The Athletic Jagendorfer (1905)

According to a report in the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 12 October, 1905, the celebrated wrestler, strongman and club-swinging champion Georg Jagendorfer would shortly begin instructing the Viennese police in the gentle art of jiujitsu.  Jagendorfer, the article noted, had been studying the system with several Japanese experts and had also “discovered several original tricks by which it has been widened in scope”.

Jagendorfer poses with a truly impressive array of Indian clubs and sledgehammers.

Given that Jagendorfer weighed in at a respectable 277 pounds, it’s slightly surprising that he felt any urgent need to pursue jiujitsu training.  It’s also tempting to speculate about what might have happened if Jagendorfer had challenged fellow strongman (and Yukio Tani’s erstwhile manager) William “Apollo” Bankier to a jiujitsu contest.  A match between those two heavyweights, each one attempting to win by yielding to the other’s strength, would have made a diverting spectacle.


The Addams-Dewey Gymnasium

Artist Pablo Helguera’s Addams-Dewey Gymnasium was part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s recent exhibition, titled A Proximity of Consciousness:

The gymnasium invites visitors to engage in turn-of-the-century exercises designed to promote health and foster a connection between the mind and the body. In the piece, Helguera transports the educational philosophies of activist Jane Addams and educational reformer John Dewey into a contemporary art exhibition, inviting participants to reflect on the impact of two of the most influential thinkers on education.

The exhibition featured practical classes in circa 1900 physical culture exercises and also an array of antique exercise paraphernalia, including an exercise bike, rowing machine and a woman’s gymnastics dress borrowed from the Forteza Gymuseum collection.








Inside the “Hilltop dojo” of W.E. Steers (1909)

These excerpts from the article “The Dwelling-House of an Apostle of Health” (“The House Beautiful”, Sept. 1909) offer a further glimpse inside the extraordinary dojo constructed in W.E. Steers’ Hilltop home in Surrey, England.


To explain the reasons for the inclusion of the beautifully designed gymnasium which is the great feature of the house, it should be noted that during his travels in Japan, Mr. Steers had been enormously impressed with the value of “jiu-jitsu” as a system of moral and physical training. He learned a little of the art in the Land of the Rising Sun; just enough to convince him of its great efficacy in developing all the powers of the body.

He saw, what so few people in England and America are aware of, that “jiu-jitsu” was not a mere method of wrestling, but that it formed the foundation of that extraordinary self-possession, coolness, and adroitness which are the mental as well as the physical attributes of the Japanese. He found that it was not a series of tricks which could be learned by an athletic man in the course of a few lessons; but that it was a highly developed system of education, the professors of which were as highly esteemed
in their own country as are those in western lands, who occupy the principal chairs at colleges and universities.

Hence the gymnasium at “Hilltop,” with its appliances for physical recreation. Several of the most prominent professors of “jiu-jitsu” have been over from time to time to instruct and exercise with the owner of this house of health on the hill. Among them may be mentioned Professor T. Tobari, one of the famous four who demonstrated before the Emperor of Japan the outstanding virtues of jiu-jitsu in comparison with other forms of physical culture, at a time when the government was deciding upon the best system to adopt for inclusion in the educational curriculums of the country.


The gymnasium is a room surrounded on three sides by walls painted to represent typical Surrey scenery as found in the neighborhood of Caterham. The mural decorative scheme was carried out by Mr. Hugh Wallis of Altrineham, Manchester. The fourth side is entirely open to the air and gives direct access on to a grassy exercising lawn, at one end of which is a plunge pool made of concrete and fitted with a spring-board. There are rolling shutters which can be drawn down when the owner is away or when tremendous storms of wind and rain drive in from the East.


The main floor of the gymnasium is constructed on springs like a dancing floor, with Japanese wrestling mats, two or three inches thick, surrounded by a thick cork carpet border, about two feet wide. A sunken bath with hot and cold water supply is fitted at one end of the room, and at the other is an arched fireplace recess. A door at the North end gives access to a dressing room and lavatory. Here the owner keeps his guns and revolvers, some of them being trophies of shooting contests. All the year round the gymnasium floor makes a splendid sleeping place; but Mr. Steers quite as frequently sleeps out on the lawn on a camp mattress.


The Forteza Gymuseum

Gymuseum 1

The Gymuseum at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Ravenswood, Chicago is a unique “living museum” collection of antique physical culture apparatus, mostly dating from the period 1880-1910.

Many of the items on permanent display are functional and can be used in exercise classes, while some others are for viewing only.

The collection includes:

* an 1880s vintage cast-iron and oak rowing machine
* an assortment of classic cast-iron dumbbells and hardwood Indian clubs
* “Sandow” brand spring-loaded dumbbells in their original packing
* an “Italian pattern” broadsword fencing mask
* a wall-mounted pulley weightlifting machine
* a 1911 women’s gym suit
* a leather medicine ball
* a wooden exercise wand and rings
* an early boxing speed bag.

Gymuseum 2

Also on display is a gallery of antique prints showing combat athletes in training, as well as several large, photo-realistic reproduction posters featuring Bartitsu, boxing and the late-Victorian revival of historical fencing.

Protecting history: vandalism at the historic Hegeler-Carus mansion gymnasium

The Hegeler-Carus Mansion in the town of La Salle, Illinois, contains what is believed to be the oldest preserved residential gymnasium in the United States. As the only known remaining example of a traditional German turnhall, the Hegeler-Carus gym is a precious and truly unique resource for all historians of 19th century sport and exercise.

On the evening of Sunday, January 27th, vandals attempted to break into the mansion, first throwing a brick through one of the ground floor windows and then using a garbage can to break through the back door. The mansion’s motion sensor security alarm sounded and by the time police and members of the mansion staff arrived, the vandals had fled.

“Fortunately, they didn’t have more time in the house,” Hegeler Carus Foundation executive director Kelly Klobucher said on Monday.

Kelly Klobucher takes inventory in the historic gym following Sunday’s vandalism.

The thrown brick and broken glass damaged some of the historic gymnasium’s fittings and equipment, notably including a horizontal exercise ladder (similar to a set of monkey bars) that was set against the wall immediately below the window. According to Tony Wolf, a member of the Hegeler Carus Foundation advisory board with particular reference to the gym and its equipment; “As with much of the turnhall apparatus, the horizontal ladder is a one-of-a-kind antique dating to the 1870s, so it’s been difficult to establish a replacement cost. It’s very sad that it should have been damaged in this way.”

The intact horizontal ladder (picture taken circa 2010).

While the mansion’s insurance will cover the costs of the vandalism, Klobucher said it may be awhile before they are able to fully repair the original thick glass to historic specifications.

“A lot of the funding we’ve secured toward the end of last year is already tied to other projects,” she said, noting that preservation work is already underway on the home’s parlor and grounds this year. She said the foundation will likely also have to find money to improve security at the mansion.

Donations towards upgrading the mansion’s security can be made via this link.

Anyone with information about the attempted break-in incident is asked to contact La Salle police at (815) 223-2131.

Pierre Vigny in 1934

A stern portrait of former Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny, taken circa 1934 when he was the Director of the Academy of Defensive Sports in Geneva. The short source article also offers the interesting detail that Vigny had made the acquaintance of French physical culture guru and entrepreneur Edmond Desbonnet, who was instrumental in introducing jiujitsu to Paris, at the Bartitsu Club.

The Bartitsu School of Arms 2012 in text, video and images

The second annual Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture was a three-day conference and training seminar held in Chicago between September 7-9, 2012. The event was hosted by the Bartitsu Club of Chicago and based at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio.

Day 1

Our band of stalwart adventurers met at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighburhood just before noon, embarking in a small but spirited convoy to La Salle, IL to tour the Hegeler Carus Mansion and its historic gymnasium – normally a two-hour trip. Unfortunately we were delayed by unusually heavy traffic leaving the city, but the Hegeler Carus Mansion staff were kind enough to delay the start of the 2.00 tour to accommodate us. En route, a nascent plan emerged to write a Bartitsu-themed “anthem”, perhaps in the style of a c1900 music hall song. We also met SoA instructor Allen Reed, who lives somewhat near La Salle, at the site.

The mansion tour was fascinating, particularly re. the Hegeler and Carus families’ close connections to events such as the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the spread of Zen Buddhism to the Western world and to the publishing industry via their in-house “Open Court” company. By special permission of the Hegeler Carus Foundation, instructor Tony Wolf was then able to lead an extended, “up close” tour of the famous 1876-vintage gymnasium, which he has been helping to research and re-assemble. Two Bartitsu Club of Chicago members were afterwards inspired to construct their own “teeter ladder” exercise apparatus, which would surely be a unique addition to the Forteza gymuseum; as far as we know, the original teeter ladder in the mansion’s gym is the only surviving example of its type.

Our return to Chicago was significantly delayed by extremely heavy traffic, due in part to a Bruce Springsteen concert, but we were just about able to get everyone fed and at the Lincoln Square Theatre in time for the beginning of Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride.

The play is set during the late Victorian era and actually opens with the title character – a no-nonsense, Mary Poppinsish member of the Society of Lady Detectives – making adroit use of jujitsu and then her parasol to fend off various assailants. Further fight scenes showcased everything from smallsword fencing to pugilism in the context of an ostensible Jack the Ripper mystery, but in fact the mysteries to be solved were of a different and more personal nature. All ended happily for the heroines and the audience was left hoping for further adventures with the S.O.L.D.

Day 2

We began the first full training day with a tour of the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio and then a mini-lecture on Bartitsu history. Warm-ups began by simply walking around the space for orientation, then jogging, then jogging backwards, then jogging while throwing an antique leather medicine ball to and fro (nothing like it for breaking the ice).

We continued the warm-up with a series of synergy exercises stressing efficient whole-body movement, unbalancing tactics and elbow/hip alignment.

Next up was a set of two circuit training sessions in which small groups rotated between short classes taught by three instructors; Allen Reed teaching collar-and-elbow wrestling and jujitsu throws, Tony Wolf teaching fisticuffs and Mark Donnelly teaching cane techniques. These sessions were followed by some “integration” training, making the point that Bartitsu really comes to life when the various skills/styles are tested against each other and combined together.

After lunch we reconvened for longer, specialized classes with each instructor. Mark taught a session on umbrella/parasol defense via the “bayonet” grip; Forteza Fitness instructor Keith Jennings taught some catch wrestling holds, takedowns and reversals; Allen presented several canonical Bartitsu/jujitsu kata, and drills arising from opponent resistance; Tony taught “combat improvisation” based on various canonical unarmed and armed set-plays.

Then each instructor in turn was invited to contribute to a combat scenario beginning with cane fighting, segueing through boxing and throwing and ending up on the ground.

The last session of the day was devoted to informal “breakaway” groups and included some spirited cane sparring, pugilism drills, scenario-based cane techniques, free submission grappling and even some Bowie knife work. Serious points to those young enthusiasts who, after a very full day of Bartitsu training, still had enough energy to squeeze in a kettlebell session.

At 7.00 pm we met in the Victorian-themed side room at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House – all dark green velvet, dark polished wood and maroon trimmings – and spent a very pleasant couple of hours eating, drinking and chatting before retiring gratefully, if not necessarily gracefully, to home and rest.

Day 3

The final day of the School of Arms began with an orientation and quick Bartitsu history lesson for the four new (Sunday only) participants. We started the warm-up with forward and backward jogging and medicine ball tossing, then rotated through whole-group exercises/balance games taught by Mark Donnelly, Allen Reed and Tony Wolf, including iterations of wrist wrestling, stick wrestling, stand-off and finger-fencing.

Next we cycled through two circuit training rounds of small group mini-lessons (roughly 15 minutes each), in which Mark concentrated on cane work, Allen on jujitsu throws and Tony on integrating standing grappling with fisticuffs and low kicking.

After lunch each of the instructors taught a longer, 45 minute class for the whole group. Mark focused on the technical and tactical dynamics of parrying and countering with the cane. Allen taught applications of two canonical jujitsu kata vs multiple opponents and Tony gave a session on spontaneously combining three canonical kata/set-plays (two jujitsu, one cane) in response to opponent resistance.

We then set up for the Antagonisticathlon, which proved to be by far the roughest and wildest rendition of that event yet. The combination of stirring Sherlock Holmes and Steampunk music via the PA system and the presence of an audience fed into a quite extraordinary mixture of hard fighting and surreal Victorianesque humour. It was a sight to see.

After the warm-downs, the School of Arms ended on a high note, with thanks to our hosts at Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts for providing the perfect venue for this event, to the instructors and to the brave souls who volunteered as ruffians in the Antagonisticathlon. We then passed out participation certificates and posed for group photos before retiring to O’Shaughnessy’s for drinks and farewells.

Special thanks to the members of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago who volunteered to host and chauffeur out-of-towners, the staff at the Hegeler Carus Mansion and to all the participants, some of whom had traveled considerable distances for the event.

Onwards to the Bartitsu School of Arms 2013 …

CLANG: crowdfunding an authentic historical swordfighting video game (with Bartitsu aside)

The Subutai Corporation has launched a Kickstarter campaign towards the production of CLANG, a revolutionary hand to hand combat video game.

Clang is one aspect of the Foreworld project, an epic multi-media historical fiction franchise centered around the martial arts of European history. Quoting Subutai principal Neal Stephenson on the subjects of Victorian-era self defence and physical culture:

It’s an interesting thing,” Stephenson says, “because from a distance 19th-century martial arts looks kind of dorky — it looks like Monty Python. It ties into everything we believe about the Victorians: that they were out of touch with their bodies, that they didn’t really understand medicine very well, and that they were uncomfortable with physical activities. But once you get into it, you find that these people really knew what they were doing in terms of physical culture, in terms of self-defense. Victorians were really serious about staying fit.

Part of what makes this an interesting story is how, in the 19th century, jiujitsu was adopted by women. This guy Barton-Wright brought jiujitsu to London. He came back from Japan and created a club called the Bartitsu Club. He taught the mixed martial art of jiujitsu, bare-knuckle fighting, savate, stick fighting and a few other things. He brought in a couple of teachers from Japan, and would take them around the music halls—have them challenge huge, burly guys and throw them around. This had an unintentional side effect that suffragettes would see these performances, and decide they wanted to learn self-defense: ‘I want to defeat a man!’ Jiujitsu as a ‘husband-tamer’!

We want to do a side-story quest thing about the jiujitsu suffragettes. The image that we’re all dying to get into a full-page spread in a comic book is this lineup of Edwardian women with the flowered hats and the long skirts and the bustles, and they’re all walking eight abreast down a London street, swaggering toward the camera and approaching a bunch of bobbies… if we could get that image in some medium, that would be a good thing.

“Old School Fitness Becomes New Trend”: Bartitsu and historical fencing featured in the Chicago Tribune

“Walking into the Forteza Fitness club in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood is like strolling into a cultural time machine,” begins John Owens’ new article and video feature for the Chicago Tribune. The video highlights the antagonisticathlon event that served as a “graduation” for the Bartitsu Club of Chicago’s introductory 6-week course as well as historical fencing action from members of the Chicago Swordplay Guild and demonstrations of some physical culture exercises.