India in the year 1860, E.W. Barton-Wright was the third son in a large, moderately prosperous family. Following the middle-class fashion of the day, he matriculated in France and Germany and then set out to make his mark. His first attempt at a start-up business in the antimony smelting industry failed, and so he hit the road:

“As a mining engineer in all parts of the world, I have often had to deal with very unscrupulous fighters, and, being a light man, I had to protect myself with something else than my fists.” – Bartitsu: Its Exponent Interviewed (Pall Mall Gazette, September 5, 1901)

Barton-Wright said that he had studied “boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate (French kickboxing) and the use of the stiletto, under recognised masters”, further noting that he had refined his skills by “engaging ‘toughs’ until (he) was satisfied in their application”. Circa 1894, the evidently pugnacious Britisher steamshipped his way to Kobe, Japan, where he became among the very first Europeans to learn traditional Japanese martial arts – specifically, the Shinden Fudo Ryu (“School of the Immovable Heart”) method of jujutsu, under the venerable sensei Terajima Kuniichiro.

Returning to London in 1898, Barton-Wright found a city in the grip of three enthusiasms that played directly into his toughened hands. First was the trend towards “physical culture”, as post-Industrial Revolution Londoners found themselves willing and able to pay for the sort of bodily exercise that farm and village life had offered gratis to previous generations. Second was the fashionable interest in all things “Oriental”, especially Japanese, in origin, and third was the newspaper-fed moral panic surrounding the upsurge of “hooliganism”. Scarcely a day passed without the papers reporting some new street outrage perpetrated upon innocent members of the new London bourgeoisie.

Into this triple breach rode E.W. Barton-Wright upon his “New Art of Self Defence”, which he had named Bartitsu. He later defined the neologism as meaning “self defence in all its forms”; it was, in fact, an Anglo-Japanese portmanteau of his surname and the word “jujitsu”. Not satisfied with merely importing Asian martial arts to Europe, Barton-Wright conceived Bartitsu as what we today would think of as a mixed martial art; an experimental cross-training conglomerate of several different styles.

For its time, this was a truly radical innovation. The general rule in the West was towards an increasing specialisation of combat sports into facets; good old fisticuffs, numerous regional wrestling styles, various forms of fencing. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu deftly jabbed, flung and twisted them all together, with the aim of transforming those who could afford to pay into proper c1900 fighting machines.

He established the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture – prosaically, the Bartitsu Club – in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, and did a decent job of promoting his “New Art” via lectures, demonstrations and magazine articles. Members of the public attracted by Barton-Wright’s charisma and/or the sheer novelty of Bartitsu first had to submit their names for approval by a stern Committee of Gentlemen including Colonel G. Malcolm Fox and Captain Alfred Hutton. This vetting system served to weed out “undesirables” and may well have rather doomed the enterprise, as Barton-Wright appears to have overestimated the number of “desirable” Londoners who shared his passion for exotic arts of self defence.

Still, for a few years at the turn of the 20th century, the Bartitsu Club was a place to see and be seen. Members and supporters included politicians, soldiers, athletes, actors and aristocrats, both men and women, who were trained by a gallery of instructors from different points of the map. The young Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi, newly arrived from Japan, trained their well-heeled clients in the mysterious skills of Japanese unarmed combat. Armand Cherpillod, a powerful wrestler from the Swiss village of St. Croix, taught grappling and exercise classes. Professor Pierre Vigny, formerly a soldier with the Second Regiment of French Artillery, offered training in savate and his own, unique method of self defence with a gentlemanly walking cane or ladylike parasol. Reporter Mary Nugent once described Barton-Wright’s instructors, or “champions”, illuminated by electric lights as they prowled tiger-like through the Club’s cavernous, white-tile-walled interior.

Bartitsu self defence with a walking stick (1901)

Cherpillod, Tani and Uyenishi were also put to work in music-hall challenge matches against local wrestling champions. All three enjoyed remarkable and consistent success, although Barton-Wright rather stacked the deck by requiring that the locals took on the Japanese fighters under jujitsu rules. Their bouts were always fought to the point of submission via joint-lock or strangle-hold, techniques that were old news to the jujitsuka but almost entirely novel to their opponents.

Then, in early 1902, it all fell apart. Exactly why is the most enduring of the Bartitsu mysteries, but it probably comes down to the dichotomy between attaining massive popular recognition versus appealing to a tiny demographic of rich martial arts connoisseurs in the strictly class-conscious society of pre-WW1 London. The Club disbanded and the instructors went their own ways, some going on to train notables such as Edith Garrud, the self defence instructor for the Suffragette Bodyguard team.

E.W. Barton-Wright spent the remainder of his long life as a physical therapist and occasional investor in failed inventions. His therapeutic gadgets included electric light baths, heat rays, massage machines and the truly sinister-sounding “Nagelschmidt Apparatus”; he was occasionally sued and went bankrupt more than once.

Barton-Wright demonstrates his “blue light ray machine”, circa 1905.

E.W. Barton-Wright died in almost complete obscurity, at the age of 90, in 1951.

Bartitsu might well have been completely forgotten thereafter – a minor casualty of the cultural chaos engendered by the First World War – if not for a cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Empty House, revealing that Holmes had defeated his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, through the use of “baritsu”. It’s likely that the popular author, in searching for a deus ex machina device to bring Holmes back from the brink of the Reichenbach Falls, where Doyle left his readers hanging some nine years earlier, had simply copied the misspelling directly from a London Times article on Bartitsu.

In any case, by the time of Barton-Wright’s death almost no-one remembered what he had been up to at the turn of the century, which, of course, left generations of Sherlock Holmes aficionados wondering what on Earth Doyle had meant. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the very few scholars whose specialties combined Sherlock Holmes studies with martial arts history began to piece the story back together. At that stage, with the benefit of a hindsight encompassing Bruce Lee’s almost heretical blending of multiple fighting systems during the ’70s (Jeet Kune Do) and the modern phenomenon that is mixed martial arts, it became apparent that Barton-Wright’s experiments had simply been decades ahead of their time.

Neo-Bartitsu is an unusual case even in the fabulously obscure world of martial arts revivalism. Barton-Wright’s system was probably only ever half-baked; a flash in the pan idea, abandoned as a work in progress in 1902. So why attempt to reconstruct it? What’s the motivation, other than a sort of anachronistic nostalgia?

I think that the neo-Bartitsu revival is inspired by the same combination of curiosity and creativity that fuels the Steampunk movement. There are historical motifs that must be honoured as well as a liberal encouragement to fill in the blanks according to one’s own intuition. There is a also a common sense of picking up a baton set down over a hundred years ago; of continuing a work-in-progress, without, necessarily, any definite goal of completing that work.

Over the past several years there have been numerous Bartitsu classes and demonstrations at science fiction/Steampunk gatherings including V-Con, AnomalyCon, TeslaCon, SteamCon III, the World Steam Expo, StarFest, the Steam Century Mystery weekend and the San Francisco Edwardian Ball. The CombatCon event in Las Vegas features the interplay between 19th century “antagonistics” and Steampunk fiction as one of its major themes.

Here’s author Gail Carrington, creator of the popular Parasol Protectorate series, engaging in a bit of Bartitsu-inspired jackanapery with instructor and fellow steampunk author Terry Kroenung:

… Adrienne Kress, actress and author of the steampunk/girl power adventure novel The Friday Society, getting her Bartitsu on in Toronto (you can also watch her in action inthis video item by the Canadian InnerSPACE channel):

… and here’s Neal Stephenson assisting Tony Wolf in a Bartitsu demo. in Wisconsin:

John Reppion’s article, Baritsu, Bartitsu and the Jujitsuffragettes was featured in issue #6 of Steampunk Magazine.

In addition to providing music for the documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes, top Steampunk band Abney Park has produced the song Victorian Vigilante, whose protagonist “brings his baritsu” to the task of taking down his nemesis.

Finally, the Steam Fu discussion forum at Steampunk Empire frequently cites Bartitsu, and likewise, Steampunk (as it is related to martial arts) is a recurring topic on the venerable Bartitsu Forum, which is the primary venue for Bartitsu discussion online.

The Bartitsu School of Arms 2012 Q&A

A Q&A session with Tony Wolf regarding the upcoming second annual Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture event, to be hosted by the Bartitsu Club of Chicago at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio between September 8-9.

Q – First things first; what is Bartitsu?

A – Bartitsu is a 100+ year old method of cross-training between several martial arts and combat sports including fisticuffs (old-school boxing), jujitsu, wrestling and the Vigny method of self defense with a walking stick. The founder, E.W. Barton-Wright, had traveled the world as a young man and had sampled a wide range of “antagonistics”, as martial athletics were known in his day. In 1899 he set up the original Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.

Q – And what happened then?

A – The School was successful for a few years, attracting quite a colorful group of athletes, actors and actresses, politicians and soldiers as students. Barton-Wright was a bit of a social climber and he needed the Bartitsu Club to appeal to a relatively wealthy clientele. Then, in early 1902, for reasons that are still a historical mystery, it closed down and the instructors dispersed. Barton-Wright spent the rest of his career working as a physical therapist and Bartitsu itself was almost completely forgotten.

Q – Apart from the Sherlock Holmes connection …

A – Yes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave Bartitsu a sort of cryptic shout-out in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, when it was revealed as the means by which Holmes had defeated Professor Moriarty in their fight at the Reichenbach Falls. That one obscure reference was the clue that eventually led to the modern revival of Bartitsu, which began almost exactly 100 years after the original Bartitsu School closed down.

Q – How is the Bartitsu School of Arms event tied in with that revival?

A- The Bartitsu Society has been operating as an informal collective of enthusiasts since 2002, and last year (2011) we held our first School of Arms in London. We wanted to model the event as closely as was practical on the way Bartitsu was originally taught, even down to things like renting a genuine Victorian-era warehouse as a venue. We also developed a somewhat radical team-teaching system based on circuit training, which appears to be how classes were run at the original Club. The overall goal was both to boost participants’ skills and also to boost the revival of Bartitsu itself by encouraging networking and skill-sharing between practitioners.

Q – So what about the 2012 event?

A – The plan is to alternate between North America and Europe annually, so this year we’re based at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Chicago. Forteza was actually directly inspired by Barton-Wright’s club; it’s a 100 year old building that’s been outfitted to resemble a c1900 gymnasium, including a “gymuseum” collection of functional antique exercise equipment. It’s also the base of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago, which will be hosting the 2012 School of Arms.

Q – What’s on the agenda?

A – We’re starting on Friday the 7th with an optional tour of the Hegeler Carus mansion in LaSalle, which is about a two-hour journey from Chicago. The mansion has a fascinating history of its own – among other things, it was the place where Zen Buddhism was introduced to the Western world – but the highlight for Bartitsu enthusiasts will be the turnhall (gym), which is believed to be the oldest still-extant private gymnasium in the US. It’s still equipped with its original apparatus, including wooden Indian clubs, climbing ladders, etc.

We’ll be running cross-training and circuit training sessions all day on Saturday and Sunday, featuring instruction from myself and my colleagues James Marwood, Allen Reed and Mark Donnelly. The object is to both preserve what is known of Barton-Wright’s original style and to continue his experiments, which were basically left as an work in progress when the original Club closed down in 1902. Every instructor has their own “take” on the material, so participants will enjoy a wide range of drills, exercises and perspectives. On Saturday night we’ll all go out for dinner at O’Shaughnessy’s, which has a great Victorian-style side-room – really ideal for this type of event.

Q – What about the “Antagonisticathlon”?

A – That’s happening on Sunday afternoon. It’s basically a fun way to test your Bartitsu skills via “martial arts obstacle course”. Participants represent Victorian-era adventurers fending off assassins and street hooligans while moving through a series of obstacles and challenges set up around the gym. We’re planning some surprises for the next course, including some booby traps …

Q – Sounds like fun. Can people just come along to watch the Antagonisticathlon?

A – Yes, spectators are welcome!

For more information on the 2012 Bartitsu School of Arms, please visit this website.