Colonel Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, who wrote a popular column for the Sporting Life newspaper under the “Dwarf of Blood” pseudonym, was clearly a connoisseur of antagonistic novelties. Of all the English journalists who covered the heyday of the Bartitsu Club between 1899 and 1902, Col. Newnham-Davis was perhaps the most enthusiastic and carefully critical.
Written in October of 1898 – at about the same time that Barton-Wright was making his first forays into the London self-defence scene – the following article offers Newnham-Davis’s review of M. Georges d’Armoric’s savate displays at London’s Alhambra Music Hall. These displays were not especially well-received by their audiences, due partly to the age-old Anglo-French rivalry and partly to the insular English bias against kicking in combat sports, but critics and reviewers generally treated them fairly.
I have been studying Mons. Georges d’Armoric’s book on the French method of the noble art of self-defence, which begins with a pat on the back to the average Englishman: “He will not,” says Mons. d’Armoric, “stop at the argument points; he will offer practical demonstrations, for who does not think himself a crack in the noble art of self defence and the use of Nature’s weapons ?”
Then Mons. d’Armoric, pleading for “Le Chausson,” goes on to point out, with fine eye to a topical allusion, how good for the Hooligans a little of the noble order of the boot would be.
“Let a good number of these fellows receive their deserts at the hands” – surely it should be feet – “of their would-be victims; let a few get the treatment they delight to inflict upon the unwary and unoffending; let them feel what the weight of a well and scientifically administered Coup de Chausson on the side of the face is like, or the sensation of an ‘upper cut off the knee’ may be; favour your pet elect with more sport, if not yet contented, and add a ‘lead off from the left foot,’ or a ’rounded hit off the right,’ accompanied a fair concentrated arm fist blow, in the ‘mark,’ and your attacker will not ask – nor even wait – for more.”
As a practical exposition of these kindly sentiments Mons. d’Armoric trotted out his professors early this week at a press performance, and they are now whacking each other with canes, butting each other in the stomach, and putting their toes in each other’s ears nightly at the Alhambra. That the savate is useful in street row there can be no doubt, and the question as to whether a foot was only made to stand on when there is a row forward is a question of national taste.
I recall a story of a little row in Julian’s studio in Paris. There was a pugnacious young British student who yearned to make mincemeat of an equally pugnacious French student, and each was encouraged by his compatriots. Suggestions as to a duel with sabres, pistols, or mitrailleuses were put on one side, and it was decided to turn the two men loose in a courtyard with only the weapons that nature had given them.
The Britisher squared up in the customary style, and while he was deciding whether he would knock the Frenchman’s teeth out or put him out of his agony at once by a solar plexus blow, the Frenchman nearly cut one of his ears off with the edge of his bootsole, and then caught him a kick well below the belt; a kick that sent him running round the yard doubled with agony.
When the Britisher was able to face again the Frenchman, who had been doing a pas seul in the centre of the court, he remembered some wrestling tricks he had learned in Cornwall, and, closing with the Frenchman, brought him to ground with a throw meant to hurt. It did hurt the Frenchman – it hurt him so much that his friends came into the yard and carried him out; but the Frenchmen hold to this day that the Britisher fought unfairly, and the Britons can scarcely contain their wrath now when they discuss the Frenchman’s tactics. It was in small way a forerunner of Fashoda.
Some Frenchmen came over here and boxed at the Pelican Club in the old days of its existence in Denman Street. O’Donoghue, I think, was the “bhoy” put up against the best of the Frenchmen, and at first the gentleman from across the channel seemed to be getting very much the best of the deal; but somebody – The Mate, I think – told the Irishman to get to close quarters and keep there, and the character of the fight changed at once. It was on this occasion that Jem Smith, asked why he would not take on one of the Frenchmen, replied that he did not want to be prosecuted for manslaughter.
But this is straying away from the Press view of the “boxeurs.” The stage, set with a palace scene, was decorated with tricolour flags, and Mons. d’Armoric, a genial and excellently mannered Frenchman, described to us in very tolerable English all that was going to take place. The exponents of the noble art a la Francaise were two muscular-looking young Frenchmen, with small moustaches and heads closely clipped, clothed in dark blue armless jerseys and dark blue tights, with a tricoloured sash at the waist.
First they went through the cuts and parries that are recommended for battle with canes. Neither shouted “A bas les Juifs!” nor “Conspuez Brisson!”, “Vive l’Armee!” nor “Vive la Republique!” which are the cries that seem to be inseparable from cane combat in the Paris of today; but after the cuts and guards, and a review exercise or “salute,” differing very little from single-stick exercises as we know them, except that before a cut is made the cane is given a preliminary twist, the two professors commenced a set-to with the canes, their sole protection being masks and a glove on the right hands. They were very quick with cut and parry, but occasionally one caught the other whack which sounded and must have stung.
Then they put on the gloves and went through slowly the various punches, and butts, and kicks, and the parries for them—all very interesting from a scientific athlete’s point of view, but all a little wearying to the layman. This done with, we came to business. The two professors sat down in two chairs, had their arms wiped by two young gentlemen, who in frock coats and faultless ties looked as different as could be to the seconds we are used to on the British platform. Mons. d’Armoric called “Time,” and after the hand-hold, which does duty for a handshake, the two went at it with a will.
Unfortunately they were rather unevenly matched. With their hands they were more or less on an equality, but in foot-play one had undoubtedly the best of the game. One professor did little more than offer to kick the other’s shins, or the worst dislocate his knee, while the better man got in corkscrew kick in the right ear, flicked off a bit of the left eyebrow, disarranged the folds of his opponent’s sash, and hurt his ankle all in one comprehensive chahut.
In the third round the better man got in a kick on his opponent’s right breast that sent him to ground, and as nearly as possible knocked him out.
I believe that Mr. Slater is going to pit, or has pitted, English boxers against the Frenchmen, and it will be interesting to see the result. A man who knows as much about boxing as any amateur in this country was sitting in front of me at this press rehearsal, and his opinion was that Lancashire lad would be the best man to set against a Frenchman, for up North they are handy with feet as well as hands. If the evening show is what was put before us, I should say that the preliminary work is tedious, the actual contest decidedly interesting.
It seems that Mr. Slater’s proposed savate vs. boxing exhibitions didn’t actually happen. Almost exactly one year later, however, the infamous Charlemont/Driscoll savate vs. boxing challenge match would take place in Paris, setting Anglo-French sporting relations back a considerable distance.