A video interview with English judo and Bartitsu research pioneer Richard Bowen (1926-2005)

Richard (Dickie) Bowen was born in Belgravia, London in 1926. His father was English and his mother was from Wexford, Ireland. His early training was in bacteriology and, after serving in the army for nearly four years, he worked as a laboratory technician. Generally physically active, he had become a proficient skier during his military service and on his return to London Bowen was keen to find an occupation to maintain and improve his physical fitness.

In January 1949, on the recommendation of a colleague, he took up judo and joined the Budokwai, the UK’s oldest judo club,where he received expert instruction from senseis Gunji Koizumi, Percy Sekine, Trevor P. Leggett and Teizo Kawamura. Two years later, he was present at a meeting of the Budokwai during which Koizumi presented the then-90 year old Edward William Barton-Wright to the audience as “the pioneer of jiujitsu in England”. Barton-Wright died the following year.

In 1956 Bowen was selected to represent Britain at the 1st World Judo Championships, an openweight competition held in Japan. He subsequently spent three and a half years training at the Kodokan in Tokyo. As part of the Kodokan’s Kenshusei, an elite group of mostly Japanese judoka, including Matsushita and Watanabe, Bowen was regularly taught by senseis Daigo, Osawa and Kawamura and received occasional tuition from senseis Mifune, Samura and Kotani.

Bowen’s close, life-time association with the Budokwai, as a judoka and instructor, and as a committee member and Vice-President, continued when he returned to the UK. He also became actively involved with the British Judo Association (BJA).

Bowen had always been interested in the history and early development of judo in Britain, and in 1990 he embarked on a project to document the people, techniques and styles connected with ‘the old judo’ that Bowen felt may otherwise be forgotten. This long-term project encompassed painstaking research via numerous libraries and both public and private archives.

His research inevitably uncovered original copies of E.W. Barton-Wright’s Pearson’s Magazine articles, which were of special interest to Bowen in that he was an aficionado of the Sherlock Holmes stories and recognised Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu as the inspiration of Holmes’ “baritsu”. He summarised his findings in an article for the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society, titled Further Lessons in Baritsu (1997).

In the year 2000 Bowen forwarded photocopies of Barton-Wright’s articles to Joseph Svinth, the editor-in-chief of the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences. These articles were then scanned, transcribed and broadcast online via the EJMAS Journal of Non-Lethal Combatives (edited by Svinth) and the Journal of the Manly Arts (edited by Tony Wolf), providing a basis for international Bartitsu research via the Bartitsu Society.

By this time, with the help and support of friends, acquaintances and fellow enthusiasts, Bowen had painstakingly accumulated a substantial UK ‘judo archive’. His personal collection of judo and related books and ephemera was later donated to the University of Bath and now forms the Bowen (Judo) Collection, comprising some 82 boxes of material.

Sadly, when Richard Bowen died in 2005, his book remained incomplete. However, the book was later published posthumously in two volumes, under the title 100 Years of Judo in Great Britain (2011). As well as forming a unique and invaluable record of the events, politics and personalities of English judo, Bowen’s book offers a highly accurate and detailed study of Bartitsu history.

3 thoughts on “A video interview with English judo and Bartitsu research pioneer Richard Bowen (1926-2005)”

  1. It seems to me that practitioners and historians of Bartitsu owe a great deal to the Budokwai. The organization as a whole always gave Barton-Wright the respect he deserves. Gunji Koizumi made a point of celebrating E. W. Barton-Wright’s achievements toward the end of his life. Their interview (published in the Budokwai newsletter) remains one of the most important records of life inside the Edwardian Bartisu Academy. Even Yukio Tani (who had a difficult working-relationship with EWBW)invariably cited his mentor as the man who first planted the flag of Jujitsu in England. Mr. Bowen is in good company indeed.

    Wonderful article. Thank you!

  2. Agreed on all points except re. Tani, in that we’ve never come across a reference confirming that he acknowledged Barton-Wright’s role.

  3. That’s my misunderstanding. I should have reread the Budokwai interview. It was my recollection that Koizumi learned about Barton-Wright from Tani.

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