“Ancient Swordplay: the Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London”

During the final decades of the 19th century, a cabal of fencers and historians led by Captain Alfred Hutton and his colleague, the writer Egerton Castle, undertook a systematic study and practical revival of combat with long-outmoded weapons such as the rapier and dagger, sword and buckler and two-handed sword. Their efforts presaged the current revival of historical fencing, a rapidly growing movement that directly parallels the modern renaissance of E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu.

The book Ancient Swordplay details the origins, colourful heyday and ultimate decline of this unusual late-Victorian revival movement. Highlights include reports on many historical fencing exhibitions throughout the 1880s and ’90s, Hutton’s and Castle’s work as theatrical fight choreographers (who paid strict attention to historical accuracy) and Hutton’s determined efforts to revolutionise military sabre fencing with an infusion of “ancient swordplay”, especially that of the Elizabethan English master, George Silver.

Of particular interest to Bartitsu enthusiasts, Ancient Swordplay includes a chapter on Captain Hutton’s collaborations with E.W. Barton-Wright. In his book The Sword and the Centuries (1902), Hutton was moved to note that “the fence of the case of rapiers, as of all the other Elizabethan weapons, is much in vogue at the present time at the Bartitsu Club, now the headquarters of ancient swordplay in this country.”

For all their efforts, though, the Hutton/Castle revival did not directly survive their own generation. The final chapters examine the reasons why, coming to a conclusion that may surprise modern readers, and attempt to trace their legacy into the following decades of the 20th century, via actress/swordswoman Esme Beringer and French antagonisticathlete George Dubois.

Including numerous rare illustrations and a foreword by author Neal Stephenson, Ancient Swordplay is available now from the Freelance Academy Press website or Amazon.com. For a thorough historical context and commentary, please also see the new article Renaissance Swordplay, Victorian-style on the Freelancer blog.

Gandhi on jiu-jitsu (1905)

Some wry commentary on jiujitsu from Mohandas K. Gandhi (Indian Opinion, April 2, 1905):

The eyes of Europeans are slowly being opened. Narmada-shankar, the Gujarati poet, has sung:

The Englishman rules, the country is under his heel.
The native remains subdued;
Look at their bodies, brother,
He is full five cubits tall,
A host in himself, match for five hundred.

The poet here tells us that the main reason for the rise of English is their sturdy physique. The Japanese have shown that not much depends upon the physique of a man. The fact that the Russians, though well set up and tall, have proved powerless before the short and thin Japanese, has put the English officials in a quandary. They gave thought to the matter and discovered that Europe was very much behindhand in physical culture and knowledge of the laws governing the body. The Japanese understand very well how the various joints and bones of the (opponent’s) body can be controlled, and this has made them invincible. Many of our readers must be aware of the effect produced when a particular nerve of the neck or leg is pressed during an exercise. This very science the Japanese have perfected.

A Japanese coach* has, therefore, been employed to train the English army, and thousands have already been taught the art. And
jiu-jitsu is the Japanese name for it. The problem will now be to find something else after all the nations have learnt jiu-jitsu. This process is bound to go on endlessly.

* The Japanese coach in question was former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi.

Amateur constables trained in stick fighting (1912)

From the Adelaide Daily Herald, April 13, 1912:

Amateur constables

One result of the recent disturbance (escalating industrial unrest and strikes) has been to give a real impetus to the civilian police movement. Hundreds of men have been enrolled during the past few days, and there are now over a thousand in London alone. A number of these were put on duty in Victoria street on Monday evening, and should occasion arise they will be used more and more.

It first seemed as though Mr. Churchill’s idea of volunteer police whose services were to be used solely in case of emergency would fall flat. The average man did not care to book himself to take service, possibly at the most inconvenient time and for a cause in which he is not at all interested. Now, however, that the men see what is being done, volunteers are coming in more freely. They are drawn from all classes — doctors and lawyers, K.-C.’s, bank directors, university tutors, and Stock Exchange men.

They receive no pay. They have a uniform of their own with grey helmets, long dark-colored police overcoats, and blue and white armlets. They are taught how to handle roughs, and, in particular, they have been acquiring the Vigny system of walking-stick defence which was devised to enable the French police men to deal with the apache.

One thing that prevented many men joining at the beginning was the fear that they might be used as strike-breakers. They will not be liable for this service, although it is true that one of the objects of the force is “to ensure the public against starvation, famine, or deprivation of food, milk, coal, or other necessities of life when a paralysis of the existing sources of supply is threatened.”

“How To Defend Yourself” (1904)

From the San Francisco Call newspaper, August 1904.

The young lady demonstrating these self defence techniques is believed to be Mademoiselle Marie Gelas.

HTDY1

TIME and time again when some account appears in the papers describing a ruffianly attack upon a woman on the streets you have heard the women folks of your household exclaim: “I know I should faint if that happened to me.” Now, in nine cases out of ten they don’t faint, but put up a struggle, with overwhelming odds of strength against them, that is really to be admired.

The average woman in a desperate situation is more to be depended upon then the average man. Taking this fact for granted, the average woman, with the knowledge of a few defensive tricks, can easily handle the ruffian to be met with on the streets and prevent harm to herself.

At the present time San Francisco enjoys a reputation which it is safe to say no other city can boast of. It is that its women are safe to travel its streets at all hours unmolested, if they will go strictly about their business. It does happen sometimes that a women is accosted and, if she is in hearing distance of any one, no matter how bad the neighborhood, a cry for help will be answered.

This is in striking opposition to New York, the greatest city in the United States, where a woman cannot walk two blocks, after dark, without having some one speak to her. There may be occasions even here when a woman may meet a ruffian who is intent on robbery or under the influence of liquor. It is at such times that her presence of mind must outwit his strength. It is for that purpose that these few simple instructions are given.

First and foremost it must be remembered that to commit the instructions to memory is not all that is necessary. A woman must practice them and keep in practice, for this is the only keynote to a successful application. It will be found after practice that almost unconsciously when any one’s hands are placed on you, suddenly you will at once assume a defensive attitude, which if it is a serious case will give you an advantage, which will make you mistress of the situation. But without practice you will not be able to cope with your assailant.

HTDY2

Take the ruffian who attempts to steal your brooch or grasp you by the throat. Up go your hands and you take a grip of his forearm near the wrist and with a quick turn you bring his arm over your shoulder, making a fulcrum, and with a sudden jerk downward you will break his arm. In practice do this slowly, for it is most powerful and if you are not careful you will make your subject a candidate for the hospital.

HTDY3

In traveling alone on the streets at night it is a splendid idea to carry a parasol or umbrella. Keep it unlatched with the right hand on the slide at the ribs. If you are attacked and the ruffian tries to grasp you, it is very easy to open it in his face. You will find that the sudden opening of it will cause him to try and grab you, umbrella and all, but by shoving it into his face with the right hand extended you will be able to duck past him to one side and out of danger while he is trying to get the parasol or umbrella out of his way.

Another defense in the use of the hat pin when attacked from behind. The mere act of raising the arm will cause the ruffian to press downward instead of grasping you tighter around the throat. But he will not be able to stop you from getting your hat pin; then you can twist around and his face will be at your mercy.

Another good source of protection is to carry a good stout stick pin in your collar. This is easier to find and will allow of quicker action.

HTDY5

There is one way to place a ruffian, especially one who is under the influence of liquor, at your mercy, and that is the well-known trick of pulling the coat down off the shoulders. You then have his arms tied and he is powerless to do you any harm.

A trick which is likely to give one a shudder when it is considered, but yet one which is permissible when one feels that it is to be used in self-defense, is to grasp the face, gouging the thumb deep into the eye. There la no human being that can stand the pain and it will result in throwing the ruffian flat on his back. It will take all the fight out of a man. It is a game not to his liking.

There is another of the same order that will throw a ruffian. It is to grab the back of the neck with the left hand and shove the right in his face so that the fingers come under his nose. An upward pressure against the nose will throw him off his balance in a second and he will go down. There is no stopping; the strongest man in the world cannot stand the pain. It makes him as helpless as a child.

An act which requires a great deal of practice, but is very effective when accomplished, is to grab the wrist when one is being struck and jerk it in the direction of the blow. This, in many cases, will pull the arm out of the socket at the shoulder, but to accomplish it one must be exceedingly quick with arms and feet, for it means that you must sidestep out of range as you grab the wrist.

Another thing that is done under the same circumstance is to sidestep and grasp the wrist with both hands and quickly turn the arm outward. This will also throw him off his balance and more than likely will bring him to the ground. Always remember one thing: never step backward, for you lose your balance and put yourself at a disadvantage. Practice stepping sideways out of danger. By practice you will find which hand is going to be used and you can take the other side.

Another thing to remember is to watch the eyes of your assailant. He has got to look where he is going to grab and you will be able to forecast his move. Just as soon as you down your ruffian get away, using all your powers of speech to summon help.

Classical Pugilism eBook

The cover of Martin's book

Pugilism, the earlier form of boxing is a fascinating and dynamic martial art. It’s especially of interest to Bartitsu practitioners since it works very well with jujitsu and stick play. Covering strikes, standing grappling and trapping and defensive techniques, Classical Pugilism is the art as practiced by greats such as James Figg and Daniel Mendoza.

Martin Austwick of the English Martial Arts academy is one of the most well-known instructors of this art, having taught in several countries and for many organisations. As well as teaching, he writes professionally on both martial arts and health, including for the Royal College of Surgeons. He has recently published an eBook covering the basics of traditional English bare knuckle boxing.

For those new to the art, and especially for those with experience in other arts this gives you sound and practical advice on how to punch hard and safely and how to defend against the same. The book can be downloaded here and there is also a free training guide to the Standing Chancery hold.

Bartitsu and Miss Sanderson-themed apparel

T-shirts

Esfinges is the first female international HEMA network, created to unite and support women martial artists, and to encourage and assist more women to take up the practice of Historical European Martial Arts.

The Esfinges Shop now includes a number of t-shirts, sweatshirts and other items with logos inspired by E.W. Barton-Wright and the fencer/self defence instructor known only as “Miss Sanderson”. A wide variety of styles and colour choices are available.

Your purchase will also support Esfinges projects.

Secret histories and outlaw suffragettes: an interview with “Suffrajitsu” author Tony Wolf

We’re pleased to be able to present this interview with Tony Wolf, the author of the upcoming graphic novel series Suffrajitsu.  Tony’s books will be part of the Foreworld Saga created by Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo and others.

Both Bartitsu and the elite Bodyguard Society of the British Suffragettes play key roles in the Suffrajitsu trilogy, which will be published by Jet City Comics.

SOME LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD …

Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons
Above: A montage of complete and in-progress artwork for Suffrajitsu.

Q – Tony, this is your first graphic novel, but not your first book – how did you come to be asked to write this series, and did your prior work have anything to do with it?

TW – I’ve written and edited quite a lot of historical non-fiction, mostly on esoteric Victorian-era martial arts topics – that’s been my major research interest over the past fifteen years or so.  The project most directly relevant to the graphic novel was a children’s history book called Edith Garrud – the Suffragette that knew Jujitsu, which I wrote in 2009.

I actually kind of moved sideways into scripting Suffrajitsu out of my participation in brainstorming for another Foreworld project.  I think it was in late 2011 that Neal (Stephenson) first mentioned the graphic novel deal with Amazon and asked me to contribute something on the theme of the Suffragette bodyguards.

Q – How did the writing process compare to your prior books/anthologies?

TW – It was a joy in that after so many years of antiquarian research into these themes, this was my first real opportunity to get creative with them.  There was this sense of a dam, not completely bursting, but definitely exploding at certain key points.

Q – Tell us what you can about the series in your own words.

TW – Well, the events of the first book are based very closely on historical reports of actual incidents, although it’s become a kind of “secret history” in that the Suffragette Bodyguards were almost completely forgotten after the First World War.

We’re introduced to the main characters and their situation as political radicals – outlaws, really – in 1914 London.  By that time, both in real history and in my story,  the battle for women’s rights had reached a boiling point.  The suffragettes’ protests and the government’s reprisals were becoming more and more extreme.  Persephone Wright is the leader of a secret society of women known as the Amazons, who are sworn to protect their leaders, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, from arrest and assault.

Q – And that really happened, correct?

TW – Persephone is a fictional character but yes, there really was a secret bodyguard society attached to the militant suffragette movement.

The Amazons are Bartitsu-trained bodyguards and insurgents, saboteurs –  the most radical of the radicals.  They’re all under constant threat of imprisonment and worse.

Something happens in the first book that is a major divergence from actual history and that’s what spins the story off into the alternate timeline of the Foreworld universe.

Q – Where did you get the inspiration for the storyline when it veers away from history?

TW – It was clear that it would take a dramatic event to move the story into the events of the second book … I can’t say much more than that!

Q – But I understand that both historical and fictional characters appear as principal figures?

TW – Yes indeed.  Many of the characters, like Edward Barton-Wright, are lightly fictionalised versions of their historical selves – as well as I “know” them from research – transposed into the Foreworld timeline.

The real Amazons were literally a secret society and even now we only know the names of a few of the actual women who were involved.   I took that as artistic licence to bring in several “ringers” from both fiction and history.  Judith Lee, for example, was the protagonist of Richard Marsh’s popular series of  “lady detective” short stories during the early 20th century.  Flossie le Mar, another member of my imaginary Amazons team, was a historically real person – she was a pioneer of women’s self defence in New Zealand – but she also had a sort of dime novel “alter ego” as the adventurous “Ju-jitsu Girl”, so it was a very easy decision to make her one of the Amazons.

Q – Are any of them purely invented and, if so, what purposes do those characters fulfill?

TW – The only major character that I entirely invented is Persephone Wright herself.  Even though she was partly inspired by several real suffragettes, including Gert Harding and Elizabeth Robins, I wanted the freedom of creating an original protagonist.

Persi actually surprised me several times – she’s much more of a Bohemian than I’d first imagined, and there’s a fascinating tension between her free-thinking inclinations and her disciplined drive to protect people at any cost.  She’s roughly half hippie and half samurai.  I think she’d often really rather be off partying at the Moulin Rouge or writing poetry in a Greenwich Village tea-room, but damn it, she has her duties.

Q – What do you hope will come out of the series?

TW – My dream scenario is that it will inspire readers to create their own stories set in the world of the Amazons; anything beyond that will be gravy.

Q – Do you have any trepidation about being a male author writing a graphic novel with mostly female protagonists?

TW – No, but I’m aware that some readers will have me under the microscope on that account.  My only agenda is that I think it’s amazing that a secret society of female bodyguards defied their government, putting their physical safety and freedom on the line over and over again, to secure the right to participate as equals in a democracy.  Their story was absolutely begging to be told in some medium or other and I’m honoured to have been given that chance.

One thing I tried hard to do, allowing that this is a work of alternate history fiction, was to portray the Amazons as fallible human beings.  For example, some of them have habits and attitudes that have become deeply unfashionable over the past century.  They’re also more-or-less outlaws and have that very specific ethical/political perspective of the end sometimes justifying the means; none of them are entirely “wholesome”.  Actually, none of them are “entirely” anything.  As far as I’m concerned, their foibles, ambiguities and unique perspectives make them worthwhile as characters.

Likewise, I’ve been careful to try to convey that it wasn’t just a simple matter of “righteous women versus oppressive men”.  Historically, many men energetically supported women’s suffrage and many women were vehemently opposed to it, especially as the cause became more radical.

Q – How has the process of working with Suffrajitsu been for you?

TW – It’s been an intensive, ground-up self-education in the nuts and bolts of scripting a graphic novel.  You’re constantly playing Tetris with the plot and dialogue to work everything in within strict boundaries – only so many words to a speech balloon, so many speech balloons or captions to a panel, panels to page and so-on. My editors and Joao Vieira, the artist, have been very patient with me as I’ve worked those things out.

Obviously, there’s a huge amount of sub-plot and back-story etc. that I simply couldn’t fit in.  We’re currently developing a website for the series that will help with all of that and hopefully allow for some ongoing, active engagement with readers.  There will also be some free short stories to whet readers’ appetites for further Suffragette Amazon adventures.

Q – Do you have a favourite character or a favourite moment in the series?

TW – Oh, that’s hard … my inner 13-year-old has a real weakness for cool badasses so perhaps the mysterious Miss Sanderson is a favourite in that sense.  Similarly, (name of the villain redacted because spoilers) … the fact that he was actually a real person is somehow both appalling and deeply satisfying.

I do have a favourite moment, come to think of it, but that comes late in the third book.  I haven’t even seen the art for that sequence yet, so it’ll have to wait for a future interview!

Q – Finally, then, when will the stories be released?

TW – We don’t have definite dates yet, but the website will probably be officially launched in July 2014.  All of the stories will be issued first as individual e-books via the Kindle Fire, then later together with some bonus material as a printed collector’s edition.

Q – That’s something to look forward to!  Thanks for your time.

TW – Thank you!