In these excerpts from a recent episode of “Drunk History UK”, inebriated comedienne Luisa Omielan attempts to relate the history of the jujitsu-trained suffragette Bodyguard team:
Bonus points for the casting of actress and real-life suffragette history enthusiast Jessica Hynes as WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst.
Ms. Omielan also struggled valiantly to recall the name of suffragette jujitsu trainer Edith Garrud, finally settling on “Gertrude” before being gently corrected by an off-screen colleague. She was probably confused by the similarity of names between Garrud and Gertrude Harding, who was, in fact, the main organiser of Mrs. Pankhurst’s security vanguard.
The episode also included a semi-accurate re-enactment of a confrontation between the Bodyguard and the police during one of Mrs. Pankhurst’s public rallies in Camden Square:
Set in Madrid during the years 1895-6, the Spanish action/drama telenovela Victor Ros is notable for its Bartitsuesque fight scenes, as shown below. Note that the video may take a few seconds to start playing after you’ve clicked on the “play” button.
It’s well-known that the method of walking stick defence taught at the Bartitsu Club circa 1900 was devised by Pierre Vigny. Vigny himself instructed Bartitsu students in his system, and then taught it for some years thereafter at his own London self-defence school. Curiously, however, there are only sporadic records of Vigny teaching walking stick self-defence after he returned to his home city of Geneva in mid-1908.
The next major development of his style occurred during the early 1920s. Madras, India police superintendant Herbert G. Lang drew very substantially from the Vigny system in writing his book The Walking Stick Method of Self Defence, which was published in 1923. Although Lang’s book was only a modest commercial success, for many years thereafter it remained, effectively, the only comprehensive manual on the subject of stick fighting available in the Western world.
During the early years of the Second World War, when members of the Haganah paramilitary organisation required a systematic method of stick fighting, they began to work from Lang’s Walking Stick Method. Translated into Hebrew, it became one of the foundations of Haganah close-combat training, which also included instruction in jiujitsu, boxing, fighting with knives and short sticks and even stone throwing. Ironically, few at the time were aware of the system’s actual provenance, the assumption being that, since Lang’s book has been published in India and included many photographs of Indian police officers in action, the system itself must have been of Indian origin.
The walking stick method – known in Haganah circles as the “long stick” style – was practiced without any protective equipment, which was simply unavailable to its practitioners. The numerous minor injuries, especially to hands and heads, that resulted from this training were seen by the Haganah leaders as an effective test of courage and stamina.
Eventually, many thousands of Hanagah trainees were taught the Lang system, forming what was, in essence, the first generation of Vigny stick fighting revivalists, positioned some forty years after the Vigny style’s heyday in London and about sixty years before the current revival got underway.
Israeli martial arts historian Noah Gross has located this extremely rare film of Haganah members training in the “long stick” style. Although it’s very short, the film offers a fascinating glimpse back to a time when the walking stick method was studied in deadly earnest:
Fighting for the vote, the Suffragettes have planted an explosive device. As they attempt to make their escape, a husband sells out his wife’s cause to the special constables …
Hats off to the team at London’s Fight Rep for this Suffrajitsu-inspired tribute to Edwardian ass-kickery, which was rehearsed and shot in a mere eight hours. Bartitsu aficionados will appreciate the use of signature techniques from E.W. Barton-Wright’s Pearson’s Magazine articles and Marguerite Vigny’s (“Miss Sanderson’s”) demonstrations of parasol and umbrella self-defence.
The modern Bartitsu revival is now fifteen years old and, like all teenagers, it’s undergoing some significant changes.
Most of the original cadre of Bartitsu revivalists, dating back to circa 2002, were members of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement, which coalesced out of many disparate sources including modern fencing, historical re-enactment, stage combat, Asian martial arts and various combat sports.
Communicating via the Bartitsu Forum established by author Will Thomas, they set about recreating E.W. Barton-Wright’s cross-training system in the manner of numerous other “extinct” fighting styles, from Medieval German longsword fencing to the use of the rapier and dagger, polearms, abbracciare (Italian unarmed combat), etc., which were being similarly revived at that time.
In most cases, likewise, the challenge of the reconstruction was its own justification; the object being to revive the original style, as closely as possible to the way it was originally practiced, via a combination of academic scholarship and intensive martial pressure-testing.
Individualism and diversity are inherent to Bartitsu revivalism and, therefore, attempts to “police” that revival are instantly doomed to failure. People are free to do exactly as they want to do. That understanding is why the Bartitsu Society has always been, and remains, a basically informal association of colleagues rather than a hierarchical, bureaucratic “governing body”.
In more recent years, and most especially since the explosive success of the Sherlock Holmes movies (2009/11) firmly embedded an awareness of “Victorian English martial arts” in the popular consciousness, the number of Bartitsu clubs and study groups has grown significantly and a new generation of enthusiasts has emerged.
“To create again”: recreational Bartitsu
While Bartitsu was, literally, the reality-based self-defence of its own time and place, and certainly can be undertaken purely for entertainment at pop-culture conventions and so-on, I would argue that its greatest value today is something quite different, by virtue of the many decades that have passed since its brief heyday at the turn of the 20th century. Therefore, the remainder of this essay simply advocates for a “recreational Bartitsu”.
Consider that the word “recreation” means “an activity done for enjoyment” and that it is derived from the Latin re-creare, meaning “to create again” – the latter definition being especially appropriate when applied to the activity of reviving an extinct martial art.
Although both self-defence and performance/LARP-oriented revivalisms could also be described as “recreational” in certain senses, I’m using that term to refer to a third approach; that which prioritises the notion of “art for art’s sake”. Recreational Bartitsu, therefore, is primarily geared towards recreating Barton-Wright’s original art, embracing the canonical and lineage materials as cultural artifacts of intrinsic historical value.
In other words, the primary value of the canonical material is, precisely, that it is canonical; it is our most direct link to the original cross-training system that was being developed at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901. From this perspective, modern self-defence applications are of secondary or tertiary priority, alongside demonstration of the canonical material for public display.
Further, the close and serious study of the canonical and lineage material reveals just enough of the tactical and mechanical principles behind Barton-Wright’s original system to enable practitioners to make truly educated deductions about the rest of the system. That study must include not only the Pearson’s Magazine article series, but also the panoply of supplementary sources that have been unearthed by researchers over the past fifteen years, offering crucial context to the modern revival.
Is this recreational approach any different, then, from “living history”? Does it simply result in martial arts museum pieces, beautifully preserved but lacking real utility?
No. A martial art worthy of that name must be functional, and so the aim of recreational Bartitsu is to first reassemble, and then to prove by pressure-testing, the original system on its own terms, asa method of cross-training between, specifically,c1900 boxing and kicking, the eclectic “British jiujitsu” of the Edwardian era and the Vigny style of stick fighting.
As with any martial arts reconstruction project, the aim is to get as close as possible to the original methods. Some of this reassembly is verbatim (from the canon) and some is speculative, referring to the great corpus of Bartitsu lineage materials produced by the Bartitsu Club instructors and their first generations of students, as outlined in the second volume of the Compendium.
The Japanese concept of takemusu, implying “martial creativity”, is inherent to this recreational approach. The process is collaborative and on-going. Rather than attempting to complete Barton-Wright’s abandoned work-in-progress, recreationalists are engaged in a continual state of “combat lab” experimentation.
“All-in” sparring in an identifiably “Bartitsu” style is the apex of this form of recreation. The acid test is simple – if you can fight successfully in a manner that’s closely evocative of the original method, then your recreation is good. If not, keep testing and experimenting until you can.
The first twelve minutes of this 2013 BBC documentary focus on Bartitsu and the use of jiujitsu by the radical suffragettes, featuring demonstrations by James Marwood and George Stokoe and interviews with Tony Wolf and Emelyne Godfrey.
E. W. Barton-Wright’s “Self-Defence With A Walking Stick” articles for Pearson’s Magazine (1901) offer the most detailed impression of the Vigny cane fighting system during the height of the brief Bartitsu Club era.
A basic premise of these articles was to illustrate different self-defence tactics depending on the weapons wielded by the defender and by the aggressor, among other differentials such as physique and available fighting space. For example, different tactics were advised for when the defender held “a Stick which is too Heavy to Manipulate Quickly with One Hand, when Attacked by a Man Armed with a Light Stick”, as compared to what to do when wielding a “Small Switch in your Hand, and are Threatened by a Man with a very Strong Stick”.
Although Vigny’s system was versatile enough to allow for defence with light canes, crook-handled canes and umbrellas, it was optimised for a specific type of cane, which Vigny himself had designed. In “The Walking-Stick as a Means of Self-Defence” (Health and Strength, July 1903), Vigny wrote that:
(…) therefore the cane is the most perfect weapon for self-defence; but in order to make it so, it must possess the necessary qualities, which, expressed in one word, is solidity.
It is for this reason that I have had a cane specially made under my directions which embraces all the necessary qualities. It is a medium-sized Malacca cane, mounted with a thick metal ball, and so firmly riveted to the cane that it cannot come off however roughly it may be used.
The metal ball handle is of such a thickness that it will not get dented; but in spite of this the cane is a most handsome and elegant one, and has been so much appreciated since it has been brought out that many people may be seen carrying them.
Thus, the Vigny cane is characterised by an asymmetrical balance due to the tapering malacca (rattan) shaft and especially by the addition of a metal ball at the thicker end. In practice, this means that the cane handles differently from an evenly-weighted stick weapon; the heavy end swings and strikes more like a mace than like an ordinary stick.
Single-handedly swinging a 36″ long stick with a weight at the far end generates significant momentum, and the management of that momentum has a significant impact on the techniques and tactics of Bartitsu stick fighting. This is apparent even when the metal ball is simulated by a solid rubber ball handle for relatively safe sparring purposes; hence, the Vigny style’s characteristic emphasis on ambidexterity and variety of tactical guards, as shown in Barton-Wright’s articles and in this sparring video: