Exhibitions and Challenges

During Bartitsu’s brief heyday, Barton-Wright embarked on a sideline career as a promoter of self defence exhibitions and challenge matches. His exhibitions were held, in the fashion of the day, as “Assaults at Arms” combining pre-arranged self defence demonstrations with bouting and sparring in different styles. They received mixed reviews; although his audiences were intrigued by the different self defence systems on display, the exhibitions were often plagued by late starts and disruptions. As one reviewer wrote:

It cannot be said that the conduct of the Tournament was a matter for congratulation to those concerned in its organisation. And, to anticipate for the moment, though a good evening’s sport was eventually obtained, we did not learn much about Bartitsu. The hall is large and was fairly well filled, particularly as regards the unreserved seats, where a lusty and expectant throng filled every available corner.
Everything comes to him who waits. The audience did that. Further, they indulged in occasional catcalls, frequent references to the statement on the programme that the tournament would begin at 9 p.m. punctually, and instructive comments upon the personality of fresh comers among the spectators. Also, they whistled. (Anonymous, 1901)

There was also some skepticism regarding the systems themselves, especially the novel art of jiujitsu. Journalist W.T.A. Beare, writing in an article called Antagonistics in which he compared various national martial arts, commented:

I cannot accept Mr. Barton-Wright’s system, valuable as it may be, as a royal road to invulnerability, nor can I imagine that he is himself invincible… I should very much like to see a bout in real earnest between Mr. Barton-Wright and some lightweight expert in boxing and wrestling, English style. I am not too strongly inclined to prophesy that the English style would prevail right away; indeed I doubt if it would. There is so large an element of trickiness about the Japanese method that the English expert might well be caught unawares. But what I do contend is that a really clever man would not be at a loss for long. There is one main underlying principle throughout Mr. Barton-Wright’s system, and that is, broadly stated, application of unnatural strains to the limbs. My presumed clever performer would quickly become alive to this – not necessarily, as I have suggested, in the first meeting – and would refrain from affording his opponent facilities for his peculiar holds, which are easily possible so long as they are unexpected. (Beare, 1901)

Barton-Wright reported that he had once challenged all comers during a demonstration at the St. James’s Hall, which was a regular meeting place for combat athletes:

I challenged anyone to attack me in any form he cared to choose. I overcame seven in succession in three minutes. All were fourteen stone. Through this feat I received a Royal Command from King Edward the Seventh. (Koizumi, 1950)

Unfortunately, he was unable to demonstrate his art for the King, having injured his hand while fending off two roughs during a bicycle excursion to the Kentish coast. Barton-Wright reported that as the two men blocked his path, he sprang off his bicycle, winding one attacker with a shoulder strike and felling the other with a punch, but in so doing he broke his hand.

Barton-Wright’s early demonstrations of jiujitsu, performed soon after he returned to London, seem to have followed the kata paradigm. After an exhibition arranged by his editors at Pearson’s Magazine, in which he allowed amateur champion Cumberland/Westmoreland style wrestler Eric Chipchase free choice of holds, the magazine reported:

Extraordinary interest has been evinced in this new art of self-defence by the privileged few who have already had the opportunity of forming an opinion as to its efficacy. Colonel G.W. Fox, for instance, the Assistant Adjutant-General of the York district and ex-Inspector General of Army Gymnasia, writes; “I have no hesitation in pronouncing Mr. Barton-Wright’s system as absolutely sound in theory, exceedingly practical and very scientific. I was much impressed with the extremely easy and graceful way in which he seemed to disturb the balance of his opponent and render him helpless. And although Mr. Barton-Wright repeatedly allowed his opponent to choose his own hold and take him at the greatest possible disadvantage, he never seemed to be at a loss what to do, and how to throw his opponent instantaneously. I am quite certain that if our police were to learn some of his throws and grips, they could cope much more successfully with every kind of resistance.
Mr. Chipchase’s opinion as an expert may not be uninteresting. He says; “In spite of my being a much heavier man than Mr. Barton-Wright, his system of defence and retaliation is so much more scientific than my style, that, when practicing with him, however great may be my determination to remain firm on my legs and to keep my balance, my efforts are invariably frustrated and I am ignominiously thrown. Mere strength has no chance of withstanding the science of this new art.

In all, Barton-Wright seems to have been much more interested in developing Bartitsu as a self defence art than in sporting competition. However, it was in the sporting arena that his champions Tani, Uyenishi and Cherpillod were soon to prove their mettle. All three men competed in all-in wrestling tournaments and enjoyed considerable, if sometimes controversial, success.

In his 1933 autobiography, Cherpillod described one of the challenge bouts fought between Uyenishi and a Russian wrestler and strongman named Klemsky, who had boasted that his neck was too strong for him ever to be choked unconscious:

The theatre was completely filled by a public intrigued by the innovation of this fight and drawn by the reputation of the Russian wrestler. As soon as Klemsky had donned the Japanese jacket, the two men came to grips. Both had been caught by their jackets, and in less time than one could take to tell it, Yanichi had whirled his powerful adversary into the air and had let him fall down on his back. As quick as a flash, the Japanese leaped onto the Russian and seized him by the collar of the jacket, on hand on each side of his neck, by crossing the wrists, and learnedly exerted the famous pressure on the carotid arteries which brings choking, and even unconsciousness. The hold did not seem to have any effect on the Russian who simply smiled at the audience. Astonished by this resistance, the Japanese wrestler’s eyes gleamed with malice. He rolled across the ground past the Russian while preserving his hold and, to increase the force of the pressure on the neck, planted his two feet in the pit of Klemsky’s stomach. This tightened the grip so extremely that a net of blood escaped from the mouth of Klemsky and sprinkled his face. It was only then that Yanichi released his hold and let fall beside him the apparently lifeless body of the Russian.
The public believed that Klemsky had died. They howled their anger and their disapproval of Yanichi (sic). This latter, triumphant, appeared to be insensitive to the hostile remonstrations of the public. He went to sit down on the sidelines, beside his compatriot, in the manner of the tailors at work, by crossing his legs beneath him. And while the spectators redoubled their cries, our two Japanese entered into an animated conversation and even laughed together, contemplating the victim who did not give any sign of life. Suddenly, one of them rose, as if driven by a spring, and approached Klemsky. He leaned on the body of the Russian and gave some sort of vibration or massage to the cardiac area, which revived the victim gradually. Then, to the great astonishment of the audience who were now gasping, Klemsky opened his eyes and asked where he was. This seemed magical, and even more than before, Jiu-jitsu appeared to be a most mysterious form of fighting. When someone asked Klemsky for his impression of the event, he said that while losing consciousness he had heard the sound of bells.
The spectacle was over. Nobody other than Klemsky wanted to risk a voyage in the Nirvana, even for one very short moment. The fact remained that on this evening, Jiu-jitsu had acquired great respect throughout England. (Cherpillod, 1933)

Cherpillod himself enjoyed a string of victories against wrestlers representing many different styles. His first public bout was a matter of great national pride, as the Swiss style came up against the famous English Catch-as-catch-can style, represented by heavyweight champion Joe Carroll.

The bout was, from the start, a battle of giants. Both men were in fine fettle, though the Swiss was, perhaps, in better condition. Neither man took any risks, and the wrestling was of a steady nature, and occasionally monotonous. Several times Carroll found himself in a tight place, but his defensive abilities and general slipperiness stood him in good stead. More than once the Swiss swung his opponent up, but was unable to throw him with both shoulders down. At one moment both men came down, and a heated discussion took place as to whether the wrestling was for a pin fall or a flying fall (though it had been announced most plainly that the fall must, to count, be of the former description). As the pair had fallen “off the mat,” no fall was allowed.
At length the protracted struggle came to an end. Cherpillod’s superior condition served him well, and lifting Carroll clean off the stage by the middle and one thigh, he gained a fair backfall in 1 hour 20 minutes.
Cherpillod was ready to go on with scarcely a breathing space, but Carroll’s party insisted on the statutory 15 minutes rest. When the pair faced each other for the second bout, it was easy to see that victory for the Swiss was only a matter of time. Carroll had suffered considerably from his previous exertions, and evidently realised this. He acted merely on the defensive, the active aggression all coming from Cherpillod.
Less than half-an-hour’s wrestling brought the end, and the Swiss champion achieved a most deserved and creditable victory, which Carroll was the first to gracefully acknowledge. (Anonymous, 1902)

Between the three of them, Uyenishi, Tani and Cherpillod are estimated to have fought thousands of such matches during the first decade of the twentieth century. However, Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu was to quickly fade from the public memory after 1903.

[Originally written by Tony Wolf 26/10/06]

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