The Swordswoman: Esme Beringer

Esme Beringer poses with two of her favourite weapons.

Directly paralleling the revival of Bartitsu, the modern revival of historical fencing as a martial art has become well-established over the past fifteen years. However, a remarkably similar revival of “ancient swordplay” took place in London during the late 19th century, and the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer was one of its chief proponents.

Much of the following is abridged from the book Ancient Swordplay: The Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London, published by the Freelance Academy Press.

Born into an artistic London family in 1879, Esme was drawn towards the theatre. Her sister Vera was a popular child actress on the stage, to whom Lewis Carroll dedicated a limerick in 1886:

There was a young lady of station
“I love man” was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, “You flatter”
She replied, “Oh! no matter
Isle of Man is the true explanation.”

Esme Beringer had first taken up fencing as a girl, under the instruction of a Sergeant Elliot. As a young adult, in 1896, Esme drew acclaim for her dramatic performance in the “breeches role” of Romeo opposite Vera as Juliet:

Miss Esme Beringer, in figure and appearance, is very suited to boys’ parts, the first in which she appeared being as Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. In Romeo she was called upon to practise the art of fencing, and once having tried it, she became most enthusiastic, and astonished her masters with her aptitude. She is a devotee to all athletic and gymnastic exercises, is fond of riding, bicycling, swimming and walking, and she considers fencing one of the best means of keeping healthy and developing the figure.

Womanhood, vol. 6, 1901.

Her swordplay instructor for this role was none other than the redoubtable Captain Alfred Hutton. Along with his friend and colleague Egerton Castle, Hutton was devoted to the revival of Elizabethan swordplay, including the use of the rapier and dagger, the two-handed sword and the broadsword and handbuckler.

During her preparations for the role of Romeo, Esme also became fascinated with historical fencing. She continued to practice both ancient and modern forms of the art for many years thereafter, specialising in the rapier and dagger and probably attending Hutton’s classes at the Bartitsu Club between 1900-1902. Her studies included theatrical fencing as well as the competitive/martial use of the weapons.


During the first decade of the 20th century, Esme Beringer participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and bouted during an “ancient swordplay” display for the Playgoer’s Club. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:

The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.

Esme Beringer

Esme also developed and starred in a playlet called At the Point of the Sword, based upon a story by Egerton Castle, whose purpose was essentially to justify a “terrific combat” between herself and her co-star:

All were delighted by the grace and skillfulness of Miss Beringer’s fencing, and her thrust and parry were declared excellent. Indeed, the trifle served to show how fine a swordswoman the talented actress is, and her cleverness in the play of rapier and dagger (…) Miss Beringer has made so thorough a study of the art that even during her holiday this year, she and the gentleman who appears with her at the Palace Theatre practised daily with their foils and daggers, much to the astonishment of the quiet neighbours who looked on in horror.

Esme Beringer went on to become an instructor with the Actresses’ Foil Club, which had originated as the “ladies’ branch” of the Actors’ Sword Club. While the Actor’s Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses’ Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.

Swordswoman Esme Beringer passed away, aged 93 years, in 1972.

“An incredible skill in the art of strangulation”: the Phantom of the Opera’s “Punjab lasso”

The so-called “Punjab lasso” is the signature weapon of Erik, the charismatic, homicidal genius anti-villain of Gaston Leroux’s classic serial novel, The Phantom of the Opera (1909-1910).

Just as Leroux’s original story has frequently been re-interpreted for various media, so too has the Phantom’s weapon of choice, most frequently as a combination of lariat and hangman’s noose:

In the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the Punjab lasso seems to have been conflated with the famous Indian rope trick, as the weapon itself is apparently possessed of a magical force that allows it to rise into the air, strangling its victims.

What, though, did Gaston Leroux actually have in mind when he wrote of the Punjab lasso?

It may be that Leroux was inspired by les Etrangleurs, the “Stranglers”, whose evil deeds had earlier been described by the novelist Eugène Sue in his 1844/1845 serial The Wandering Jew. Sue himself had drawn inspiration from English reports of the Thuggee and Phansigari cultists of India, whose modus operandi included strangling their victims with a long silk scarf or sash known as a rumāl. Perhaps the most famous of these reports was Philip Meadows Taylor’s semi-factual Confessions of a Thug, first published just four years before Sue’s novel.

One method of operating the rumāl was to knot a heavy coin in one end of the scarf/sash, allowing it to be swung around the victim’s neck. As dramatically described by Sue:

(The Strangler) then took a long and thin cord which was encircled round his waist, at one of the extremities of which was a ball of lead, in shape and size like an egg. After having tied the other end of this string round his right wrist, the Strangler again listened, and then disappeared, groping his way along the tall grass in the direction of the Indian, who came on slowly, singing his plaintive and gentle ditty.

He was a young man, hardly twenty years of age, the slave of Djalma, and had the dark skin of his country. His waist was encircled with a gay handkerchief, which confined his blue cotton vest, and he wore a small turban, with rings of silver in his ears and round his wrists. He was bringing a message to his master, who, during the heat of the day, was reposing in this ajoupa, which was at some distance from the house in which he resided.

When he reached a point where the path divided, the slave, without hesitating, took that which led to the hut, from which he was then hardly forty paces distant.

One of those enormous butterflies of Java, whose wings, when extended, measure from six to eight inches across, and displaying two rays of gold, arising from a body of ultramarine, was flitting from leaf to leaf, and had just settled on a bush of gardenias within reach of the young Indian.

He ceased his song, stopped, put out his foot carefully, then his hand, and seized the butterfly.

At this instant, the sinister visage of the Strangler arose before him; he heard a whistling like that of a sling, and then felt a cord, thrown with equal swiftness and power, encircle his neck with a triple fold, and, at the same moment, the lead with which it was loaded struck him violently on the back of his head.

The assault was so sudden and unexpected, that Djalma’s attendant could not utter one cry — one groan.

He staggered — the Strangler gave a violent twist to his cord — the dark visage of the slave became a black purple, and he fell on his knees, tossing his arms wildly in the air.

The Strangler turned him over, and twisted his cord so violently that the blood rushed through the skin. The victim made a few convulsive struggles, and all was over.

Sue’s work served to popularise the mystique of the Thuggee assassin amongst French readers and may even have inspired some real-life copycat criminals. The infamous mugging technique known as the coup du Pere Francois (“Uncle Frank’s trick”) had been described in Parisian newspapers as early as 1898, and by the time Leroux’s novel was published, the notion of strangulation as a practiced skill had thoroughly pervaded French popular culture via the sensational exploits of the Apache street gangsters.

In describing the Phantom’s use of the Punjab lasso, Leroux wrote:

(Erik) had lived in India and acquired an incredible skill in the art of strangulation. He would make them lock him into a courtyard to which they brought a warrior — usually, a man condemned to death — armed with a long pike and broadsword. Erik had only his lasso; and it was always just when the warrior thought that he was going to fell Erik with a tremendous blow that we heard the lasso whistle through the air. With a turn of the wrist, Erik tightened the noose round his adversary’s neck and, in this fashion, dragged him before the little sultana and her women, who sat looking from a window and applauding.

Whereas the name of Erik’s weapon was translated into English as “lasso”, conjuring the image of a noose at the end of a rope, the only time Leroux himself uses the term “lasso” is in describing an implement hanging from an iron gibbet in the Phantom’s torture chamber. In the story, this mince lasso (“thin lasso”) is left by the Phantom himself so that his victims may choose to end their own lives through a kind of auto-asphyxiation.

When writing about the Phantom’s actual weapon of assassination, however, Leroux’s original French reads fil du Pendjab, which means “Punjab wire” or (probably more accurately, in this context) “Punjab cord”. Leroux also uses the term lacet du Pendjab, connoting a thin loop of cord. Therefore, and especially given that the Phantom is evidently able to use the weapon at some distance from his opponent/victim, whirling it through the air so that it creates a whistling sound before looping around his victim’s neck, it seems not improbable that Leroux was visualising the type of weighted strangling cord vividly described by Eugène Sue.

Leroux continued:

The little sultana herself learned to wield the Punjab lasso and killed several of her women and even of the friends who visited her. But I prefer to drop this terrible subject of the rosy hours of Mazenderan. I have mentioned it only to explain why, on arriving with the Vicomte de Chagny in the cellars of the Opera, I was bound to protect my companion against the ever-threatening danger of death by strangling. My pistols could serve no purpose, for Erik was not likely to show himself; but Erik could always strangle us. I had no time to explain all this to the viscount; besides, there was nothing to be gained by complicating the position. I simply told M. de Chagny to keep his hand at the level of his eyes, with the arm bent, as though waiting for the command to fire. With his victim in this attitude, it is impossible even for the most expert strangler to throw the lasso with advantage. It catches you not only round the neck, but also round the arm or hand. This enables you easily to unloose the lasso, which then becomes harmless.

This curious, though not impractical trick of self-defence might well have been Leroux’s own invention, but it is notably reminiscent of the advice offered by early 20th century French self-defence instructors, including Jean Joseph Renaud and Emile Andre, with regards to fending off Apache ruffians …

The Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture 2013: Beamish Museum, UK

We’re very pleased to announce that the third annual Bartitsu School of Arms symposium will be held between September 14/15 at Beamish, the Living Museum of the North, near Newcastle, UK.

The seminar marks the second time the School of Arms has been held in Britain and will offer two days of Bartitsu cross-training with a team of instructors in an immersive, authentic 19th century environment.

Please see this page for all event details and online registration.

“The first jujutsu masters in Britain”

This 3.49 minute video is a supplement to and promotion for the BBC documentary Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: The Rise of Martial Arts in Britain. Featuring commentary from Emelyne Godfrey and Tony Wolf, the video deals with the careers of Bartitsu Club instructors Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi.

Because of license restriction, the video is only playable by viewers within the UK.

“The Gentle Art of Tutelage”

The Gentle Art of Tutelage is an upcoming film project to be written and directed by Noël Burch, whose Theory of Film Criticism is one of the key works in the canon of Western film criticism.

Mr. Burch’s 1981 telefilm docudrama, The Year of the Bodyguard, presented the story of the English Suffragette Bodyguard team training in jiujitsu under Edith Garrud. He returns to a somewhat similar theme in The Gentle Art of Tutelage, an “anarcho-vintage-romance-decadent-crime-drama” set in Edwardian England.

See the project’s Kickstarter page for more details …

Bartitsu and the Suffragette “Bodyguard” in new BBC documentary

The hour-long Timeshift documentary Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: The Rise of Martial Arts in Britain, showcasing the cultural impact of Asian martial arts in the UK and featuring a 12-minute section on Bartitsu and the Jujitsuffragettes, will screen in the UK on BBC4 at 10.00 pm, Sunday Feb. 24th.

Timeshift, the black belt of the archive world, takes a look at the rise of martial arts in Britain. From the early days of bartitsu, through judo and karate to kung fu, Britain has had a long and illustrious involvement with the martial arts. Gold medals have been won, Sherlock Holmes’s life has been saved and aftershave has been worn – all thanks to the martial arts.

An associated website, including a short film about Bartitsu Club instructors Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi, is expected to go live at some point between now and then.

The production team crew shot in-depth interviews with Emelyne Godfrey and Tony Wolf as well as combat demos with James Marwood and George Stokoe; they also tracked down the very elusive early-’80s Noel Burch documentary The Year of the Bodyguard, which deals with the jujitsu-trained Bodyguard unit of the British Suffragette movement.

More as it comes to hand …

Tony Wolf Bartitsu seminar in Colorado (May 4)

Bartitsu: the “lost” martial art of Sherlock Holmes

At the end of the Victorian era, E. W. Barton-Wright combined jiujitsu, kickboxing and stick fighting into the “New Art of Self Defence” known as Bartitsu.

Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club taught the ladies and gentlemen of London how to beat street ruffians at their own dastardly game. It was later written into the Sherlock Holmes stories as the method by which Holmes defeated Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

Join instructor Tony Wolf in a one-day seminar exploring:

* The original or “canonical” armed and unarmed self defence sequences as presented by E.W. Barton-Wright

* The process of neo-Bartitsu revivalism; continuing Barton-Wright experiments in cross-training between circa 1900 boxing, jujitsu and self defense with a walking stick, umbrella or parasol, via “combat improv” games and exercises

* The fascinating and colorful history of Victorian-era street gangsters and pickpockets, the secret Suffragette Bodyguard Society, and more!

When? May 4, 2013, 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where? Niwot High School, Niwot, CO

How much? $60; SAFD discount $50; pre-pay discount $50

Registration contact: Terry Kroenung:

Please bring a sturdy crook-handled walking cane or minimum 36″ smooth dowel or rattan stick, a drink bottle, comfortable exercise clothing and gym shoes.

Ambushed! (1905)


A dramatic sketch of French jujitsu pioneer Ernest Regnier, who operated under the quasi-Japanese nom de guerre of “Professor Re-Nie”, being headbutted by “Witzler”, a professional wrestler.

The assault apparently took place on the evening of November 30, 1905, just a few weeks after Regnier’s famous victory in a jiujitsu vs. savate contest with Georges Dubois. According to contemporary newspaper reports, Regnier was performing jiujitsu demonstrations at the famous Folies Bergère caberet and had agreed to an exhibition bout with the much larger Witzler, who then attacked Regnier before the referee had given the signal to commence.