E.W. Barton-Wright’s “overcoat trick”

In the March edition of Pearson’s Magazine, 1899, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright demonstrated a curious self defence technique making use of an overcoat as a defensive weapon. The provenance of this technique is unclear. It could be an aspect of the Shinden Fudo Ryu jiujitsu that he had studied in Kobe, Japan; an adaptation of a French Apache (gangster) street-fighting trick, or perhaps Barton-Wright’s revival/update of the classic “cloak in the face” manoeuvre recorded by historical fencing masters such as Salvator Fabris:

Fabris’ technique had been revived as part of the historical fencing curriculum developed by Captain Alfred Hutton, who taught both Elizabethan and modern forms of fencing, as well as theatrical stage combat, at Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club:

According to Barton-Wright:

There is, however, one simple and effective way of meeting an attack with a knife that I will explain. We will suppose that you have to pass through a locality late at night where there is a likelihood of such an attack, and you do not wish to run the risk of bringing yourself within the law by relying upon a revolver.

Carry your overcoat upon your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves, in the style of a military cloak, with your right hand ready upon your left shoulder to use your coat in the way explained below, should the necessity arise. Be careful always to walk in the middle of the road. Directly your assailant attacks, face him and wait until he is within a distance of two or three yards. Then envelop his head and arms by throwing your coat at him, with a sweeping, circular motion of the arm. This will obscure his view momentarily, but not your own, and will give you plenty of time to deliver your attack, which should take the form of a right-handed knock-out blow in the pit of the stomach.

Or while he is still enveloped in the folds of your coat, slip round behind him, seize him by the right ankle, and push him under the shoulder blade with your left hand. You will thus throw him very violently upon his face, and in his endeavour to break his fall and protect his face he will put out his hands, and in doing so, involuntarily drop his weapon. He will then be disarmed and in a position where you can break his leg immediately if you so like, or if you do not wish to proceed to such extremes, you can hold him down in the position shown in No. 6 until the police arrive.

This is only one of the many ways I have of meeting such a contingency.

A tongue-in-cheek reference to the overcoat technique then appeared in the April 8th, 1899 issue of Guy’s Hospital Gazette:

Mr. Higgins has been taking lessons in the new art of self-defence. At his first meeting with Mr. Barton-Wright he attempted to floor him with the usual knock-out blow, but soon found himself presenting an inverted image moving against the shadow. This led him to think that there was more in the method than met the eye.

It appears that there is a good deal to learn in this new art. There are several hundreds of different manoeuvres for as many different forms of attack, and the trouble begins, I imagine, when you work off the wrong defence for the particular variety of attack.

There is one trick with an overcoat which strikes us as particularly “fresh.” All you have to do is to walk in the middle of the road with your arms removed from the sleeves of your overcoat. (The only drawback to this is that it rather spoils the set of the overcoat and necessitates wearing one all the summer). Then you meet your assailant—this is the hardest part of the business, but it can generally be managed by a judicious use of opprobrious epithet. Having met him, all you have to do is to seize your coat by the shoulder and plug it round his head.

If you are successful you can jump on his chest while he is getting untangled; if not, he will probably move off with the overcoat down a side-street. You lose the overcoat, but win the game. I must try it on a policeman.

And finally, here is the same trick, executed by Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes (2010) as a prelude to belabouring his antagonist with a frying pan:

THE UMBRELLA: A MISUNDERSTOOD WEAPON

This article, written and illustrated by J.F. Sullivan, originally appeared in “The Ludgate Monthly” of 1897,  just a few years before E.W. Barton-Wright introduced Bartitsu to London.

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No weapon is so little understood as the umbrella. This—the true arm of the citizen — has simply been brought into sheer contempt and ridicule by no fault of its own, but simply by the ignorance and want of skill of its wearer. In the case of every other weapon which has been adopted, at various periods of the world’s history, by man, the user has considered a thorough knowledge of its capabilities and limits a fundamental necessity in its effective employment; and has invariably fitted himself, by long and constant practise, for that employment.  What prehistoric man would have thought of using his flint spear as a gun? What Roman legionary would have dreamed of applying a fuse to the hilt of his sword ? Would any sane Knight of the Middle Ages have been caught employing his lance in the capacity of a single-stick ? Very well then !

It fills me with an inexpressible shame to have to declare—to inform presumably intelligent citizens—that the umbrella is not a broadsword!

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The umbrella is distinctly a form of rapier; the husband-beater is a hand-and-a-half estoc (to be used in the saddle, if required); and the sunshade and parasol are short swords, or long daggers: and one and all are designed for thrusting— not cutting.

Yet how does the citizen use his characteristic weapon ? Why, as a broadsword—nearly always!

How does Jones, Brown, or Robinson —fully armed with his umbrella—behave when attacked by bravos, infuriated females, mad dogs, or infuriated cabmen?

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MISTAKEN UMBRELLIST AND MAD DOG

He simply hits them on the hat—with the exception of the mad dog, of course —with his gingham: and they simply smile, and reduce him to a pulp. We read of cases every day in the newspaper.

Linger for awhile in any wild district into which the arm of the law has not yet penetrated, and where the citizen holds his life in his hands: the districts round about Bow Street Police Station, for example. Wait until you perceive some pedestrian attacked by a gang of footpads, descending from the mountain fastnesses of Betterton Street and Somebody’s Rents. You need not, as a rule, wait more than five minutes.

Now watch : how does that pedestrian employ his umbrella ? Why, almost invariably as a broadsword.

With his swashing blow he endeavours to cleave a rough to the chine, and behead him.

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MISUSED AS A BROADSWORD

The effort fails in its purpose—and why ? Why, simply because no umbrella, even of the finest temper, will bear an edge sufficiently keen to sever the head from the body at a single blow.

Why does that citizen fail to go home to tea; and why are his widow and orphans left desolate ?

Because he never studied the true use of the umbrella.

But see—here approaches another pedestrian whose wary eye indicates that he knows what’s what. He proceeds along Endell Street, his light overcoat twisted around his left arm; his stern right hand gripping a tightly-rolled umbrella. As he arrives at the scattered chips of the former pedestrian, with a blood-curdling war-cry whose echo may even startle the slumbering policemen in the adjacent station, and cause the magistrate to shudder in his chair, out rush the wild hordes of the alley.

Calmly the new pedestrian places his back to the workhouse wall; then, in a moment, his flashing umbrella has passed, to the very hilt, through his foremost assailant. It is out again, and its keen ferrule passes down the throat of a second foeman.

A third falls, the wind whistling shrilly through three distinct perforations which pierce him from back to front. The rest flee in confusion. It is a rout. That citizen stands erect amid a ring of the silent slain. He has learned the use of the umbrella—that is all. He goes home to tea, while the police arrive and gather up the slain.5

It is a national disgrace that there exists no School of Umbrella-Fence. In this very London are many schools and clubs for the culture of the rapier and single-stick; yet there is not one where umbrella play may be studied.

Still, even in the absence of schools, the science may be studied at home, with the aid of one’s wife.

It is as well not to allow the wife to be armed in this game, as ladies are proverbially clumsy with weapons, and might damage one seriously.

Let the wife be merely on the defensive, and armed with a shield. A dish- cover with a string inside will serve admirably as a shield; or a sofa cushion will do. By a little practise, according to the following rules, the umbrellist may quickly become proficient in the use of one of the handiest and prettiest weapons yet invented by man.

First Position.—Stand with the feet some sixteen inches apart; the right foot in advance ; the right shoulder turned towards the adversary; the point of the umbrella lowered; the left arm raised as a balance.

The Lunge.—Raise the umbrella to a horizontal position, and thrust it suddenly out until the arm is fully extended; the right foot simultaneously taking a step forward. With a little practise a hit is almost certain, unless your wife has a very quick eye. Hit anywhere, as every hit counts.

If your wife tires of the game, tear up her hat and twist the cat’s neck. Return to first position, and smile.

After a time, when the umbrellist has become to some extent expert, an orange may be placed upon the wife’s head, to lunge at; and when the lunger can succeed in transfixing the fruit with the ferrule, some amount of dexterity has been attained. It is as well for the wife to be provided with sticking-plaster, and a few false eyes; but, as we said before, never allow her to use an umbrella, as serious accidents to the male umbrellist may result.

Where no wife is at hand, any person unable to retaliate will answer the purpose. If you possess a very fat friend, you will find excellent practise in lunging at his waistcoat buttons. Should you injure any vital part, apologise at once: for the strict etiquette of the game should never be omitted.

We will now suppose that the umbrellist has qualified himself for serious combat; and append a few hints as to the proper methods of procedure in some of the many occasions in which the umbrella, as a lethal weapon, may come in useful.

The Duel To The Death With A BURGLAR.—On being disturbed at night by sounds indicative of the presence of a burglar in the house, the umbrellist should arise, select his favourite umbrella, and, proceeding to the grindstone, give a keen point to the ferrule.

He then descends the stairs, and challenges the burglar to single-combat; when the following rules of the duel must be strictly observed :

The burglar, first laying aside any dangerous weapon, such as a revolver or jemmy, with which he may be armed, assumes an upright position, with his hands clasped behind him. The umbrellist now advances, and bows to his adversary, who returns the salute. Play now commences.

It consists of the endeavour of the umbrellist to transfix the burglar with the umbrella. The burglar should not move, as movement is calculated to baulk the aim of his opponent. In this play no hits count unless the ferrule appears on the further edge of the burglar’s periphery.

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At each thrust which penetrates, yet fails to go right through, the burglar is at liberty to call “half-through,” and scores one. Seven perforations through vital parts secure victory to the umbrellist. Should there be several burglars, only one should join in the duel at a time; the other or others standing aside and somewhat behind the one engaged, in order to check the effective thrusts. These may be marked on the drawing-room wall-paper, or scratched on the piano with a nail.

For the adjustment of affairs of honour, the umbrella might be made invaluable. In fine, the misuse of the umbrella by a nation priding itself upon its military instincts—a nation upon whose flag the sun never sets—is a standing disgrace only to be wiped out by speedy and thorough-going reform.