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 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.