Some skilled Bartitsu cane sparring in this clip from London’s Waterloo Sparring Group.
Fans of Victorian-era action/adventure are looking forward to the October 23 release of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which will feature “Bartitsu” as a special achievement. The achievement award will be unlocked if players master all of co-lead character Jacob Frye’s fighting skills:
Noting that Jacob’s primary weapon is a sword-cane …
In the recent episode “Draft of Innocence”, insufferable “sapiosexual” couple Andre and Meegan announce a Gilded Age-themed draft party and extol the many virtues of Bartitsu, which Andre has been studying. Their friends are highly skeptical and decide that Andre is somewhere between a Kung Fool and a Tae Kwon Douche.
Later, however, in full Victorian garb, Andre tests his Bartitsu mastery in fending off a group of back-alley thugs:
… and does astoundingly well, employing his cane and snuffbox as well as Meegan’s parasol to take down all four enemies with panache. In fact, this is an excellent fight scene that manages to refer to real Bartitsu techniques as well as deliver a funny and spectacular action climax.
The complete episode is available for purchase on Amazon Prime and is strongly recommended to Bartitsu enthusiasts.
Bartitsu instructor James Garvey (lower right, above) represented E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” in the central piazza at Festival No. 6 (2015). This boutique music and arts festival is held at the eccentric model village of Portmeirion in Wales, which was also the location used in Patrick McGoohan’s surrealistic ’60s spy fantasy series, The Prisoner.
A judo fight scene from The Prisoner
Festival participants witnessed demonstrations of Bartitsu cane fighting and unarmed combat and also had the chance to learn some techniques, such as Barton-Wright’s “Good Way of Conducting a Person Out of a Room” (top, above).
“… a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light, with ‘champions’ prowling around it like tigers …”
– Mary Nugent (January 1901)
There are now approximately forty Bartitsu clubs and study groups around the world, all working to continue E.W. Barton-Wright’s experiments in blending scientific fisticuffs, jiujitsu and Vigny cane fighting. In keeping with the DIY, open-source nature of the Bartitsu revival, every club pursues its own agenda and points of emphasis. But what do we know about the original Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue?
E.W. Barton-Wright began performing jiujitsu displays almost as soon as he returned to London from Japan. At that point, given his birth and early years spent in India, his education in France and Germany and his constant international travels as an adult, he had probably spent many more years living outside of England than “at home”.
Barton-Wright’s demonstration at the famed Bath Club in March of 1899 seems to have been a pivotal event, in that this was probably where he first met William Grenfell, the First Baron Desborough, and Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. These aristocrats – both of whom enjoyed novel and eccentric athletic pursuits – had the all-important social standing and connections that Barton-Wright needed if he was to make his name in London.
The following month, at the conclusion of Barton-Wright’s two-part Pearson’s Magazine article “The New Art of Self Defence”, he noted that “in the future, all being well, I shall open a school”.
By June of that year, Grenfell was championing the idea of what would become the Bartitsu Club. Prominent, well-liked and an inveterate supporter of many clubs and organizations, he was the natural choice for Club president, with Barton-Wright assuming the role of Managing Director.
A committee of gentlemen
It’s important to bear in mind that early Edwardian London was highly class-conscious and that the notion of a “club” carried a different connotation during that period than it typically does today. It would be unusual for a club to advertise in newspapers, for example, because word-of-mouth recommendations were considered to be more prestigious. Exclusivity, among other things, was taken for granted. Therefore, when Grenfell described the then-nascent Bartitsu Club to reporters in June of 1899, he stated plainly that the idea was:
“… to establish an athletic class for people of good standing, and it seemed to us best to establish it in the form of a club, so as to be able to exclude undesirable persons. So members will be able to come themselves, and to send their children and the ladies of their family for instruction with every assurance that they will be running no risk of objectionable associations.”
Barton-Wright himself offered some clarification regarding what would be considered “undesirable” and “objectionable” in an interview during September of 1901. Replying to the interviewer’s observation that “If you sow this knowledge broadcast it might be bad for the police,” Barton-Wright noted that skill in the art required regular training and that:
” … this is a club with a committee of gentlemen, among whom are Lord Alwyne Compton, Mr. Herbert Gladstone, and others, and no-one is taught here unless we are satisfied that he is not likely to make bad use of his knowledge.”
This “committee of gentlemen” was a standard convention of Edwardian club-life. Along with Liberal Party politicians Compton and Gladstone, the Bartitsu Club committee included Captain Alfred Hutton, who was also a fencing instructor at the Club, and Hutton’s erstwhile rival Colonel George Malcolm Fox, the former Inspector General of British Army Gymnasia.
Collectively, their role was to act as “guardians at the gate” by assessing the characters of prospective members. Going by the assessments run by comparable clubs, the committee probably interviewed the applicant at some length, asked for letters of reference and ascertained that they were sufficiently solvent to be able to pay their enrollment and tuition fees.
This formal process was especially important because journalists often struggled to imagine why “respectable” people would need or even want to learn the intricacies of Japanese unarmed combat or Professor Vigny’s elegant stick fighting. In introducing the novelty of “recreational martial arts” to London society, Barton-Wright quite frequently had to explain that he was not in the business of training hooligans or “chuckers-out” (Edwardian slang for music hall bouncers).
Inside the Club
While the address at 67b Shaftesbury was fortuitous, in the heart of a busy and popular entertainment district, the very few photographs known to have been taken inside the Club suggest a fairly spartan basement gym.
The ceiling was supported by very sturdy white pillars and dark curtains ran along the white tile walls. The main part of the floor was probably carpet over concrete, with a large matted section for jiujitsu practice.
It’s likely that members would not join expecting the opulence or amenities of older and better-funded institutions, such as the Bath Club. However, Barton-Wright’s elaborate and impressive electrotherapy clinic – which was, arguably, his main business concern – was situated in an adjacent room.
Assuming that the prospect passed the committee’s examination, s/he was then required to undertake an extensive (and expensive) course of private lessons. We have few details as to what these lessons may have involved, but, writing in 1901, Nugent mentioned that “no (group) class-work (was) allowed to be done until the whole of the exercises are perfectly acquired individually”. On that basis, it’s safe to assume that beginners would be drilled in physical culture (calisthenic exercises) and the fundamental skills required in boxing, jiujitsu and cane fighting, all one-on-one with Barton-Wright and the other instructors.
Finally, having passed through an evidently robust battery of character tests and private lessons, fully-fledged Bartitsu Club members could join in the group classes. These seem to have been set up on a kind of circuit-training basis, with students rotating between lessons taught by the various instructors. The most detailed account of regular training at the Club comes from “S.L.B.’s” article in The Sketch of April 12, 1901:
The Bartitsu Club, through its Professors, over whom Mr. Barton-Wright keeps an admonishing eye, guarantees you against all danger. In one corner is M. Vigny, the World’s Champion with the single-stick: the Champion who is the acknowledged master of savate trains his pupils in another. He could kill you and twenty like you if he so desired in the interval between breakfast and lunch – but, as a matter of fact, he never does. He leads you gently on with gloves and single-stick, through the mazes of the arts, until, at last, with your trained eye and supple muscles, no unskilled brute force can put you out, literally or metaphorically.
In another part of the Club are more Champions, this time from far Japan, where self-defence is taken far more seriously than here. The Champion Wrestler of Osaka, or one of the shining lights among the trainers for the Tokio police, dressed in the picturesque garb of his corner of the Far East, will teach you once more of how little you know of the muscles that keep you perpendicular, and of the startling effects of sudden leverage properly applied.
The Japanese Champions are terribly strong and powerful; at a private rehearsal of their work, given some two months ago on the Alhambra stage, I saw a little Jap. who is about five feet nothing in height and eight stone in weight, do just what he liked with a strong North of England wrestler more than six feet high, broad, muscular and confident. The little one ended by putting his opponent gently on his back, and the big one looked as if he did not know how it was done.
There is no form of grip that the Japanese jujitsu work does not meet and foil, and in Japan a policeman learns the jujitsu wrestling as part of his equipment for active service. One of the Club trainers was professionally engaged to teach the police in Japan before he came to England to serve under Mr. Barton-Wright.
When you have mastered the various branches of the work done at the Club, which includes a system of physical drill taught by another Champion, this time from Switzerland, the world is before you, even though a “Hooligan” be behind you.
The Club curriculum also evolved over time. For a period during mid-1901, which was clearly the Bartitsu Club’s heyday, members could also take classes in breathing exercises with Mrs. Kate Behnke. Barton-Wright printed a “remarkable table of results of improvement in breathing capacity and chest girth resulting from respiratory exercises”.
The benefits of membership
Grenfell’s remark about “children and ladies” is telling. All of the Bartitsu Club members for whom we have concrete records were adult men, including a large percentage of soldiers and moneyed athletes. It’s likely, however, that actress Esme Beringer and child actor Charlie Sefton studied historical fencing with Captain Hutton there, and journalist Mary Nugent confirmed that “an endless number” of women did indeed attend classes at the Shaftesbury Avenue Club.
It’s clear that some Club members specialised in certain skills or styles, possibly due to time constraints. Captain F.C. Laing of the 12th Bengal Infantry spent much of his London furlough training at the Club, selecting a combination of jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting. Laing regretted that he could not prolong his training, but he had to return to his regiment in India when his leave was up.
While Barton-Wright encouraged his employees to train with (and compete against) each other, it’s not clear to what extent the “Bartitsu cross-training” system progressed during the relatively short period the Club was open. It’s very likely that, for example, some of the jointlocks and takedowns recorded in Barton-Wright’s article “Self Defence with a Walking-Stick” were influenced by jiujitsu. The ever-enthusiastic Captain Laing also referred to, but did not detail, combined jiujitsu and stick fighting sequences in his article “The Bartitsu Method of Self Defence”.
Ironically, though, by the time Laing’s article was published, the original Bartitsu Club had closed its doors for the last time …
A blend of 19th century armed and unarmed combat arts as interpreted via the lessons of Elizabethan fencing master Vincentio Saviolo, courtesy of the 1595 Club.
Umbrella fencing, also known as umbrella dueling, is a sport or game that has been played at some steampunk gatherings in the UK and USA. The purpose of this article is to encourage umbrella fencers to enjoy this activity safely, in the light of many years of experience in martial arts, fencing and related areas.
Quoting the authors of a 1990 report on umbrella injuries, “We hope the fact that umbrella tips can easily become life-threatening objects will come to the attention of the general public so that similar cases may be avoided.”
A little history
The concept of umbrella fencing as a sport was first proposed in 1897 by satirist J.F. Sullivan, in his tongue-in-cheek article The Umbrella: A Misunderstood Weapon. The actual teaching of umbrella fencing as self-defence, however, has a pedigree extending back to the earliest years of the Victorian era, reaching a pinnacle in the first decade of the 20th century.
Ominously, 19th and 20th century newspaper archives contain numerous reports of serious injuries and even deaths reported as the result of umbrella thrusts, delivered both accidentally and deliberately.
Parasol dueling: no contact, no problem
For the sake of clarity, it’s necessary to distinguish umbrella fencing/dueling from parasol dueling. The latter, which also features at steampunk gatherings, is a strictly non-contact game, similar to “rock, paper, scissors”, in which players compete by performing various poses and flourishes with their parasols. Because it’s played without contact, parasol dueling is essentially safe.
In umbrella fencing/dueling, on the other hand, players attempt to score points by making contact with their opponents. As such, it’s directly comparable to foil fencing, Bartitsu stick fighting and similar combat sports. Unfortunately, the fact that umbrella fencing is played in the fun, friendly context of a steampunk gathering doesn’t lessen the potential danger of thrusting a rigid, pointed object at another person.
There are currently two distinct steampunk umbrella fencing styles or rule-sets, alternately described as “umbrella fencing” and “umbrella dueling”.
It’s OK, I have a sieve
In the first variant, players must stand at a prescribed distance from each other, as delineated by markings on the floor or ground. They are equipped with small umbrellas and with sieves, which are held up in front of the players’ faces in the manner of fencing masks. Two small balls are balanced on the sieves, attached with short cords, and the object is for each player to attempt to knock the balls off his/her opponent’s sieve, while avoiding their attempts to do the same thing. Contact is made with the opponent’s umbrella, the sieve, or the balls themselves.
Even though deliberate contact with the opponent’s face and head is not allowed, accidental contact could still be extremely dangerous. A stray or redirected thrust could easily bypass the sieve, or an inexperienced player could inadvertently lower his/her sieve at exactly the wrong moment, as happens at 0.31 in the video above. Essentially, as fun, silly and ironic as it is, a hand-held sieve is not adequate protection for a game that involves thrusting and striking towards someone else’s head and face with a rigid, pointed object. Whereas a light downward blow to the crown of the head would probably be harmless, a thrust accidentally entering the eye socket could cause horrific injuries.
The best way to keep the spirit of this game intact while ensuring safety will be to have the players wear fencing masks and reposition the balls so that they are balanced on the mask. A similar game is played at Renaissance Faires and is safe enough for young children to take part:
Even a sieve is better than nothing
The second variant (most commonly referred to as “umbrella dueling”) is played with full-size umbrellas. It involves no prescribed fighting distance and may include no protection at all, apart from a rule that any contact with the opponent’s head or face will be grounds for disqualification. Some players also wear steampunk goggles, whose actual protective value against umbrella thrusts is questionable. In any case, the object is to score a thrust with the tip of the umbrella against the opponent’s body.
This variant is essentially limited-target thrust fencing using umbrellas – which are actually heavier and more rigid than fencing foils, and are just as apt to cause serious and even life-threatening injuries if accidentally thrust into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth or throat. The hands, unprotected by either padded gloves or guards on the umbrellas, are also extremely vulnerable.
Again, accepting that players genuinely don’t intend to risk their opponent’s safety, this is still a very dangerous game. It’s hard for a novice fencer to accurately judge and control their own speed, power or aim. The issue of aim is especially difficult in facing the unpredictable movements of an active opponent who may suddenly duck, trip or slip, lunge forward, etc., lowering his/her face into the space that was occupied by their torso an instant before.
It’s also far too easy for a thrust that is accurately aimed at the opponent’s body to be accidentally redirected into their face by the opponent’s own parry or bind (a defensive action in which one weapon pushes or presses the other).
A hidden danger
The type(s) of umbrellas used should also be considered from the safety point of view. Umbrellas with hollow steel, wooden, bamboo or hollow fiberglass shafts can all crack unexpectedly, leaving a jagged, dagger-like splinter projecting from the handle.
The same thing can (and does) happen even with actual fencing foils, which is why fencers wear jackets made of puncture-resistant fabric. The most dangerous scenario in this vein is when a weapon breaks on contact with the opponent’s weapon or body and then continues thrusting forward, allowing no time for anyone involved to realise the sudden danger, as in the tragic death of fencer Vladimir Smirnov in 1982.
According to this article, umbrella duelists at the Steampunk Symposium event in Cincinnati, Ohio used Unbreakable Umbrellas in their duels. Designed and manufactured for real self-defence, the Unbreakable Umbrella features a solid fiberglass shaft. It will not break, but its weight and rigidity are far greater than those of ordinary umbrellas, presenting an additional set of safety concerns. On the bright side, the article notes that future umbrella fencing competitors at this event will be required to wear protective vests and proper fencing masks.
Another useful safety feature will be to secure to the tip of the umbrella a strong rubber blunt, similar to those use on the ends of walking canes, enclosing a solid steel disc such as a suitably-sized coin. By forming an impenetrable barrier between the pointed tip and the opponent’s body, this has the potential to mitigate stabbings into mere bruises; though again, fencing masks are also crucial.
Despite the signing of waivers and the issuing of safety warnings, it’s irresponsible for event organisers to allow umbrella fencing matches without proper protection. The playful, anarchic steampunk ethos should not extend into ignoring or laughing off serious safety concerns. Aside from the immediate physical dangers, a successful lawsuit could easily bring about the permanent end of an otherwise positive conference.
With a very small investment into basic safety equipment, however, umbrella fencing has the potential to continue as an enjoyably silly steampunk sport.
The Bartitsu Club Athens 1900 trains in la canne, jiujitsu, pugilism, fencing and Victorian-era self-defence, as well as special fitness classes for ladies and gentlemen. The Club trains every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Coriolanos College of Combat and Physical Wellness in Athens, Greece.
George Zacharopoulos: Instructor and Club Administrator
Trained in: Ninjutsu, Ju Jutsu, Olympic Fencing (epee), Olympic Archery (recurve), stick & knife fighting (Combined Chinese and Filipino Boxing) , knife defense, La Canne ,Historical European Martial Arts.
HEMA instructor for the last ten years, knife Survival Instructor at Reality Based Personal Protection system by Jim Wagner, co-author of the only book in Greek for Historical European Martial Arts: The knightly art of the Sword.
Vasilis Petalas: Instructor
Trained in: Boxing, Tae Kwon do, Tang Soo do, Hakkoryu Ju Jutsu, Tai Nui kung Fu, Ninjutsu, Kendo.
2nd Dan Bujinkan & 2nd Dan Genbukan, 1st Dan Kokusai Jujutsu Renmei, 1st Dan Seitei Iaido, 1st kyu Kendo, 1st kyu Jodo.
Stefanos Goutzamanis: Instructor
Trained in: Historical European Martial Arts, Keysi Fighting Method
HEMA instructor and fitness fanatic.