“The Colonial Applicant ‘Taps the Mat'” (1917)

A spectacular jiujitsu moment from the popular 1917 comedy play Wanted, A Husband, in which the protagonist, a young writer named Mabel, mischievously advertises for a husband to spark ideas for her new novel.  Mabel’s “strenuous” friend Maud, who is well-versed in boxing and in Japanese wrestling, volunteers to serve as a “chucker-out” – effectively, a bouncer – and has occasion to tie one over-eager “Colonial” suitor into a pretzel.

“The Fatal Objection to All Such Plans …” (1902)

The anonymous author of this short article, originally published in the Perthshire Advertiser of 31 October, 1902, makes the valid point that the first rule towards winning a fight is to know that you’re in one (the second being that there are no rules).

The Grand Duke Michael, who is become quite a familiar figure of late, was one of the distinguished onlookers at a performance of an unusual kind, which took place this week in a hall in Berners Street. It was nothing less than a demonstration of how to tackle Hooligans, given by a French professional man, M. Vigny.

Everybody knows how effectively an umbrella may be used as a means of defence against a mad bull (though very few people ever put that theory to the practical test). M. Vigny argues that if a bull is afraid to face an umbrella, there is no reason why a walking-stick should fail to frighten a Hooligan. Certainly in his hands the humble, everyday support of man becomes a powerful ally indeed, and, if we had a score of French professors like this to let loose on them, the odds are that the Hooligans would all have their eyes put out.

The fatal objection to all such plans is that they depend for success on the person who is attacked keeping a cool head. What most people want on these occasions is not a nice walking-stick, but a good nerve.

Nine men out of ten—and it is no reproach to them – fall into a state of such excitement when they are suddenly and unexpectedly set on by roughs, that the Hooligan is able to do his business, usually assault and robbery, in double quick time, and get clear away before the victim realises what has happened. It is only when he is once more alone and begins to collect his scattered senses that the poor man notices for the first time that his watch is gone and feels the blood trickling down his face.

If he had a walking-stick it would be gone, too.

“Getting the Short End of the Stick” in Vigny Stick Fighting

Pierre Vigny (right) demonstrates a short-end thrust to the jaw against a belt-wielding “hooligan”.

I noticed that the stick itself was held about eight inches from the end, so that after a crashing blow has been delivered it was quickly followed up by a stabbing movement with the ferrule end, which was used as if it was a dagger.

  • Street Self-Defence: How to Handle the Hooligan (1904)

One of the characteristic tactics of the Vigny stick fighting style is the use of the “short end” of the cane as a close-combat weapon.  Despite not being directly illustrated in the classic Pearson’s Magazine series, this method is frequently referred to in other sources, notably including Captain F.C. Laing’s The ‘Bartitsu’ Method of Self-Defence:

Points are made with the butt end of the stick at any part of the body, the most favourable places being at the throat and ribs.

“Point” in Laing’s usage refers to a thrust as distinct from a strike, and either the butt or ferrule end or the heavier ball-handle end (as demonstrated by Vigny in the photograph above) could be used for this purpose.

Aside from the “backhanded” preparation described and illustrated by Laing, the Vigny style also includes a guard that prepares for a forehand or direct short-end thrust, shown in the second of these four illustrations from a 1904 Detroit Free Press article:

The caption for this guard reads:

2) In this posture a blow is delivered from the shoulder, or as an alternative the small end of the weapon may be used as a dagger.

Instructor Tony Wolf demonstrates a direct short-end thrust to the throat during a Bartitsu demonstration at the 2011 WMAW historical martial arts conference.

Numerous observers of Vigny’s stick fighting demonstrations at the turn of the 20th century noted his use of the short-end of the stick at close quarters, and especially its effectiveness as a surprise attack.  An opponent who is set up to expect a sweeping strike with the cane may well be taken off-guard when his adversary steps in close and converts the “strike” into a stabbing thrust with the opposite end.  This description, from the London Daily News of Wednesday, October 29, 1902, is typical:

Holding a malacca cane by one hand at each end, the Professor calmly awaited the onslaught of a skilled opponent with a similar stick. The spectator never knew which hand was to deal the blow, the released end moving with lightning speed, and a short hold was taken, so that the assailant, in guarding against an impending blow, often found himself hammered or prodded with the butt.

Favoured targets for the short-end strike include the ribs, face, throat and eyes.  According to the anonymous author of L’Art de la Canne (1912), a detailed survey of the Vigny style:

After which, you advance upon him while quickly turning your wrist, thrusting the steel ferrule of the cane like a dagger into his eyes or beneath his nose. And here is a man … amazed!

… whereas Captain Laing favoured the throat:

Assume “first position,” guard head, then, before he has time to recover himself, hit him rapidly on both sides of his face, disengaging between each blow as explained, the rapidity of these blows will generally be sufficient to disconcert him; the moment you see this; dash in and hit him in the throat with the butt end of your stick, jump back at once and as you jump hit him again over the head.


A man without a stick rushes at you with his fist.  He will probably strike out at your face or body with his left hand; if so, take up the ” rear guard” position and as he strikes guard with left arm, seize his left wrist, and hit his left elbow with your stick, advance right leg and point with butt end of your stick at his throat, then follow this up by thrusting your stick between his legs and so levering him over.

Laing’s prototype for a new cavalry sword design, which was based on Bartitsu stick fighting, included a spiked pommel for even more effective close-quarters work:

Those interested in the further possibilities of short-end play with the Vigny cane are encouraged to study the video series Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick, which includes several more options:

Instrictor Alex Kiermayer demonstrates a short-end thrust.

“Street Self-Defence: How to Handle the Hooligan” (1904)

Originally published in The People newspaper of October 23, 1904, this newly rediscovered article offers a rare glimpse into former Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny’s Hinde Street school. 

Although Vigny and his wife Marguerite remained in England for some years after the Bartitsu Club closed in mid-1902, comparatively little is known about the Vigny self-defence system, per se, during that period.  Reading somewhat between the lines, however, it’s apparent that Vigny’s post-Bartitsu Club style was similar to what had been taught at the Bartitsu School of Arms, albeit with a greater emphasis on fencing than on jiujitsu.

The author, “A. F.”, closes with a pot-pourri of more-or-less accurate information on boxing, including a self-defence technique borrowed from “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons’ 1901 book Physical Culture and Self-Defence.

One can hardly take up a daily paper without reading of street attacks by hooligans. Only a few days ago one heard of the sad case of a poor needlewoman of nearly 70 years of age who died at the Royal Free Hospital from wounds inflicted by three cowardly and despicable scoundrels; so that, consequently, when one learns that with an ordinary stout walking stick, or hooked umbrella, one can venture into the very haunts of the hooligan, one is all attention.

The idea of using any other means of self-defence then the good, time- honoured “dibs” at first appears un-English, yet one must bear in mind that the gentry who are in the habit of molesting pedestrians are absolutely unscrupulous in the weapons they employ.

One reads of the knuckleduster, buckled belts, and even bars of iron concealed in newspapers. The reader, when he calls to mind these facts, and also that the quarterstaff was formerly used by every Englishman as a weapon of defence, especially in the western parts of the kingdom, will find that any prejudice he may have with regard to the use of the stick will be of short duration.

One recalls an excellent description of the use of the quarter-staff in Washington Irving’s “Dracebridge Hall,” that helps us to understand the important part this weapon formerly played in street self-defence. There appears to have been, in the reign of Henry VIII, a Devonshire gentleman who was such an expert with the quarterstaff that he was known to have held his own with this weapon alone against three opponents armed with rapiers and poniards, and, strangely enough, this is exactly what Prof. Pierre Vigny, who has an academy for self-defence in Hinde St., Manchester Square, teaches his pupils to do, armed only with a walking-stick.

The Vigny self-defense stick is a stout malacca cane about 3 feet long, crowned with a solid metal knob about the size of a golf ball. It is flexible, beautifully balanced, and, in the hands of anyone who knows the proper way to use it, sufficient to keep a crowd of hooligans at bay. Even a Fitzsimmons would have a very poor outlook were he to come in contact with a pupil of this novel school of self-defence.

The great mistake that the uninitiated make in using the walking-stick is that, after dealing a blow, the weapon is allowed to remain when it has fallen, instead of being drawn back to the position of self-defence. It is this drawing, or rather cutting, blow that is so telling, and is the foundation of Vigny’s system.

In fact, the exercises with the walking-stick that I had the pleasure of witnessing the other morning at Manchester-sq. gave me much the impression that many of the cuts resembled closely the cutlass drill of the Royal Navy, and yet Vigny’s pupils manipulated the “canne” in manner that defies desription, for the rapidity with which the stick was twirled, acting as a complete guard, and which made me instinctively shrink back in my chair, needs to be witnessed to be thoroughly appreciated. I noticed that the stick itself was held about eight inches from the end, so that after a crashing blow has been delivered it was quickly followed up by a stabbing movement with the ferrule end, which was used as if it was a dagger.

I think I can safely say, without wishing to advertise Monsieur Vigny’s appliances, that his stick in the hands of even one possessed of ordinary judgment, is sufficient to dispose of half a dozen hooligans. In fact, the professor informed me that, one winter evening when in a low quarter in Paris, he was actually attacked. I wish I had been there to see the fun.

The Swiss master-at-arms also teaches his pupils how to defend themselves unarmed in the streets, a series of tricks into which la savate and Japanese wrestling are introduced. We are able to reproduce here a drawing showing Prof. Vigny in his self-defence guard for the streets, and also that splendid Australian boxer, Bob Fitzsimmons, in his “right position.”

Rather Tricky

Even Fitzimmons, with all his science, knows that one man against many is an uphill game, and consequently has several tricks at his fingertips that he can put into execution should the necessity arise. An interesting lesson in street self-defence is that given in his book on physical culture. Here he depicts an opponent threatening to start a fight with him, and a speedy method of placing his opponent at his mercy.

This is done by grasping his opponent’s coat by the collar on either side, and whipping it down over his back and arms, thus leaving him at his mercy, for, with the coat turned back in this position, it is impossible to bring the arms forward without first removing the garment, and while thus engaged it will be clearly seen that the opponent leaves his “oration trap” entirely at the disposal of his adversary .

Origin of the Knuckleduster 

With reference to the knuckleduster as an implement still in use by hooligans, it is interesting to note in connection with this instrument of torture, and the history of self-defence, that it is a survival of the “cestus” used by the ancient Roman gladiators. This “cestus” was composed of strips of leather wound around the arm as far as the elbow, and studded on the knuckles with knobs loaded with lead. Theseus is supposed to have invented boxing – by boxing one means, of course, the skilled use of the fist and arms and assault and defense .

In heroic times fighters sought rather to be fat and fleshy in person, than firm and pliable, for they considered that, in order to withstand blows, plenty of flesh was essential. This form of the manly art of self-defence appeared in England in 1740, and it owed its introduction to Broughton, who built a theatre for pugilists in Oxford Road. It was this fighter who was champion of all England for 18 years. 55 years later a new system of boxing was introduced by Jackson, Lord Byron’s professor, by which the legs were used in avoiding blows and the correct estimate of distance (striking no blows out of range) was arrived at.

Of course, one can hardly expect to be successful in any encounter unless one keeps in fair training, and for this purpose one cannot do better than follow the Australian champion’s advice, showing how any man, who is kept indoors much of the time, may keep in fairly good trim. It sums up as follows – abstain from the use of fatty and starchy food; eat all kinds of meat except pork; eat all kinds of green vegetables, fruits and dry toast; drink tea (without sugar), and do not eat potatoes, butter, fresh bread, or sugar.

This is the diet and sit down by Fitzsimmons, and, if the middle aged businessman who is beginning to increase in weight will follow the diet laid down by the man who has done more for the cause of scientific boxing (and the art of self-defence) than any other person has ever accomplished, he will find that not only will he be free from aches and pains, but that, with a moderate indulgence in self-defence exercises, he will drop from 2 pounds to 5 pounds a week, and, what is equally to the point, never a farthing into the pocket of the troublesome hooligan.

English Edition of “Bartitsu: Historical Self-Defence with a Walking Stick” Now Available via Vimeo and the Freelance Academy Press

The new English-language version of Alex Kiermayer’s excellent instructional video series is now available as a series of streaming downloads from Vimeo.com. The entire series runs two hours and fifty-four minutes and can be rented for US$29.50 or bought for US$36.90.

The instructional series is also now available on DVD via the US-based Freelance Academy Press website for US$39.95.

Here is our recent, detailed review of the series, which includes lessons on many aspects of Vigny stick fighting for self-defence.

Sherlock Holmes Wields a Deadly Scarf

Bartitsu is particularly noted for its weaponising of gentlemanly accoutrements such as walking sticks, umbrellas and overcoats.  We’ve also previously examined the use of bowler hats, belts and flat caps as weapons.

The use of weighted scarves as improvised and concealed weapons has a pedigree extending at least as far back as the early 19th century, when members of the Indian Thugee and Phansigari cults infamously employed their rumāl scarves to strangle their victims.  A heavy coin knotted into the end of the rumāl allowed Thug assassins to swiftly and silently “noose” their prey from behind.  This weapon and technique was elaborated by the French popular novelist Eugène Sue, who detailed the art of Thuggee strangulation in his 1884/5 series The Wandering Jew:

(The Strangler) then took a long and thin cord which was encircled round his waist, at one of the extremities of which was a ball of lead, in shape and size like an egg. After having tied the other end of this string round his right wrist, the Strangler again listened, and then disappeared, groping his way along the tall grass in the direction of the Indian, who came on slowly, singing his plaintive and gentle ditty.

At this instant, the sinister visage of the Strangler arose before him; he heard a whistling like that of a sling, and then felt a cord, thrown with equal swiftness and power, encircle his neck with a triple fold, and, at the same moment, the lead with which it was loaded struck him violently on the back of his head.

The assault was so sudden and unexpected, that Djalma’s attendant could not utter one cry — one groan.

He staggered — the Strangler gave a violent twist to his cord — the dark visage of the slave became a black purple, and he fell on his knees, tossing his arms wildly in the air.

The Strangler turned him over, and twisted his cord so violently that the blood rushed through the skin. The victim made a few convulsive struggles, and all was over.

Although the strangler cults were successfully suppressed, the notion of robbers making use of elaborately deceptive tactics – particularly involving strangulation techniques – made its way into the emerging urban folklore of European cities, as in during the “garroting panics” of 1850s and ’60s London.  A very similar tactic was employed by Parisian Apache muggers during the early 20th century, as in the notorious coup du pere Francois trick.

Famed “baritsu” practitioner Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) wields an adaptation of the Indian rumāl in the 1979 movie Murder by Decree, which pits Holmes against the arch-fiend Jack the Ripper.

In one scene set in Holmes’ lab, Dr. John Watson (James Mason) advises his comrade to arm himself, and offers Holmes a revolver – but Holmes demonstrates that he is, in fact, already armed, by smashing through a large glass beaker with a roll of coins concealed in a hidden pocket in his long scarf. Holmes then begins to explain the weapon’s origin, but Watson remarks that he already knows about the rumāl from his time serving as an Army doctor in India.

The climactic fight scene represents what may well be the only combat scarf vs. sword-cane encounter in the annals of cinema:

In 2010, American martial artist Jason Gibbs released the BattleScarf – essentially a standard scarf with pockets, but accompanied by a DVD illustrating how to use it as a striking and entangling weapon. Here’s a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) promotional clip, demonstrating the serious striking power that can be generated by this type of weapon under ideal circumstances:

Although the BattleScarf per se is no longer available, winter scarves with pockets at the ends are easily obtained from clothing stores and may be worth the consideration of modern urban adventurers.