“Weird and somewhat horrible”: the novelty of submission wrestling in 1901 London

Although E.W. Barton-Wright had been lecturing upon and demonstrating jiujitsu since his return to England from Japan in late 1898, it was not until September of 1901 that London music hall audiences saw the Japanese art applied in full earnest against a European wrestling style.  Barton-Wright’s “New Art” was represented by Yukio Tani, while Percy Longhurst of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Amateur Wrestling Society championed the English school.

Longhurst was, in fact, the first British wrestler to accept Barton-Wright’s challenge to compete under his rules, which declared that a bout would continue until one grappler signalled submission to the other.  The concept of submission wrestling was entirely novel at that time and place; the extant regional British and European wrestling styles were predicated upon throwing an opponent onto his back, or wrestling to a pin fall position in which the shoulders were pressed to the mat.  The closest analogue to jiujitsu in the early 20th century European canon was the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style, which employed some holds that could force the opponent into a pin position through pain as well as leverage.

Thus, Percy Longhurst was at the considerable disadvantage of playing Tani’s game and it is neither surprising, nor to his discredit, that he lost every “test”.  Afterwards, a newspaper reviewer expressed distaste for the spectacle of a wrestler being forced to submit to joint-locks, describing the techniques as “weird and somewhat horrible”, while admitting that jiujitsu seemed ideal for true self-defence against Hooligans.

Thereafter, London’s wrestling fraternity remained wary of the Japanese style, despite Barton-Wright’s inducement of £100 – a very substantial sum of money – to any challenger who could defeat the Bartitsu Club champions.

One would-be challenger, who claimed to be an exponent of “the Russian style” of wrestling, made it as far as the stage wings before his courage seemingly deserted him.  A few more amateurs did consent to square off against Tani or his colleague Sadakazu Uyenishi, but none came close to winning the prize money.  Barton-Wright struggled to get any of the established champion wrestlers to compete under jiujitsu rules and, by October of 1901, he had resorted to advertising his challenges in the pages of the Sporting Life, as seen here:

There followed some vehement arguments, both via “Letters to the Editor” columns and in person during Barton-Wright’s music hall displays, with many challenges and counter-challenges being bandied about.  It would still take some time, however,  before wrestling vs. jiujitsu contests became fully established in England.

Rare mid-20th century film of Vigny/Lang stickfighting

Above: Pierre Vigny (left) and his colleague M. Hubert demonstrate the rear and front guards of the Vigny system at the Bartitsu Club (circa 1901).

It’s well-known that the method of walking stick defence taught at the Bartitsu Club circa 1900 was devised by Pierre Vigny. Vigny himself instructed Bartitsu students in his system, and then taught it for some years thereafter at his own London self-defence school.  Curiously, however, there are only sporadic records of Vigny teaching walking stick self-defence after he returned to his home city of Geneva in mid-1908.

Above: H.G. Lang’s trainees demonstrate his “Walking Stick Method of Self Defence” (circa 1920).

The next major development of his style occurred during the early 1920s. Madras, India police superintendant Herbert G. Lang drew very substantially from the Vigny system in writing his book The Walking Stick Method of Self Defence, which was published in 1923. Although Lang’s book was only a modest commercial success, for many years thereafter it remained, effectively, the only comprehensive manual on the subject of stick fighting available in the Western world.

Above: future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) trains in the “long stick” style, circa 1943 (photo courtesy of Noah Gross).

During the early years of the Second World War, when members of the Haganah paramilitary organisation required a systematic method of stick fighting, they began to work from Lang’s Walking Stick Method. Translated into Hebrew, it became one of the foundations of Haganah close-combat training, which also included instruction in jiujitsu, boxing, fighting with knives and short sticks and even stone throwing.  Ironically, few at the time were aware of the system’s actual provenance, the assumption being that, since Lang’s book has been published in India and included many photographs of Indian police officers in action, the system itself must have been of Indian origin.

The walking stick method – known in Haganah circles as the “long stick” style – was practiced without any protective equipment, which was simply unavailable to its practitioners.  The numerous minor injuries, especially to hands and heads, that resulted from this training were seen by the Haganah leaders as an effective test of courage and stamina.

Eventually, many thousands of Hanagah trainees were taught the Lang system, forming what was, in essence, the first generation of Vigny stick fighting revivalists, positioned some forty years after the Vigny style’s heyday in London and about sixty years before the current revival got underway.

Israeli martial arts historian Noah Gross has located this extremely rare film of Haganah members training in the “long stick” style.  Although it’s very short, the film offers a fascinating glimpse back to a time when the walking stick method was studied in deadly earnest:

Art for art’s sake: the value of recreational Bartitsu

By Tony Wolf


Recent History

The modern Bartitsu revival is now fifteen years old and, like all teenagers, it’s undergoing some significant changes.

Most of the original cadre of Bartitsu revivalists, dating back to circa 2002, were members of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement, which coalesced out of many disparate sources including modern fencing, historical re-enactment, stage combat, Asian martial arts and various combat sports.

Communicating via the Bartitsu Forum established by author Will Thomas, they set about recreating E.W. Barton-Wright’s cross-training system in the manner of numerous other “extinct” fighting styles, from Medieval German longsword fencing to the use of the rapier and dagger, polearms, abbracciare (Italian unarmed combat), etc., which were being similarly revived at that time.

In most cases, likewise, the challenge of the reconstruction was its own justification; the object being to revive the original style, as closely as possible to the way it was originally practiced, via a combination of academic scholarship and intensive martial pressure-testing.

As such, the original Bartitsu revivalists comprised a small and relatively cohesive “fringe of a fringe” interest group, whose collaboration produced both volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium (2005/08) and established most of the characteristics of modern Bartitsu training, including the essentially “open-source” nature of the revival and the concepts of canonical and neo Bartitsu.

In more recent years, and most especially since the explosive success of the Sherlock Holmes movies (2009/11) firmly embedded an awareness of “Victorian English martial arts” in the popular consciousness, the number of Bartitsu clubs and study groups has grown significantly and a new generation of enthusiasts has emerged.

Individualism and diversity are inherent to Bartitsu revivalism and, therefore, attempts to “police” that revival are instantly doomed to failure. People are free to do exactly as they want to do. That understanding is why the Bartitsu Society has always been, and remains, a basically informal association of colleagues rather than a hierarchical, bureaucratic “governing body”.

“To create again”: recreational Bartitsu


While Bartitsu was, literally, the reality-based self-defence of its own time and place, and certainly can be undertaken purely for entertainment at pop-culture conventions and so-on, I would argue that its greatest value today is something quite different, by virtue of the many decades that have passed since its brief heyday at the turn of the 20th century.  Therefore, the remainder of this essay simply advocates for a “recreational Bartitsu”.

Consider that the word “recreation” means “an activity done for enjoyment” and that it is derived from the Latin re-creare, meaning “to create again” – the latter definition being especially appropriate when applied to the activity of reviving an extinct martial art.

Although both self-defence and performance/LARP-oriented revivalisms could also be described as “recreational” in certain senses, I’m using that term to refer to a third approach; that which prioritises the notion of “art for art’s sake”. Recreational Bartitsu, therefore, is primarily geared towards recreating Barton-Wright’s original art, embracing the canonical and lineage materials as cultural artifacts of intrinsic historical value.

In other words, the primary value of the canonical material is, precisely, that it is canonical; it is our most direct link to the original cross-training system that was being developed at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901.  From this perspective, modern self-defence applications are of secondary or tertiary priority, alongside demonstration of the canonical material for public display.

Further, the close and serious study of the canonical and lineage material reveals just enough of the tactical and mechanical principles behind Barton-Wright’s original system to enable practitioners to make truly educated deductions about the rest of the system. That study must include not only the Pearson’s Magazine article series, but also the panoply of supplementary sources that have been unearthed by researchers over the past fifteen years, offering crucial context to the modern revival.

Is this recreational approach any different, then, from “living history”? Does it simply result in martial arts museum pieces, beautifully preserved but lacking real utility?

No. A martial art worthy of that name must be functional, and so the aim of recreational Bartitsu is to first reassemble, and then to prove by pressure-testing, the original system on its own terms, as a method of cross-training between, specifically, c1900 boxing and kicking, the eclectic “British jiujitsu” of the Edwardian era and the Vigny style of stick fighting.  

As with any martial arts reconstruction project, the aim is to get as close as possible to the original methods.  Some of this reassembly is verbatim (from the canon) and some is speculative, referring to the great corpus of Bartitsu lineage materials produced by the Bartitsu Club instructors and their first generations of students, as outlined in the second volume of the Compendium.

The Japanese concept of takemusu, implying “martial creativity”, is inherent to this recreational approach. The process is collaborative and on-going. Rather than attempting to complete Barton-Wright’s abandoned work-in-progress, recreationalists are engaged in a continual state of “combat lab” experimentation.

“All-in” sparring in an identifiably “Bartitsu” style is the apex of this form of recreation. The acid test is simple – if you can fight successfully in a manner that’s closely evocative of the original method, then your recreation is good. If not, keep testing and experimenting until you can.

“New Methods of Self-Defence” (1906)

For almost all practical purposes, Bartitsu – as a defined combination of martial arts and combat sport styles – ceased to exist after the closure of the Bartitsu School of Arms in early 1902.  Sadakazu Uyenishi, Yukio Tani and Armand Cherpillod continued their successes as music hall challenge wrestlers; both Uyenishi and Tani also opened up their own jiujitsu dojo, while Cherpillod became instrumental in introducing Japanese unarmed combat to the European continent.

Thus, E.W. Barton-Wright’s experiment in self-defence cross-training became fragmented.  Of all of the former Bartitsu Club instructors, however, Pierre Vigny came closest to perpetuating Barton-Wright’s ideals via Vigny’s “Combined System”, described in the following article from The Sportsman of 8 October 1906.  Although frustratingly little is known about the details of Vigny’s system, it clearly included jiujitsu as well as boxing/savate, fencing and his proprietary method of stick fighting; albeit that the jiujitsu content appears to have been de-emphasised in comparison with Barton-Wright’s approach.

At about the same time, self-defence specialist Percy Longhurst published the first edition of his book Jiujitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence, which is certainly the closest thing to a “Bartitsu manual” to have been written in English during the early 20th century.

Uniquely, the Sportsman article also refers to a challenge by Vigny to pit his system against jiujitsu, although there seems to be no record of that challenge being taken up.

“At Them, Girls!” How the Amazon Defence Corps Trained to Take on Nazi Invaders

Members of the Amazon Defence Corps train in unarmed combat (July, 1940).

During the fraught summer of 1940, the people of England were bracing themselves for a seemingly inevitable invasion by the German army.  While politicians dithered over whether women should be allowed to serve as “Home Defenders” – and some women planned suicides – others began training themselves to repel the Nazis by force.

Venetia Foster’s London-based Amazon Defence Corps was among the first of these organizations. Legally prevented from carrying firearms, they neverthless practiced with rifles in shooting galleries set up in public amusement arcades and members’ homes.  Weighted beanbags served as facsimile hand-grenades and molotov cocktails.  The Amazons also studied unarmed combat, rehearsing jujitsu throws on their lawns, and scanned the skies for German parachutists with their opera glasses.

As branches of the Amazons Defence Corps got underway in areas outside London, Percy Longhurst (whose self-defence expertise dated back to the glory days of the Bartitsu Club circa 1900) contributed a series of five illustrated photo-features to the Daily Mail.  Titled “At Him, Girls!”, the articles instructed readers in some basic jiujitsu techniques and also included advice on how to wield an umbrella, walking stick or fireplace poker if attacked by an invading enemy soldier.

In August of 1940 the ADC joined forces with Dr. Edith Summerskill’s new Women’s Home Defence organization and thereafter continued their training throughout wartime, as shown in this newsreel footage:

Although women were never formally admitted into England’s Home Guard as potential combatants, the former members of the Amazon Defence Corps showed true initiative and determination in preparing to resist Nazi invaders.

“Fighting with pot lids” – nabebuta displays at the London Budokwai

Exhibitions of kobudo (weaponed martial arts) by members of the London Budokwai during 1919, 1922 and 1924 included displays of combat with a highly unusual weapon – the nabebuta or “pot lid”.  Described by one journalist as resembling “wooden cymbals”, the nabebuta are rare even in koryu bujutsu (“old-school martial arts”), being particularly associated with the Takenouchi-ryu.

Above: nabebuta vs. shinai, from the 1919 exhibition.
Above: the nabebuta fighter employs his left-hand weapon as a buckler and his right-hand weapon as a knuckle-duster during the 1922 display.
Above: blocking a high-line attack and counter-striking to the brachial plexus area.
Above: a simultaneous parry and counter-attack.

“… he goes down all the same”

A parallel is drawn between the no-holds-barred ethos of Bartitsu and the military tactics of the Boer War in this article from the St James’s Gazette of 18 January, 1900.

Our army leaders might draw excellent moral from that Japanese “noble art self-defence” just imported, for which a London school is about to started. It disregards the traditional rules of boxing and of wrestling (in which many foreigners think us absurdly conservative), and fits the student for an altercation with, say, a Turkish assassin or an armed Hooligan.

We are fighting with what has occasionally shown itself, however brave, to be a Hooligan army. It may be as courageous to march up to the cannon’s mouth in quarter column, or to wear a shining sword and despise cover, as to wait for a kick a la savate without guarding.

A general can explain that he was cut up, not by the regulation field gun, but by grossly unscientific guns of position, as a wrestler, that he was put down by an agonizing “lock” instead of a fair throw — but he goes down all the same. The Boer mounted infantry may be unsuited to a big European war, and the Hooligan’s knife to a professional boxing-match (and even a novelty therein), but both have their uses.

We are not, of course, arguing in favour of shelling either the white flag or the Red Cross. But fighting, after all, vulgar and rough-and-ready though it be, is the chief end of military training, not circus riding or playing conjuring tricks with the rifle. Not even showing how fearless we are.

The Aerial Wrestling Girls (1905)

By 1905 the novelty of mixed-style wrestling matches was beginning to wear thin for London music hall audiences, so some creative developments were deemed to be in order. Thus, the invention of “aerial wrestling” by some unknown hero of lateral thinking.

The rules of the new sport were simple enough.  Two teams of six female athletes each – at least notionally representing England and the United States, respectively – were to compete in a contest of agility and endurance upon a unique and curious piece of gymnastic equipment.  The “Ladies’ Aerial Wrestling Apparatus” consisted of twelve long poles, suspended vertically from a ladder-like arrangement that was secured high above the stage.  Each pole was studded with a series of three small round wooden platforms, spaced about 3 feet apart, which could be used as (somewhat precarious) hand- and foot-holds.

At the referee’s signal, there commenced a free-for-all scramble to claim the greatest possible height on a pole, at which point the object of the game was to “wrestle” members of the opposing team off their poles.  The favoured and most common technique was to swing one’s legs up and capture the opponent’s head and shoulders in a type of scissor hold, at which stage one could endeavour to force them to slide down and off their pole through sheer body weight.  However, the pole-wrestler caught by the scissor grip might be able to break the hold and escape by swinging to an adjacent pole.

Occasionally, two opposing pole-wrestlers would fall together – one hopes that the stage below was well-padded.  The most exciting scenario, according to one reporter, occurred when a single, agile wrestler who was the last woman of her team to remain undefeated was pursued by several members of the opposing team and still managed to win the day.  Some Aerial Wrestling matches reportedly lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes.

Billed variously as being managed by “Madame Roma”,  “Madame Kotka” and “Madame Denny”, the Aerial Wrestling Girls enjoyed a period of success during 1905, touring the various London music halls and then venturing further afield to the Oxford Town Hall and other provincial venues.  One of them also made the newspapers for reportedly using her wrestling skills in fending off the attentions of an unwelcome admirer,  as recorded in the Derry Journal of 13 September, 1905:


BBC “Timeshift” documentary on the history of the martial arts in Great Britain

The first twelve minutes of this 2013 BBC documentary focus on Bartitsu and the use of jiujitsu by the radical suffragettes, featuring demonstrations by James Marwood and George Stokoe and interviews with Tony Wolf and Emelyne Godfrey.

“Proof of great strength”: grappling with the Kibbo Kift Kindred

Exemplifying the virtues and limitations of the early 20th century “self-taught man”, John Hargrave (1894-1982) was accomplished in a variety of fields.  A senior scoutmaster possessing great powers of imagination, energy and charisma, Hargrave’s experience of war during the Battle of Gallipoli caused him to become bitterly disillusioned with the nationalism and militarism of Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement.

When the Great War ended, Hargrave broke from the Scouts and created a pacifistic, progressive and universalist alternative youth movement, which became known as the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.  “Kibbo Kift”, Hargrave maintained, meant “proof of great strength” in an archaic and obscure Cheshire dialect.

Although never very great in numbers, the Kindred were highly active and influential throughout the 1920s, attracting support from writer H.G. Wells and former suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence among other socially progressive thinkers.  Indeed, Wells’ 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, with its vision of a “New Samurai” class of creative, disciplined and self-actualised individuals leading the world towards a future free of war and poverty, was a clear model for Hargraves’ counter-cultural movement.

The Kibbo Kift adopted a romanticised Anglo-Saxon motif, including a uniform of green jerkins, hoods and cloaks. Thus attired, they set out on strenuous camping and hiking expeditions, staged elaborately theatrical rituals and mystical plays, produced strikingly original handcrafts and costume art, all according to Hargrave’s comprehensive philosophy for the betterment of each individual Kin member and the wider society.

Above: echoes of Robin Hood as young members of the Kibbo Kift embark on a bracing cross-country hike.

Although the Order of the Kibbo Kift was an avowedly pacifistic organisation, it also promoted physical fitness and the ethic of self-reliance, which included self-defence if necessary.  Therefore, along with archery and “fleetfoot” (running races), Hargrave – whose name within the Order was “White Fox” – instituted a type of wrestling sport called “thewstrang”.  This word was taken to mean “muscular strength”.

Above: Thewstrang as demonstrated by two stalwart Kibbo Kift Kinsmen.

Unlike most English folk-styles of wrestling, Thewstrang did not mandate any particular opening grip, nor insist that a specific grip should be held throughout the match.  In common with the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style, it allowed holds to be taken below the belt-line.  The object appears to have been to throw one’s opponent to the turf, although it’s possible that – like the roughly contemporaneous “standing catch” style – one could also win by simply hoisting an opponent helplessly off his feet.

Thewstrang matches were mainstays of Kindred meetings, including a tournament held at their main annual camping gathering which was known, after the Icelandic custom, as the “Althing”.

During the economic and social turmoil of the 1930s Hargrave attempted to transform the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift into a political movement, agitating for the institution of a radical, Social Credit-based economic reform.  Members of his quasi-militaristic Green Shirt Brigade frequently exerted their “thewstrang” in clashes with Sir Oswald Mosely’s fascist Black Shirts during political rallies and marches through the streets of London.

A Hargrave supporter, Hubert Cornish-Bowden, recalled the wrestling technique he’d used during a streetfight outside a Mosely meeting:

We were carrying a banner and a chap tried to pull it down. I gave him a biff and then I found myself on the floor with about four people kicking me. Unfortunately, it was very dark and when one is lying in the gutter being kicked it is rather difficult to distinguish one person’s legs from another’s. And I caught hold of a policeman’s foot. Got hold of his toe in one hand and his heel in the other, and twisted it. Of course he fell down. Next thing I knew, either three or four policemen were carrying me out of the meeting, one on each arm like that and with one or two holding my feet. What they call the frog march. They fined me £3 at the London Magistrate’s Court.

Another Green Shirt (appropriately named Ralph Green) made the news when, inspired by Robin Hood, he fired an arrow through the window of No. 10 Downing Street, proclaiming that “Social Credit is coming!”

The activities of the Green Shirt Brigade and similar paramilitary movements were curtailed by the Public Order Act of 1936, which banned the wearing of uniforms by political groups, and then the membership was scattered by the outbreak of war in 1939.  Thereafter, John Hargrave gradually withdrew from the public spotlight.  Although his notably creative efforts at progressive social reform had been largely forgotten by the time he died in 1982, it could be argued that some of them were simply decades ahead of their time.