We’re pleased to present this short interview with author Nigel Gordon, who reports that he studied Bartitsu stick fighting as a young teenager in Wednesbury, Staffordshire, UK during the early 1960s.
Given that we have been unable to successfully document any survival of Bartitsu as a named fighting style after early 1902 – with the notable quasi-exception of the “baritzu” exhibitions performed by some Australian soldiers during 1906 – Mr. Gordon’s reminiscences are likely to be of considerable interest to modern Bartitsu enthusiasts. We hope that this interview will spur further research into the possible survival or revival of E.W. Barton-Wright’s system into the mid-20th century.
Please forward any questions for Mr. Gordon to email@example.com.
Above: Church Hill, Wednesbury.
Nigel Gordon: There was a club practising Bartitsu in Wednesbury in Staffordshire as late as 1963. However, it only practiced the stick fighting elements of Bartitsu. It originally met to practice in a school hall on Church Hill in Wednesbury but in 1961 moved to rooms over the Co-op in Union Street and the 5th Wednesbury Scout hut. The scout master of the 5th Wednesbury was a member of the club. In 1963 it lost use of the rooms over the Co-op and the club closed.
How did you become involved with the club?
I attended the club as a 14 year old at the instigation of my scout master. At the time the club had some eight or nine members, the majority of who were in their sixties. The instructor was a chap called Frank Small.
Are you aware of any other Bartitsu-related activity at that time?
I know that there was also a club in Solihull around the same time and I believe there was a similar club in Tipton but have no information about either other than the fact that on one occasion a couple of member from the Solihull club came over to the Wednesbury club.
I believe that there was some connection between Sensei (Reg) Bleakman, who founded Budo of Great Britain and the Solihull club. In 1980 or ’81 I was discussing stick fighting with Sensei Bleakman and he mentioned having studied it in Solihull in the 1960s and referred to it as the “Barton-Wright’s system of stick fighting”. He also told me that he had taken some ideas from Barton-Wright’s self-defence system when he developed Atemi Jutsu, though he never mentioned Bartitsu (by name).
Do you recall how Bartitsu made its way to the West Midlands?
My memory is, and this may not be accurate as it is over 50 years ago, from what I gathered at meetings was that Frank Small’s uncle brought Bartitsu to the West Midlands after the First World War. To be honest I can’t be sure it if was called “Bartitsu” or “Barton-Wright stick fighting”. It may have been the latter, as that was all that was taught. I think Frank Small taught at all three clubs but can’t be certain of that.
When I mentioned this to Reg Bleakman in 1980 or ’81, he suggested that Frank had revived the system after the war having learnt it from his uncle. I have no insight on that.
Can you describe what you learned at the Wednesbury club?
As far as I can remember we wore street clothes, though as I said I only attended for a few months, so if any special clothing had been required I probably did not stay long enough to require it. We trained with the type of canes that teachers used to use at that time. A light cane with a bent handle. Though some of the older members used heavier sticks for demonstrations. There were two types of combat practiced, one type being cane against cane, the other being cane against an attacker who might be armed or unarmed.
With respect to specific moves I would be hard pressed to say which techniques I learnt then and which I learnt later from other sources, later when I was studying the martial arts and travelling in Europe.
Did the classes include any type of free-fencing or sparring, or just technical drills?
With respect to fencing/sparring it depends how you define this. We had some exercises where we were told to use a limited set of attacks, e.g. strikes to the head, and the other party would defend against these. I was never allowed to do any free sparring or fencing though I recall some of the older members would do what appeared to be free sparring at the end of the training sessions.
UPDATE: Subsequent to the original publication of this article, we have learned that former Bartitsu Club member Percy Rolt taught Bartitsu stick fighting to Police Superintendant H.G. Lang at the former’s family gym in Hove, East Sussex, between May of 1920 and April of 1921. It’s unknown as to whether there may have been a connection between Percy Rolt and Frank Small, but these two events represent the only confirmed instances of the art being practiced in England after the circa 1912 closure of Pierre Vigny’s school in London.