In March of 1899, readers of an article appearing in London’s Pearson’s Magazine were intrigued to learn that a “New Art of Self Defence” had been introduced to their city. The author of the article and founder of the New Art was Edward William Barton-Wright, whose life and contributions to the martial arts are the subjects of this website.
As detailed in the series of articles Barton-Wright authored between 1899 and 1902, his New Art – which he referred to as Bartitsu – was largely drawn from various ko-ryu (“old school”) forms of jiujitsu. Over the next several years he also incorporated tactics and combat techniques from British boxing, kicking, and a stick fighting style that had been developed by a Swiss Maitre d’Armes, Pierre Vigny. As such, Bartitsu – the word was a portmanteau of “Barton-Wright” and “jiujitsu”, defined by Barton-Wright himself as “self-defence in all its forms” – became the first combat system to combine Asian and European martial arts.
Bartitsu was taught at the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in Soho and promoted through a series of articles, interviews, exhibitions and well-publicised challenge matches, the latter pitting Barton-Wright’s Japanese and Swiss champions against exponents of various other combat sports. These challenges anticipated the mixed martial arts craze of the 1990s by nearly one hundred years; Edward William Barton-Wright was a man well and truly ahead of his time.
However, after a brief heyday at the turn of the 20th century, the Bartitsu Club closed down under mysterious circumstances and Barton-Wright’s art was all but forgotten for the next hundred years, apart from a cryptic but significant reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 short story, The Adventure of the Empty House.
In that story, which marked the return of the Great Detective from a long hiatus in which he had been assumed to be dead, it was revealed that Holmes had, in fact, saved his own life through his knowledge of what Doyle referred to as “baritsu”. While Barton-Wright’s martial art faded into obscurity, particularly following the cultural chaos of the First World War, the immense popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories ensured that “baritsu” would continue to intrigue generations of fans and scholars throughout the 20th century.
Revival: 2002-present day
In 2001 the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences (EJMAS) website began to re-publish many of Barton-Wright’s magazine articles, which had been uncovered in the British Library Archives by the late martial arts historian Richard Bowen. Almost immediately, the Self Defence with a Walking Stick articles attracted a minor cult following and the illustrations were reproduced, often with humorous captions or other alterations, on a number of other websites.
In 2002, one century after the original Bartitsu Club had closed down, author and Bartitsu enthusiast Will Thomas set up an email list to communicate with others of like mind. This correspondence developed into an international association of colleagues known as the Bartitsu Society, which was formed to research E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence”.
Although initially focussed on academic and historical documentation, the charter of the Bartitsu Society quickly grew to encompass reviving the art at the practical level.
The first task was to gather as much primary source information as possible about Barton-Wright and his martial art, and towards this goal, members of the Society scoured institutions such as the British Library as well as old bookstores and newspaper archives. Eventually, the Society had enough information to be able to confidently define “Canonical Bartitsu”; the collection of self defence sequences, kata and techniques that were specifically presented as Bartitsu by Barton-Wright and his associates between 1899 and 1902. Canonical Bartitsu is maintained as a mark of respect for Barton-Wright’s vision, as a matter of historical/cultural preservation and also as a form of common technical and tactical “language” amongst contemporary enthusiasts.
Having established the Bartitsu canon, the Society then turned its attention to the idea of neo-Bartitsu. This was suggested as a way for Bartitsu enthusiasts to continue the martial arts cross-training experiments that Barton-Wright had begun.
Neo-Bartitsu was also conceived as a way to extend the art through reference to the corpus of boxing, wrestling, jiujitsu, savate and stick-fighting methods recorded in the books produced by Barton-Wright’s colleagues and their students between 1903 and the early 1920s. In this sense, by creatively combining both the canon and the “lineage” material, neo-Bartitsu can be described as “Bartitsu as it might have been” or as “Bartitsu as it can be today.”
By 2004, members of the Society had begun offering practical workshops in both canonical and neo-Bartitsu techniques. The decision had been made, however, not to attempt to codify Bartitsu into a defined system complete with the trappings of ranks and gradings. Rather, the nascent Bartitsu revival was approached as an informal, collaborative “open source” project, on the premise that Barton-Wright’s original cross-training and pressure-testing experiments had been left as a work-in-progress. Thereafter, the task of the Bartitsu Society was to continue, rather than to attempt to complete, that experiment.
In August of 2005 the Society published a book, the Bartitsu Compendium, which details the complete history of the art as well as a technical curriculum for canonical Bartitsu. Proceeds from the sales of the book were dedicated to creating an appropriate memorial for E.W. Barton-Wright and to furthering the study of Bartitsu as a recreational martial art.
Three years later, in August 2008 the Society published the second volume of the Compendium, providing further resources for continuing Barton-Wright’s work. Containing excerpts from multiple self defence manuals of the era, as well as newspaper records and other archival material, this volume supports the development of Neo-Bartitsu approaches.
2008 also saw the establishment of Bartitsu.org as the Internet’s premiere website for all matters Bartitsuvian, and since then this site has averaged around 100,000 hits per year.
The release of the feature films Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), both of which emphasised Holmes’ “action hero” side, spawned a massive increase of popular interest in Bartitsu, resulting in numerous mainstream and new media presentations and the establishment of many new Bartitsu clubs and training groups throughout the world.
The Bartitsu Society has also contributed funding and expertise towards memorials for E.W. Barton-Wright, including an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a permanent wall display in the Sherlock Holmes Collection at London’s Marylebone Library (both in 2012) and a prominent role in the 2013 BBC television documentary Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting: The Rise of the Martial Arts in Great Britain.
The Bartitsu Society was heavily involved in the production of the 2011 feature documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes, as well as three international “School of Arms” events (2011-13) and numerous short-term training seminars and ongoing courses. Our consultancy, historic image archives and other resources have been used in TV and radio documentaries, situation comedies, video games, novels, graphic novels and role-playing games.
Throughout, our mission has remained the same; to serve as an apolitical, informal association of colleagues, fostering the preservation and extension of the unique martial arts experiment begun by E.W. Barton-Wright in 1898.