The class is scheduled for 2 PM on Saturday June 3rd on the lawn of the historic courthouse in Bloomington, IL. For more information about all the events of the three day festival (June 2 to 4, 2017) see http://www.cogsandcorsetsil.com.
Umbrella fencing, also known as umbrella dueling, is a sport or game that has been played at some steampunk gatherings in the UK and USA. The purpose of this article is to encourage umbrella fencers to enjoy this activity safely, in the light of many years of experience in martial arts, fencing and related areas.
Quoting the authors of a 1990 report on umbrella injuries, “We hope the fact that umbrella tips can easily become life-threatening objects will come to the attention of the general public so that similar cases may be avoided.”
A little history
The concept of umbrella fencing as a sport was first proposed in 1897 by satirist J.F. Sullivan, in his tongue-in-cheek article The Umbrella: A Misunderstood Weapon. The actual teaching of umbrella fencing as self-defence, however, has a pedigree extending back to the earliest years of the Victorian era, reaching a pinnacle in the first decade of the 20th century.
Ominously, 19th and 20th century newspaper archives contain numerous reports of serious injuries and even deaths reported as the result of umbrella thrusts, delivered both accidentally and deliberately.
Parasol dueling: no contact, no problem
For the sake of clarity, it’s necessary to distinguish umbrella fencing/dueling from parasol dueling. The latter, which also features at steampunk gatherings, is a strictly non-contact game, similar to “rock, paper, scissors”, in which players compete by performing various poses and flourishes with their parasols. Because it’s played without contact, parasol dueling is essentially safe.
In umbrella fencing/dueling, on the other hand, players attempt to score points by making contact with their opponents. As such, it’s directly comparable to foil fencing, Bartitsu stick fighting and similar combat sports. Unfortunately, the fact that umbrella fencing is played in the fun, friendly context of a steampunk gathering doesn’t lessen the potential danger of thrusting a rigid, pointed object at another person.
There are currently two distinct steampunk umbrella fencing styles or rule-sets, alternately described as “umbrella fencing” and “umbrella dueling”.
It’s OK, I have a sieve
In the first variant, players must stand at a prescribed distance from each other, as delineated by markings on the floor or ground. They are equipped with small umbrellas and with sieves, which are held up in front of the players’ faces in the manner of fencing masks. Two small balls are balanced on the sieves, attached with short cords, and the object is for each player to attempt to knock the balls off his/her opponent’s sieve, while avoiding their attempts to do the same thing. Contact is made with the opponent’s umbrella, the sieve, or the balls themselves.
Even though deliberate contact with the opponent’s face and head is not allowed, accidental contact could still be extremely dangerous. A stray or redirected thrust could easily bypass the sieve, or an inexperienced player could inadvertently lower his/her sieve at exactly the wrong moment, as happens at 0.31 in the video above. Essentially, as fun, silly and ironic as it is, a hand-held sieve is not adequate protection for a game that involves thrusting and striking towards someone else’s head and face with a rigid, pointed object. Whereas a light downward blow to the crown of the head would probably be harmless, a thrust accidentally entering the eye socket could cause horrific injuries.
The best way to keep the spirit of this game intact while ensuring safety will be to have the players wear fencing masks and reposition the balls so that they are balanced on the mask. A similar game is played at Renaissance Faires and is safe enough for young children to take part:
Even a sieve is better than nothing
The second variant (most commonly referred to as “umbrella dueling”) is played with full-size umbrellas. It involves no prescribed fighting distance and may include no protection at all, apart from a rule that any contact with the opponent’s head or face will be grounds for disqualification. Some players also wear steampunk goggles, whose actual protective value against umbrella thrusts is questionable. In any case, the object is to score a thrust with the tip of the umbrella against the opponent’s body.
This variant is essentially limited-target thrust fencing using umbrellas – which are actually heavier and more rigid than fencing foils, and are just as apt to cause serious and even life-threatening injuries if accidentally thrust into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth or throat. The hands, unprotected by either padded gloves or guards on the umbrellas, are also extremely vulnerable.
Again, accepting that players genuinely don’t intend to risk their opponent’s safety, this is still a very dangerous game. It’s hard for a novice fencer to accurately judge and control their own speed, power or aim. The issue of aim is especially difficult in facing the unpredictable movements of an active opponent who may suddenly duck, trip or slip, lunge forward, etc., lowering his/her face into the space that was occupied by their torso an instant before.
It’s also far too easy for a thrust that is accurately aimed at the opponent’s body to be accidentally redirected into their face by the opponent’s own parry or bind (a defensive action in which one weapon pushes or presses the other).
A hidden danger
The type(s) of umbrellas used should also be considered from the safety point of view. Umbrellas with hollow steel, wooden, bamboo or hollow fiberglass shafts can all crack unexpectedly, leaving a jagged, dagger-like splinter projecting from the handle.
The same thing can (and does) happen even with actual fencing foils, which is why fencers wear jackets made of puncture-resistant fabric. The most dangerous scenario in this vein is when a weapon breaks on contact with the opponent’s weapon or body and then continues thrusting forward, allowing no time for anyone involved to realise the sudden danger, as in the tragic death of fencer Vladimir Smirnov in 1982.
According to this article, umbrella duelists at the Steampunk Symposium event in Cincinnati, Ohio used Unbreakable Umbrellas in their duels. Designed and manufactured for real self-defence, the Unbreakable Umbrella features a solid fiberglass shaft. It will not break, but its weight and rigidity are far greater than those of ordinary umbrellas, presenting an additional set of safety concerns. On the bright side, the article notes that future umbrella fencing competitors at this event will be required to wear protective vests and proper fencing masks.
Another useful safety feature will be to secure to the tip of the umbrella a strong rubber blunt, similar to those use on the ends of walking canes, enclosing a solid steel disc such as a suitably-sized coin. By forming an impenetrable barrier between the pointed tip and the opponent’s body, this has the potential to mitigate stabbings into mere bruises; though again, fencing masks are also crucial.
Despite the signing of waivers and the issuing of safety warnings, it’s irresponsible for event organisers to allow umbrella fencing matches without proper protection. The playful, anarchic steampunk ethos should not extend into ignoring or laughing off serious safety concerns. Aside from the immediate physical dangers, a successful lawsuit could easily bring about the permanent end of an otherwise positive conference.
With a very small investment into basic safety equipment, however, umbrella fencing has the potential to continue as an enjoyably silly steampunk sport.
Bartitsu instructor Mark Donnelly (centre) teaches an introductory seminar at the recent Steampunk World’s Fair in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Welcome to our traditional annual review of all things Bartitsuvian!
This year saw a continuation of the boom in new Bartitsu clubs and study groups that began in 2011, due in a large part to the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes movies and the new Sherlock TV series from the BBC. 2013 also saw an unprecedented level of mainstream exposure for both E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” and for the “jujitsuffragette” bodyguards of 1913/14, including newspaper, television and online media and even graphic novels and video games.
Please note that, in general, the events recorded here are those for which we received detailed reports after the fact, as opposed to those for which we only received announcements.
The Canadian InnerSPACE TV show features a Bartitsu demo in celebration of the release of author Adrienne Kress’ book The Friday Society. Instructor Mark Donnelly is featured on the Mansome series of short web documentaries and Roberto Munter’s extensive series of Bartitsu articles in the Italian language premieres online.
The major BBC documentary Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: The Rise of the Martial Arts in Britain features a 13-minute section on Bartitsu and the jujitsuffragette phenomenon, including interviews with instructor Tony Wolf and historian Emelyne Godfrey and demonstrations by instructors James Marwood and George Stokoe.
We feature an exclusive interview with director and film theorist Noel Burch, the auteur of the 1982 documentary The Year of the Bodyguard, as well as a detailed, illustrated summary of the documentary itself. We also unearth a historically significant 1912 Pathe Company film featuring jujitsu demonstrations. The Bartitsu Club of New York City is featured on the Edge of America series, Jujitsuffragette trainer Edith Garrud is “officially” named the “Badass of the Week” and Detective Inspector Archibald Brock of the popular Grandville graphic novel series is revealed as a Bartitsu enthusiast.
Edith Garrud is honoured with a commemorative “portrait sculpture” and the Bartitsu Club of New York City’s lecture/demonstration at the Observatory arts and events space in Brooklyn is recorded in a short video memoir. Bartitsu.org runs a series of articles on newly-discovered c1900 self defence topics including Bowie knife fighting(1890), women’s self-defence in Boston (1904), E.W. Barton-Wright vs. the Georgia Magnet (1895-1899) and the Latson Method of Self Defence (1906-1911). We also discover what may be the only three surviving photographs of jujitsuffragettes in training.
Mark Donnelly and the Bartitsu Club of New York City are featured in both print and video articles by the Wall Street Journal and in Time Online. The Victorian-themed Captain Alfred Hutton Lounge is officially opened at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio, home of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago. Announcement of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons, a graphic novel trilogy by Tony Wolf showcasing both Bartitsu and the jujitsuffragettes. A Harrisburg, PA newspaper runs a feature on Bartitsu training at the Keystone Academy of Dueling. Bartitsu seminars take place in Niwot, Colorado and in New York City.
Bartitsu in Sunderland, UK is featured in video and print media and a new course in announced via the Idler Academy (London). A newly-discovered 1913 article reveals that electrical stun-gloves were once proposed as a self-defence and restraint tool for Philadelphia police officers.
Bartitsu action scenes are extensively featured in the Book of Shadows web-comic and both Bartitsu and the jujitsuffragettes are showcased in an article for FIGHT! Magazine. A Victorian Martial Arts Symposium is held at the Gear Con 2013 steampunk gathering in Portland, Oregon, featuring instructors David McCormick, Tom Badillo and Jeff Richardson. Instructor William Trumpler presents a seminar for the Cowford Steampunk Society. We discover records of one of the very last c1900 Bartitsu exhibitions, which took place in Nottingham during March of 1902.
We interview Kathrynne Wolf, auteur of the Scarlet Line action/drama web-series, which posits a secret survival of the jujitsuffragette Bodyguard tradition beyond WW1 and into the present day. Mark Donnelly offers a Bartitsu intensive in Merchantville, New Jersey. The character “Flint” in the popular online video game Urban Rivals is a Bartitsu-fighting flamingo, for some reason. We look at the life and career of Alice Clement, a jujitsu-trained detective and one of the first female members of the Chicago police department. Instructor Stefan Dieke is featured in a Bartitsu article for the German Schwert & Klinge magazine.
We feature an article on the importance of sparring and pressure testing in Bartitsu training and a detailed report on the third annual Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture international conference/seminar event, which took place at Beamish Museum near Newcastle, UK. Mark Donnelly offers a Bartitsu intensive for the Malta Historical Fencing Association and James Marwood is interviewed by The Perfect Gentleman.
Seminars and/or new ongoing courses are offered by the newly-formed Manchester Bartitsu Club, the Bartitsu Club of New York City and the Idler Academy in London. The magazines His Vintage Life and Tweed both feature Bartitsu articles, the latter showcasing the Bartitsu Club: Isle of Wight. Video and guidelines for hard-contact sparring are offered by the Bartitsu Club of Chicago and BWAHAHAHA (the Barton-Wright/Alfred Hutton Alliance for Historically Accurate Hoplology and Antagonistics) performs an exhibition at the 2013 Sherlock Seattle Convention.
Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons is previewed at the Jet City Comics Show in Tacoma, Washington. Instructor James Garvey of the Idler Club is featured in UK media, including an appearance on the Sunday Brunch show and a feature article in The Libertine. Tony Wolf lectures on Bartitsu history for the Criterion Bar Association of Chicago and is interviewed, along with Los Angeles Bartitsu Club instructor Matt Franta , for Catherine Townsend’s article on Bartitsu for The Atlantic Magazine. We feature an English translation of a memoir by Russian fight choreographer Nikolay Vaschilin on his staging of the climactic Holmes/Moriarty “baritsu” battle for the 1980 Russian TV show The Deadly Combat, a close adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem.
We feature an exclusive interview with author Tony Wolf regarding the inspirations behind the Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons graphic novel series, in which Bartitsu plays a key role.
Click here to learn more about this Kickstarter venture to create a steampunk series featuring a Bartitsu-trained protagonist, who trained with E.W. Barton-Wright in order to better combat the forces of supernatural evil …
Click here to read reporter Angus Loten’s Wall Street Journal article on Bartitsu. The accompanying video (above) features instructor Mark Donnelly’s classes at the recent Steampunk World’s Fair event in Piskataway, New Jersey.
The print version of this article is published in the Friday, May 23 edition of the Journal:
Images from the grand opening of the Captain Alfred Hutton Lounge at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Ravenswood, Chicago: