Did E.W. Barton-Wright Actually Teach at the Bartitsu Club?

Edward Barton-Wright prepares for battle.

After some 16 years of intensive research, we now know a good deal about the origins and day-to-day workings of the Bartitsu School of Arms, a.k.a. the Bartitsu Club.  One question that remains, though, is whether Edward Barton-Wright – the originator of Bartitsu and the founder of the Club – actually taught there.

By his own account, Barton-Wright possessed a “lifelong interest in the arts of self defence”.  Even before spending three years studying martial arts in Japan, he had trained in “boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of the stiletto under recognised masters”, reportedly testing his skills by “engaging toughs (street fighters) until (he) was satisfied in their application.” By all other accounts, including those of seemingly impartial witnesses such as Captain F.C. Laing, Edward Barton-Wright was, indeed, a rugged and skilled fighter.

We also have evidence that Barton-Wright actively encouraged the Bartitsu Club instructors to teach each other their specialties.  In a 1950 interview with London Budokwai founder Gunji Koizumi, Barton-Wright reminisced about trying to teach Yukio Tani to box, though he remarked that Tani “had no aptitude for the sport”.  Similarly, wrestler Armand Cherpillod trained with Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi prior to representing the Bartitsu Club in a much-hyped challenge match against Joe Carroll; Cherpillod later confessed that he believed that the Japanese instructors were withholding some of their more advanced techniques from him.

Captain Alfred Hutton was rather a special case, in that although he was a Bartitsu Club instructor, his fencing classes were very likely not considered to be part of the “Bartitsu curriculum” (such as it was).  Hutton himself was, however, an enthusiastic student of Pierre Vigny’s stick fighting and of Tani and Uyenishi’s jiujitsu.  Hutton commented that while he was too old to practice jiujitsu as “free play” or sparring,  he had nevertheless learned “about 80 kata, or tricks, which even at my age may one day or another come in useful.”

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Barton-Wright collaborated with stick-fighting and savate instructor Pierre Vigny in at least two areas. One outcome was a melding of Vigny’s stick fighting with Barton-Wright’s jiujitsu, as shown in the latter’s articles for Pearson’s Magazine and later referred to by Captain Laing.  The other was the so-called “secret style of boxing”, also occasionally referred to as “Bartitsu (boxing)”, that was alluded to in several of Barton-Wright’s essays and public presentations.  After the Bartitsu Club closed during mid-1902, Vigny continued to teach a very Bartitsu-like blend of antagonistics styles, albeit with a much greater emphasis on fencing than on jiujitsu.

Direct evidence for Barton-Wright himself actually teaching classes is, however, scanty.  English self-defence authority Percy Longhurst referred to learning a particular throw directly from Barton-Wright, while the anonymous author of the 1901 article Defence Against “Hooligans” referred to Barton-Wright keeping “an admonishing eye” over the classes instructed by Tani, Vigny et al.  Allowing for journalistic license, one imagines that the instructors might rather have resented the admonishment.

While Barton-Wright was, in fact, the only Bartitsu Club principal who had active prior experience in all of the key methods taught at the Club, his own experience on a per-discipline basis paled in comparison with that of the specialist instructors.  Pierre Vigny was clearly the best-qualified to instruct students in the fine points of savate and of his own method of walking stick defence, and although Tani and Uyenishi were very young men at the time, they had both started training as children and their practical jiujitsu experience clearly far surpassed Barton-Wright’s.

During an interview for the 2011 documentary Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes, martial arts historian Graham Noble observed that:

If you have a club where there are Japanese jiujitsu instructors teaching jiujitsu, people teaching French boxing, people teaching boxing – how do you bring those together?  Well, the problem is that the instructors themselves can’t bring it together.  The jiujitsu teachers can’t engage with the students in boxing, the savate people or the boxe Francaise people can’t engage with the jiujitsu people in terms of jiujitsu, because they don’t have the experience.  So (Barton-Wright) was probably, initially, the only one who understood what his system was!  He was probably the only “master of Bartitsu”!

So we have an embryonic art.  The only way that art can develop is if you develop a body of students who can then compete against each other.

Speculatively, therefore, it may be that Barton-Wright’s main role as an instructor was to supervise the preliminary training required of all new members of the Club.  The Bartitsu School of Arms offered an unusual pedagogical system in that beginners had first to complete a course of private lessons before being permitted to join the group classes.  Journalist Mary Nugent noted that “no class-work is allowed to be done until the whole of the exercises are perfectly acquired individually”.

We know little about the nature of these private classes except that they  included a course of physical culture exercises to prepare students for the demands of Bartitsu training.  Given his “jack of all trades” status, Barton-Wright himself would, perhaps, have been the best-qualified instructor to devise and implement such a course, which may have included preparatory exercises drawn from each of the key styles; thereby also freeing the specialist instructors to concentrate on their more advanced sessions.  Thereafter, Barton-Wright might have supervised classes (or simply offered tips) in blending the various specialisms together, as in his collaborations with Vigny.

We await the discovery of further details on the practical role Barton-Wright played in developing his “New Art of Self Defence”.

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