Martial arts enthusiasts who find themselves in central London may wish to visit the site of the original Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture (a.k.a. the Bartitsu Club). The Club was the first commercial school in the Western world to teach Japanese martial arts and also the site of the first known experiment in deliberately blending Asian and European fighting styles, anticipating Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do by about seven decades and the modern MMA movement by about ninety years.
The Bartitsu Club operated from approximately April of 1900-January of 1902 and was originally located in the basement of #67b Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s Soho district.
#67 Shaftesbury very narrowly survived destruction during the London Blitz and today the exterior facade looks much like it did circa 1900, apart from the variety of modern shops at street level. It presently houses a large, modern Best Western hotel, which was known formerly as The Shaftesbury and currently as The Piccadilly (harkening back to the days of the Bartitsu School of Arms, when the building was called Piccadilly-Circus-Mansions). Note, however, that the basement which housed the Bartitsu Club gymnasium itself is off-limits to guests and visitors.
In September of 2005, Tony Wolf launched the publication of the Bartitsu Compendium, Volume 1 via a function in the Allen Room, an oak-panelled meeting room in the St. Anne’s Church complex adjacent to #67 Shaftesbury. The exterior of #67 was shown in the 2011 feature documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes and served as a rendezvous point for participants in the 2011 Bartitsu School of Arms symposium. The exterior and lobby were also featured in a 2014 mini-documentary on Bartitsu produced by the BBC:
Pilgrims to #67 should also take time to explore the Soho neighbourhood, which features many attractions including superb West End theatres, restaurants, Victorian-era pubs and shops. Of particular note are St. Anne’s Churchyard, a small park immediately behind #67 Shaftesbury, where informal classes in martial arts from Tai Chi Chuan to kickboxing frequently take place; and nearby Cecil Court, a collection of some of the world’s finest antiquarian and specialist bookstores. Be sure to check out Storey’s Ltd., whose extensive catalogues of antique prints have been known to include rare illustrations of both Bartitsu and Captain Hutton’s historical fencing.
Finally, no Bartitsu pilgrimage is complete without a visit to James Smith and Sons, an establishment which has been manufacturing and selling fine walking sticks and umbrellas since the year 1830. The shop is only a ten-minute walk from #67 Shaftesbury and it’s been speculated that Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny’s special self-defence walking sticks may have been produced by the James Smith company. Although they no longer produce items overtly intended as weapons, the ornate Victorian-era signage still advertises “malacca canes, dagger-canes, life-preservers and swordsticks”.
The second of cartoonist Ralph Cleaver’s jiujitsu illustrations for The Sketch offers a martial arts-themed update to Editha’s Burglar, a popular late-Victorian children’s novel in which the sentimental virtues of frail, bookish young Editha set a burglar upon the path to moral redemption. Cleaver’s suggestion of a swift seoi-nage shoulder throw would have yielded a much shorter story.
This article from the Pall Mall Gazette of March 17, 1922 offers self-defence advice according to the system of Professor Padian, who is described as “the Master at Arms of Mackenzie’s Dancing Academy”. Archive searches have revealed no further trace of the Professor, nor of his “system of protective movements”, which clearly owed a good deal to jiujitsu atemi-waza.
In this ingenious and curious style of wrestling, athletes contend over the possession of a solid rubber ring, with the winner being the grappler who is able to wrest the ring away from their opponent. This ’20s-vintage sport was revived some years ago by members of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago, who endorse Ring-Combat as a strenuously enjoyable form of recreation.
In March of 1905, artist Ralph Cleaver produced a series of cartoons for The Sketch newspaper, speculating on the possibilities of Japanese unarmed combat training for the English police. The editors noted that “For details of certain of the holds, we are indebted to the Japanese School of Ju-Jitsu, 305, Oxford St. W.” – a reference to the short-lived but influential London dojo operated by former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani and his colleague Taro Miyake.
In the first of the series, a jiujitsuka bearing a strong resemblance to Tani demonstrates the tomoe-nage (“stomach throw”) upon a hapless constable. The spectacle of the sacrifice throw, in which the defender drops voluntarily to the floor, using their own falling weight and momentum to propel the attacker into a somersault, was still an exotic novelty in 1905.
Indian Police Superintendant Herbert Gordon Lang’s book The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence (1923) is one of the seminal documents of the modern Vigny/Bartitsu stick fighting revival. Lang credited Vigny – albeit via a misspelling – and offered a few more hints as to the origins of his method in introducing the book:
The System has been carefully built up after several years’ thought and demonstration, and combines a method devised by a Frenchman, Vigui (sic), of which, little is now heard, together with the stick play of tribes of negroes on certain of the West India Islands, called “Bois.”
Additions and ameliorations have been made as the result of experience and close practice under varying circumstances.
H.G. Lang was born in Grenada, West Indies, on December 3, 1887 and it’s likely that he learned the basics of the bois system there as a youth. There are, however, no known records of Lang having studied at the Bartitsu Club, nor at Pierre Vigny’s own London self-defence school, so the questions of exactly when, where and how he learned the Vigny style have been long-standing mysteries of Bartitsu research.
As an aside, it’s pertinent to distinguish between H.G. Lang of the Indian police and Captain F.C. Laing of the British Army. Although both were Englishmen serving in a uniformed capacity in India during the early 20th century, and both were proponents of the Vigny style of stick fighting, they seem to have had no connection beyond the similarities of their surnames and circumstances.
Via recent correspondence with the Lang family, we have now discovered the missing link between Vigny and H.G. Lang, and thus between the stick fighting style taught at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901 and the method presented in Lang’s book in 1923.
Lang’s personal papers reveal that, while on leave from India between May 1920 – April 1921, he had travelled to a gymnasium in the East Sussex town of Hove, in order to study boxing and jiujitsu. In conversation with the proprietor, Percy Rolt, Lang demonstrated some of the art of bois, and Rolt remarked that he had learned a similar style, as taught by Pierre Vigny.
The Missing Link
Percy Stuart Rolt was born into a family of physical culture enthusiasts. Circa 1900 he joined the London Bartitsu Club and seems to have been a keen member, cross-training between jiujitsu, stick fighting and historical fencing. Rolt participated in several Bartitsu demonstrations alongside Pierre Vigny and exhibited the fence of rapiers and two-handed swords with Captain Alfred Hutton for charity events.
In March of 1904, Rolt lost a Graeco-Roman style wrestling match against the champion Jack Carkeek at the Brighton Alhambra. Then, in 1905 he assisted former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu “Raku” Uyenishi in a well-received display of jiujitsu:
The Japanese athlete was assisted in giving the first series of demonstration by Mr. Percy S. Rolt (of Moss’s Gymnasium) who is the English ju-jitsu champion. Rolt is about 5ft. 9in. in height, and is strongly built.
In ju-jitsu the object seems to be to throw the opponent before he has gripped you round the body. No sooner had Rolt seized Raku by the tunic than he was suddenly thrown to the ground. This operation was repeated time after time by means of various jerks, “locks” and “trips.” As Rolt went down his head and body struck the floor in a manner that seemed positively startling. Nevertheless, he appeared to suffer no damage; and it is stated that the body receives no shock from the fall, because the hands touch the ground first. What is called the collar-lock (a grip round the throat) reduces a man to a state of insensibility in five seconds.
Raku Uyenishi is a master of various “trips”, and he showed how an attack from a boxer may be dealt with. The professor of ju-jitsu suddenly winds his feet round the legs of his assailant and throws him to the ground with the quickness of lightning. Mr. Rolt and Mr. William Williams (a Londoner 5ft. 6in. and 10st. in weight) also engaged in contests; and the final exhibition between the Japanese and Mr. Rolt was most exciting. – Eastbourne Gazette, 28 June 1905
Percy’s brother, police captain Frank Leslie Rolt, was also trained in the Vigny style. According to an article in the London Evening News of Wednesday, March 6, 1912, Captain Rolt of the Hove police had been teaching the the Vigny method of walking stick defence – “devised for the special discomfiture of the Paris Apache” – to the new London volunteer constabulary.
The Holland Road gym in Hove was an impressive institute, which had been managed by the strapping Staff Sergeant Alfred Moss since 1883. Percy Rolt seems to have taken over the operation of the gym at some point between 1900-1910, and he and his family quickly became established as local authorities on physical culture and antagonistics.
We have no records as to whether the Rolt brothers taught public classes in the Vigny style at their gym and it may be that H.G. Lang’s status as a visiting fellow police officer afforded him unusual access to the style. In a letter to the publisher of The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence, Lang speculated that he should have given Percy Rolt credit for his instruction, which would certainly have saved modern researchers a good deal of wondering.
The Walking Stick Method of Self-Defence
Lang’s manuscript was, in fact, rejected by a number of publishers on the grounds that such self-defence books were not (then) popular enough to justify the risk, and also that the book contained too many photographs to be economically viable. Lang had, incidentally, taken all of the photos himself, using his police trainees as models. Fortunately for both Lang and posterity, Athletic Publications eventually agreed to print The Walking Stick Method and it was published, complete with 60 illustrations, in 1923.
Re. the misspelling of Pierre Vigny’s surname as “Vigui” in the introduction, it’s worth noting that it is very difficult to distinguish between the letters “n” and “u” in Lang’s handwriting. It’s probable that he had actually written “Vigni” – suggesting that he’d heard the name spoken by Percy Rolt, but had not seen it in print – and that a typist then made a transcription error in working from his handwritten draft.
Correspondence between Lang and his publisher also reveals that the attribution of authorship of The “Walking Stick” Method to an anonymous “Officer of the Indian Police” was due to Lang’s belief that this title would carry more authority and therefore sell more books.
H.G. Lang found himself in some hot water soon after his book appeared on the market, due to its inclusion of a number of letters of endorsement from various notables. Apparently these letters had been added to the manuscript without Lang’s knowledge, and without the various authors’ consent. Lang then wrote a suitably contrite letter to the Inspector General of Police in Poona, which was graciously accepted.
In 1926 there was some correspondence between Lang and third parties towards producing a newsreel film on the method. Lang even mentioned the idea of having Percy Rolt demonstrate the art for the film project, but unfortunately it was never produced – robbing us of the possibility of watching the Vigny style in action as performed by a first generation student.
The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence was only a modest success when it was first published, despite Lang’s highly enthusiastic promotions, which included sending unsolicited copies to various parties and the idea of presenting the book as a prize during awards ceremonies at boys’ schools. He was also very keen to see the method adopted by the Boy Scouts.
While H.G. Lang’s book never became a best-seller, for many years thereafter it remained, effectively, the only detailed written work on the subject of stick fighting available in the English language. Significantly, this meant that the basics of the Vigny system could be transmitted beyond Lang’s own students in India.
Also in the early 1940s, the “Walking Stick” Method was adopted by Charles Yerkow as the basis of the stick fighting instruction in his own book, Modern Judo: The Complete Ju-Jutsu Library (Volume 2).
Today, H.G. Lang’s book forms part of the foundation of the Bartitsu and Vigny stick fighting revivals, offering a systematic set of lessons to supplement the scenario-based set-plays in E.W. Barton-Wright’s Pearson’s Magazine articles.After many years of speculation, it’s good to know thatwe have Percy Rolt to thank, in part, for that resource.
With special thanks to the Lang family for generously sharing H.G.’s files and photographs.
William Bankier, third from left, demonstrates a jiujitsu arm-lock in this curious photograph from the Northern Whig newspaper of 13 December, 1937. Many years before this photo was taken, Bankier – known professionally as a music hall strongman under the name “Apollo, the Scottish Hercules” – had been instrumental in popularising Japanese martial arts in England, having taken over the management of Yukio Tani’s music hall wrestling career soon after the end of the Bartitsu Club era. In 1906 Bankier also wrote one of the first English manuals on Japanese unarmed combat, titled Jiu-Jitsu: What It Really Is.
Bankier’s demonstration partner in the photo is professional wrestler Bob Gregory, whose wife Valerie is shown observing the demo. Nicknamed “Princess Baba”, the former Valerie Brooke was the daughter of Charles Vyner Brooke and Sylvia Brooke, known as the “White Rajah and Ranee of Sarawak“. Valerie’s marriage to a pro-wrestler made tabloid news headlines throughout 1930s England.
This article from the Bristol Mercury of May 14, 1900 is typical of many hundreds of newspaper reports illustrating the deadly potential of umbrella thrusts, whether delivered accidentally or deliberately.
In days gone by everyone carried a sword; now everyone carries an umbrella, which recent experience shows to to be almost as dangerous an instrument. During recent years its construction has been so altered that the harmless gamp, with which, at the worst, one could but thrash a man, has been turned into a rapier-like instrument, with which it is by no means difficult to run him through, and thus in moments of excitement people find themselves in in the possession of a “skewer,” the potentialities of which of they are hardly aware of.
With the object, no doubt, of giving a slim and dandified appearance, many umbrellas are now made with steel “stick,” and so fine are some of these that the point is very little thicker than the blade of a foil, and is capable of doing quite as much injury if lunged into an antagonist, and this even without the employment of much force, if the proper spot should happen to be entered.
Last Saturday a charge of manslaughter was tried at the Central Criminal Court which shows well what may be done with a steel umbrella. As the sequel of a very ordinary quarrel in a public house, the deceased followed the accused into a room and went up to him, when, as was alleged, the latter thrust an umbrella towards his face. The point entered his cheek, he became unconscious, was taken home in a cab, and died four days afterwards.
At the poet-mortem examination, four and a half inches of the umbrella stick, which was of iron, were found embedded in his skull, one inch of its length having entered his brain. This piece of iron was stated to have become so firmly fixed that the medical men who performed the post-mortem examination had to use a chisel to remove it.
The prisoner was acquitted, the jury apparently accepting the statement made by him to the effect that the deceased rushed upon the point of the umbrella, and that the fatal result was accidental. This, however, all the more emphasises what we say about the dangerous character of the modern umbrella with its rapier-like point. If, in an ordinary fray, without malice or premeditation, it is possible to bury an umbrella point upwards of four inches deep in a man’s head, it is obvious enough that, in the hands of those who are skilled in fence, steel umbrellas must be almost as dangerous as the swords which our great-grandfathers used to whip out on the smallest provocation, much to each other’s detriment.
Unfortunately we have very little context for this 1914 Daily Mirror photo series. The entire text reads:
There been an epidemic of attacks on defenceless women of late, but the man who endeavoured to molest Miss Hetty Beard, an athletic Bedfordshire girl, would get more than he bargained for.
The techniques are quite strongly reminiscent of the Vigny style, but by 1914 Pierre and Marguerite Vigny themselves had been absent from England for several years. Since these photos seem to have been Miss Hetty Beard’s only claim to posterity, we can only speculate as to whether she may have been a Vigny student.
This little-known initiative was widely publicised during December of 1914 and January of 1915:
A new corps has just been formed with the unusual title of the “Ju-Jitsu Corps.” It is directly connected with the approved regulations of the Central Association Volunteer Training Corps, and will teach the art of self-defence without weapons. All can join except those exempted from war service. A distinctive uniform, with badge, will worn, and lessons will be given by Sabri-Mahir, late Ju-Jitsu champion and instructor to the Paris police. No charges will be made, and there will be no interference with members’ daily occupation. Perfect freedom of action is allowed as regards voluntary active’ service at the front. No pay will granted, and no entrance fee or subscription is required, unless given voluntarily. The corps has been formed primarily for defence of home and country, and active members must pass the doctor. The new venture has the approval War Office, Admiralty, and Scotland Yard, and its headquarters will be at the Royal Courts of Justice, London. All inquiries should be addressed to the secretary, 509, Salisbury House, London Wall, E.C.
Sabri Mahir was, in fact, a Turkish painter and middleweight boxer who was then resident in England, but I’ve found nothing in any English nor French media supporting the claim that he was a jujitsu champion who had trained the Parisian police.
The formation of the new Corps, with its emphasis on learning “self-defence without weapons”, prompted an anonymous columnist for The Sphere to recall when:
(…) once I met a very famous Japanese exponent of ju-jitsu in the early days of the cult of this remarkable art; a giant for strength and a tiger for nimbleness. He showed me a dagger hidden in his clothes. On my asking him why he carried it, he replied that he did not consider London a safe place to be unarmed in.
It may be noteworthy that former Bartitsu Club president William Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough was also the president of the Volunteer Training Corps, to which the proposed Jujitsu Corps was to be affiliated. For all of this, however, there seem to be no newspaper records of any activity by the Jujitsu Corps, so it’s possible that the idea died upon the vine.
N.B. that the Scottish jujitsu instructor W. Bruce Sutherland actually did teach unarmed combat to trainee soldiers during the Great War, and that his contemporary William Garrud performed demonstrations of the art for volunteers of the London Special Constabulary.