Bartitsu returns to the Royal Armouries (Leeds)

Sherlock, Stock and Barrel is a Sherlock Holmes-themed event taking place at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds, England between April 29-May 1.

Notably, the event marks the return of Bartitsu demonstrations to the Armouries, which had, in the year 2001, hosted the first known Bartitsu demos to have taken place since 1902.

Inspired by E.W. Barton-Wright’s Self Defence With a Walking Stick articles, which had then only recently been republished by the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences, the 2001 Bartitsu  demos were performed by Fight Interpreters Keith Ducklin and Rob Temple as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Above – Keith Ducklin (left) and Rob Temple demonstrate canonical Bartitsu techniques at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (2001).

The Mysteries of the Embok Kwai (1900-1902)

… he was initiated into the Order of the Embok Kwai, the sole purpose of which is to teach, perpetuate and protect the secrets of jiu-jitsu.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1st June 1902

Although misfortunes had punctuated E.W. Barton-Wright’s early efforts to establish Bartitsu in London, his lectures and demonstrations had successfully conjured a general curiousity about the Japanese martial arts. By the time his three Japanese “champions” stepped off the steamer in September of the year 1900, the British press and public were eager to witness jiujitsu as performed in earnest and by experts.

After a short series of academic displays, the stage was set for their grand debut at the Alhambra music hall, which was scheduled for the last week of October.  At the eleventh hour, however, misfortune struck again, as the two most senior jiujitsuka – Kaneo Tani and Seizo Yamamoto – abruptly refused to take part.  This decision left their eager would-be audiences disappointed and confused, also causing no small amount of public embarrassment to Barton-Wright and Alhambra manager C. Dundas Slater.

Primed by over a year’s worth of Barton-Wright’s hinting about the wizardry of Japanese close-combat, London’s sporting journalists succumbed to a fever of speculation as to why the promised show had not taken place.  Barton-Wright was prevailed upon to explain, and so he did, to the effect that the jiujitsu men belonged to a society whose code of honour forbade the public performance of their art for commercial gain.

Barton-Wright insisted that he had instructed his agent in Japan to explain his expectations to the jiujitsuka before they set sail, but apparently the agent had not done so.  The two senior wrestlers had, therefore, not realised what a London music hall performance would entail until they’d arrived at the Alhambra.

Worse still, they had now decided to leave England altogether.  The only silver lining was that the youngest wrestler – 19 year old Yukio Tani, Kaneo’s kid brother – had confirmed that he’d be happy to remain and to compete on the stage as required.  The promised display, therefore, would have to be delayed again until a suitably skilled and amenable sparring partner could be imported from the Land of the Rising Sun.

This was the “official” story as published in various newspapers.  An anonymous journalist from the London Daily Mail, however, had a slightly more colourful take on the situation.  His report included several unique details, most notably references to a mysterious organisation called the “Embok Kwai”:

So – what was this Embok Kwai?

The phrase is as meaningless in Japanese as it is in English, but to be fair, there was no standard system of spelling Japanese words via European alphabets circa 1900, so writers were left to do as best as they could with phonetics. The context, however, clearly indicates that the journalist believed Embok Kwai to be the name of the honour-bound martial arts society that Barton-Wright had alluded to.

It is known that Professor Jigoro Kano’s martial arts institute, the Kodokan – which may well have had some hand in choosing the Japanese fighters and in arranging their travel to England – disapproved of professionalism in sports.  A large part of Professor Kano’s mission was to refine traditional Japanese martial arts into a respectable, codified method of physical and spiritual education.  Although he would have had no direct experience of London music halls, it’s very unlikely that he would have considered the rowdy, rough-and-tumble Alhambra to be a suitable venue for jiujitsu contests.

There seems to be no record of Barton-Wright referring to Kano’s institute by any name during this period.  Allowing that he may have spoken it in passing, though, it’s possible that the Daily Mail reporter garbled “Kodokan” into “Embok Kwai”; similarly, several papers had rendered Kano’s first name as “Jiyataro” rather than “Jigoro” and mispellings of “Bartitsu” were very common. It’s also conceivable that Barton-Wright or one of the jiujitsuka had used the Japanese word embukai, which means a public demonstration – that word is still used to describe displays of jiujitsu and other martial arts – and that the journalist confused the meanings of two different terms.

A few months after the Daily Mail ran its Embok Kwai article, 20 year old Sadakazu Uyenishi arrived in London from Japan.  Together with Tani, Barton-Wright, savate and canne master Pierre Vigny and wrestler Armand Cherpillod, they put Bartitsu firmly on the cultural map, and thereafter no more was heard in England of Embok Kwai.

In the United States, on the other hand …

During April of 1901, an anonymous short story variously titled “Did He Kiss Her?” and “A Fight Over Catullus” was published in several American newspapers.  The tale concerns the escalating rivalry between two men – the studious Norton and the strenuous Sterling – who first come to blows as university students, over a disagreement about the affections of a young lady and (ostensibly) about the value of the writings of the Roman poet Catullus.

Over the course of the next five decades, Norton and Sterling obsessively train in increasingly diverse and exotic fighting skills in order to get the better of each other via a series of ferocious unarmed combats that take place whenever and wherever they meet.  Incidentally, if this premise sounds familiar, you may well be thinking of Ridley Scott’s 1977 cinematic masterpiece “The Duellists”, which was itself based on Joseph Conrad’s 1908 novel “The Duel: A Military Story”.  It’s tempting to speculate that Conrad may even have been inspired by the fictional rivalry between Norton and Sterling.

At one point we learn that Norton (by then a physician of some reknown as well as a highly trained and seasoned brawler) has ended up in “Yeddo” (Edo, i.e. Tokyo), Japan:

Clearly, the unknown author of “Did He Kiss Her?”/”A Fight Over Catullus” had chanced to read the London Daily Mail article from the previous year and incorporated the Embok Kwai motif into his story verbatim.

About a year later, during March of 1902, the short story received a second round of publications via US newspapers.  Very shortly thereafter, the Embok Kwai saga took another strange turn, this time involving none other than President Theodore Roosevelt:

We may never know how the Embok Kwai became embroidered into John J. O’Brien’s personal myth, though it’s entirely possible that a mischievous journalist or promoter may have simply decided to spice the story.  The best evidence is that O’Brien actually did learn jiujitsu from officers of the Nagasaki police force, but they most definitely weren’t members of the Embok Kwai Society, whose progression from garbled Japanese/English transliteration into outright fiction and then back into reported “truth” serves as an object lesson in misinformation.

In any case, O’Brien’s association with the President gained him some degree of notoriety via the newspapers, ensuring that the legend of the Embok Kwai would be passed down to the present generation.

What we may choose to do with it, only time can tell …

Bartitsu workshop at Sherlocon 2017 (Rome, Italy)

Moments from the Bartitsu seminar at the recent Sherlocon 2017 Sherlock Holmes fandom event, which took place at the Nuovo Teatro Orione in Rome, Italy.  Aimed at interested novices, the workshop included examples of Vigny walking stick fighting, self-defence with an overcoat and several canonical jiujitsu set-plays.

” … the misspelled wrestle Doyle called baritsu”: “Sherlock” writer Mark Gatiss replies in verse to criticism of “The Six Thatchers” fight scene

In response to the newest Sherlock adventure, The Six Thatchers, TV critic Ralph Jones wrote an opinion piece titled Sherlock is slowly and perversely morphing into Bond. This cannot stand. The elaborate fight scene between Sherlock Holmes and the assassin known only as Ayjay was cited as an example of Holmes’ undesirable transmogrification into an “action figure”.

Now Sherlock writer/actor/co-creator Mark Gatiss has followed in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s footsteps by replying to a critic in verse, playfully underlining the fact that the Sherlock Holmes canon includes numerous action scenes:

Here is a critic who says with low blow
Sherlock’s no brain-box but become double-O.
Says the Baker St. boy is no man of action –
whilst ignoring the stories that could have put him in traction.

The Solitary Cyclist sees boxing on show,
The Gloria Scott and The Sign of the Fo’
The Empty House too sees a mention, in time, of Mathews,
who knocked out poor Sherlock’s canine.

As for arts martial, there’s surely a clue
in the misspelled wrestle Doyle called baritsu.
In hurling Moriarty over the torrent
did Sherlock find violence strange and abhorrent?

In shooting down pygmies and Hounds from hell
Did Sherlock on Victorian niceties dwell?
When Gruner’s men got him was Holmes quite compliant
Or did he give good account for The Illustrious Client?

There’s no need to invoke in yarns that still thrill,
Her Majesty’s Secret Servant with licence to kill
From Rathbone through Brett to Cumberbatch dandy
With his fists Mr Holmes has always been handy.

John Steed’s Gentlemanly Art of Umbrella Fighting

The recent blockbuster successes of the Kingsman movie and of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows have firmly re-established umbrellas as the signature weapons of gentlemen-adventurers.  This article pays tribute to the trope-setter, debonair superspy John Steed of The Avengers TV series (1961-9, 1976-7); read this article for more information on the use of weaponised umbrellas in real history.

Initially, Steed (Patrick Macnee) was featured as a mystery-man foil for Dr. David Keel, played by Ian Hendry.  Macnee wanted to develop and distinguish the Steed character, so he began to add signature costume items and props from his own wardrobe, including a bowler hat and an umbrella, quickly transforming John Steed from a trenchcoat-wearing tough guy into a dapper, impeccably mannered superspy.

When a writer’s strike delayed production of The Avengers, Hendry left the series and Macnee was promoted to the starring role.

The idea of using his umbrella as a weapon seems to have been based initially on Patrick Macnee’s personal dislike of guns.  Macnee felt that John Steed should outwit enemies whenever possible; however, he also insisted that the character’s suave exterior masked a steely ruthlessness when he was forced into combat.  As Steed habitually carried his umbrella,  and therefore almost always had it to hand during action scenes, it became his main weapon by default.

Macnee may have been inspired by Lt. Colonel William Ewart Fairbairn’s instructions for using umbrellas as improvised weapons, which were widely published during the Second World War:

Although John Steed’s tightly-furled brolly was shown to conceal a slim sword in the Avengers opening credits, the spy seldom made use of the blade, relying instead on the (presumably reinforced) umbrella itself as a weapon of both offence and defence.  During The Avengers’ long run he was regularly shown using his umbrella as a rapier, a bayonet and a club; he also occasionally employed the hooked handle to trip or otherwise impede his enemies.

Patrick Macnee demonstrates a series of more-or-less fanciful umbrella fighting poses in The Avengers opening credit sequence.
Steed executes on overhand attack …
… a double-handed guard position …
… and a bayonet thrust with his umbrella.

Once in a while, John Steed was even known to defend himself and KO his nefarious foes with his steel-reinforced bowler, a trick clearly inspired by the steel-rimmed hat wielded by the bodyguard/assassin Oddjob (Harold Sakata) in Goldfinger.

During the filming of The New Avengers sequel series, which was a mid-1970s British/French/Canadian co-production,  Parisian savate master Roger Lafond  put in an on-set appearance as a self-defence coach.  The following video clip, from a 1993 episode of the French variety show Coucou c’est nous!, includes a rather awkward reunion between the elderly Lafond and Macnee, the latter – who clearly did not speak, nor understand much of the French language – seeming not to recognise Mr. Lafond.  Still, the clip also features an ad-hoc demonstration of Lafond’s “Panache” style of umbrella self defence, gamely observed by the bemused Patrick Macnee:

Although co-stars had come and gone, Patrick Macnee as John Steed remained a constant presence throughout the massive and long-lived international success of The Avengers and then The New Avengers, establishing the pop-culture trope of the urbane, umbrella-wielding British secret agent. Steed remains a frequent point of reference when people first encounter E.W. Barton-Wright’s “gentlemanly art of self defence”, Bartitsu.

“Sherlock Holmes – The Solitary Cyclist” fight breakdown

Martin “Oz” Austwick of the English Martial Arts Academy offers an entertaining and educational analysis of the famous fisticuffs encounter between Sherlock Holmes and the ruffianly Mr. Woodley, from the 1980s Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett.

“The cumbersome boxing glove superseded” (Punch Magazine, September 4, 1869)


Cartoonist George du Maurier offers a helpful suggestion for boxers.  The caption reads:

Sparring without pain or loss of temper – the cumbersome boxing-glove superseded.

For more on this topic, see The Eccentric Evolution of Boxing Armour.

Shades of Esme Beringer: double-weapon fencing in “Penny Dreadful”

The final season of the popular dark fantasy/drama series Penny Dreadful introduced the character of Catriona Hartdegen, a historian, thanatologist and expert swordswoman played by actress Perdita Weeks.

As the series is set primarily in London during the 1890s, Hartdegen’s skill at a stylised form of double-weapon fencing is an interesting creative choice.  In real history, that style had been long-obsolete by the end of the 19th century, its heyday having been during the Elizabethan period.  It was, however, revived, starting in the 1880s, primarily through the efforts of fencing antiquarians Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton, both of whom were still very active in promoting “ancient swordplay” at the time Miss Hartdegen is shown to be practicing it.

Also during the 1880s, a Viennese fencing/performance troupe began touring throughout the United States and parts of Europe, with a show that included theatrical re-enactments of gladiatorial combats as well as a stylised double-weapon method:



Above: Captain Hutton and W. Grenfell demonstrate the art of rapier and dagger fencing at the London Bath Club (March 9, 1899).

Hutton and Castle, however, placed an unusual emphasis upon serious historical research and sought to revive these antique fencing methods as practical fighting arts.  One of Hutton’s most famous exhibitions took place at the London Bath Club in March of 1899. The rapier and dagger style was demonstrated, along with the fencing of the sword and buckler, the two-handed sword and the rapier and cloak:

The next exhibition of the “ arme blanche” was a fight between Captain Hutton and Mr. W. H. Grenfell, both armed with rapiers and daggers, and a very pretty game they made of it. Thus doubly weaponed, the fencer’s game is very much the boxer’s. The slip, the pass, the feint, are all very similar. And we can sympathize still with old George Silver’s indignation at those new-fangled Italian masters who “fought as you sing prick-song, one, two, and the third in your bosom”, and used the point in manner far too deadly for these English, “who were strong, but had no cunning.”

The Bath Club exhibition also included a demonstration of Bartitsu by Edward Barton-Wright. Shortly thereafter, Hutton joined the teaching staff of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, instructing students in both historical and modern (circa 1900) forms of swordplay.  He also learned from his fellow instructors, picking up some jiujitsu kata from Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani and enthusiastically practicing the unique, self-defence oriented cane fighting system of Pierre Vigny.

One of Hutton’s most skilled and prominent students was the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer, who became an expert in the theatrical as well as martial forms of the art.

Above: Esme Beringer strikes a pose with the rapier and dagger.

Esme Beringer had first taken up fencing as a girl, under the instruction of a Sergeant Elliot.

During the first decade of the 20th century, she participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and bouted during an “ancient swordplay” display for the Playgoer’s Club. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:

The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.

Esme Beringer went on to become an instructor with the Actresses’ Foil Club, which had originated as the “ladies’ branch” of the Actors’ Sword Club. While the Actor’s Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses’ Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.

Meanwhile, in France, a similarly stylised method of double-weapon fencing had been developed by the fencing masters Albert Lacaze and Georges Dubois.  It’s interesting to compare the style displayed in this 1927 newsreel with that used in the Penny Dreadful fight choreography above:

See the book Ancient Swordplay: The Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London for more information about Captain Hutton, Esme Beringer, Georges Dubois and the recreation of historical sword combat during the 1890s.