The Aerial Wrestling Girls (1905)

By 1905 the novelty of mixed-style wrestling matches was beginning to wear thin for London music hall audiences, so some creative developments were deemed to be in order. Thus, the invention of “aerial wrestling” by some unknown hero of lateral thinking.

The rules of the new sport were simple enough.  Two teams of six female athletes each – at least notionally representing England and the United States, respectively – were to compete in a contest of agility and endurance upon a unique and curious piece of gymnastic equipment.  The “Ladies’ Aerial Wrestling Apparatus” consisted of twelve long poles, suspended vertically from a ladder-like arrangement that was secured high above the stage.  Each pole was studded with a series of three small round wooden platforms, spaced about 3 feet apart, which could be used as (somewhat precarious) hand- and foot-holds.

At the referee’s signal, there commenced a free-for-all scramble to claim the greatest possible height on a pole, at which point the object of the game was to “wrestle” members of the opposing team off their poles.  The favoured and most common technique was to swing one’s legs up and capture the opponent’s head and shoulders in a type of scissor hold, at which stage one could endeavour to force them to slide down and off their pole through sheer body weight.  However, the pole-wrestler caught by the scissor grip might be able to break the hold and escape by swinging to an adjacent pole.

Occasionally, two opposing pole-wrestlers would fall together – one hopes that the stage below was well-padded.  The most exciting scenario, according to one reporter, occurred when a single, agile wrestler who was the last woman of her team to remain undefeated was pursued by several members of the opposing team and still managed to win the day.  Some Aerial Wrestling matches reportedly lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes.

Billed variously as being managed by “Madame Roma”,  “Madame Kotka” and “Madame Denny”, the Aerial Wrestling Girls enjoyed a period of success during 1905, touring the various London music halls and then venturing further afield to the Oxford Town Hall and other provincial venues.  One of them also made the newspapers for reportedly using her wrestling skills in fending off the attentions of an unwelcome admirer,  as recorded in the Derry Journal of 13 September, 1905:


BBC “Timeshift” documentary on the history of the martial arts in Great Britain

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.

“Proof of great strength”: grappling with the Kibbo Kift Kindred

Exemplifying the virtues and limitations of the early 20th century “self-taught man”, John Hargrave (1894-1982) was accomplished in a variety of fields.  A senior scoutmaster possessing great powers of imagination, energy and charisma, Hargrave’s experience of war during the Battle of Gallipoli caused him to become bitterly disillusioned with the nationalism and militarism of Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement.

When the Great War ended, Hargrave broke from the Scouts and created a pacifistic, progressive and universalist alternative youth movement, which became known as the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.  “Kibbo Kift”, Hargrave maintained, meant “proof of great strength” in an archaic and obscure Cheshire dialect.

Although never very great in numbers, the Kindred were highly active and influential throughout the 1920s, attracting support from writer H.G. Wells and former suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence among other socially progressive thinkers.  Indeed, Wells’ 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, with its vision of a “New Samurai” class of creative, disciplined and self-actualised individuals leading the world towards a future free of war and poverty, was a clear model for Hargraves’ counter-cultural movement.

The Kibbo Kift adopted a romanticised Anglo-Saxon motif, including a uniform of green jerkins, hoods and cloaks. Thus attired, they set out on strenuous camping and hiking expeditions, staged elaborately theatrical rituals and mystical plays, produced strikingly original handcrafts and costume art, all according to Hargrave’s comprehensive philosophy for the betterment of each individual Kin member and the wider society.

Above: echoes of Robin Hood as young members of the Kibbo Kift embark on a bracing cross-country hike.

Although the Order of the Kibbo Kift was an avowedly pacifistic organisation, it also promoted physical fitness and the ethic of self-reliance, which included self-defence if necessary.  Therefore, along with archery and “fleetfoot” (running races), Hargrave – whose name within the Order was “White Fox” – instituted a type of wrestling sport called “thewstrang”.  This word was taken to mean “muscular strength”.

Above: Thewstrang as demonstrated by two stalwart Kibbo Kift Kinsmen.

Unlike most English folk-styles of wrestling, Thewstrang did not mandate any particular opening grip, nor insist that a specific grip should be held throughout the match.  In common with the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style, it allowed holds to be taken below the belt-line.  The object appears to have been to throw one’s opponent to the turf, although it’s possible that – like the roughly contemporaneous “standing catch” style – one could also win by simply hoisting an opponent helplessly off his feet.

Thewstrang matches were mainstays of Kindred meetings, including a tournament held at their main annual camping gathering which was known, after the Icelandic custom, as the “Althing”.

During the economic and social turmoil of the 1930s Hargrave attempted to transform the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift into a political movement, agitating for the institution of a radical, Social Credit-based economic reform.  Members of his quasi-militaristic Green Shirt Brigade frequently exerted their “thewstrang” in clashes with Sir Oswald Mosely’s fascist Black Shirts during political rallies and marches through the streets of London.

A Hargrave supporter, Hubert Cornish-Bowden, recalled the wrestling technique he’d used during a streetfight outside a Mosely meeting:

We were carrying a banner and a chap tried to pull it down. I gave him a biff and then I found myself on the floor with about four people kicking me. Unfortunately, it was very dark and when one is lying in the gutter being kicked it is rather difficult to distinguish one person’s legs from another’s. And I caught hold of a policeman’s foot. Got hold of his toe in one hand and his heel in the other, and twisted it. Of course he fell down. Next thing I knew, either three or four policemen were carrying me out of the meeting, one on each arm like that and with one or two holding my feet. What they call the frog march. They fined me £3 at the London Magistrate’s Court.

Another Green Shirt (appropriately named Ralph Green) made the news when, inspired by Robin Hood, he fired an arrow through the window of No. 10 Downing Street, proclaiming that “Social Credit is coming!”

The activities of the Green Shirt Brigade and similar paramilitary movements were curtailed by the Public Order Act of 1936, which banned the wearing of uniforms by political groups, and then the membership was scattered by the outbreak of war in 1939.  Thereafter, John Hargrave gradually withdrew from the public spotlight.  Although his notably creative efforts at progressive social reform had been largely forgotten by the time he died in 1982, it could be argued that some of them were simply decades ahead of their time.

“… a medium-sized Malacca cane, mounted with a thick metal ball”

Above: Pierre Vigny poses with one of his self-defence walking sticks.

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”.

Above: Vigny (left) assumes the double-handed guard against Barton-Wright’s right (front) guard.

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.

Vigny (right) demonstrates a close-quarters combat technique, jabbing with the thick metal ball handle of his cane into an attacker’s jaw.

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.

Above: the balance point of a Vigny-style cane marked with an X.

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:

“Queensberry Justice”

Over the past ten years or so, the martial arts of Bartitsu and (especially) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “baritsu” have been incorporated into numerous Sherlock Holmes pastiche stories. Frequently, Holmes’ antagonistic skills are given but a passing mention, but some storytellers have produced tales in which the Great Detective’s fighting prowess is brought front and centre. Most notable among these is the Fight Card series of boxing-themed Holmes stories, now gathered into an omnibus edition for the first time.

Queensberry Justice collects all three extant Fight Card novelettes – “Work Capitol”, “Blood to the Bone” and “A Congression of Pallbearers” – and also includes no less than three new short stories, detailed introductory essays, cover galleries and more besides. Although the gloved and bare-knuckle styles of boxing take precedence, the stories also feature baritsu, cane fighting and even historical fencing via the mysterious Kernoozers Club!

The Queensberry Justice omnibus is recommended to all fans of the genre and is available here in both print and ebook editions.

“The Gentle Art of Self-Defence” – a Bartitsu parody

Here follows a biting satire of E.W. Barton-Wright’s first “New Art of Self Defence” article for Pearson’s Magazine.  “The Gentle Art of Self-Defence” was published in the March, 1899 edition of William Dunkerley’s To-Day Magazine:

ONE of the monthly magazines which has been with us for a little time has in its current issue published an article on the “New Art of Self-Defence.”

Practical trial by the writer of the series, which To-DAY now starts, has shown that it is possible for the exponent of the “New Art of Self-Defence” to do everything which he claims his art enables him to do, provided he can always find an opponent who will be good enough to use only one arm in attack or defence, and who will otherwise be amenable to the wishes of the exponent, and do nothing but what the system arranges that he shall do. The article published below, and those to follow, will show how far this system of self-defence will go, and what can be done with an opponent who has properly studied the “New Art of Self Defence,” and is determined to depart in no way from the lines laid down therein.

I am no relation of de Rougemont, but I have learned from him that the up-to-date editor always looks coldly upon that which is probable, commonplace, or easy of explanation; therefore with the view of getting the said editor to use his organ as the medium of supporting me, and placing my writings in the hands of the public, I have prepared a series of articles on Self-Defence, which deal entirely with carefully thought out improbabilities, which are by no means easy of explanation, and which I may at once state I don’t propose to explain.

My first interview with the editor, who accepted this series, will give some inkling of the methods of my system of self-defence.

I had sent up my card and, as I expected, the editor, not knowing me, told the messenger to say he was out. I was prepared for this, and had taken the precaution of following the messenger into the room.

I heard the editor’s statement, which he made without looking up.

“That remark, sir,” said I, “is a d-d lie” I reckoned on the man’s temper, and knew that I would immediately have an opportunity of exhibiting my art of self-defence, and so get right to the core of my business at once.

I was not wrong in my calculations. He replied with a heavy metal ink-pot; I countered with the messenger, who received it full in the forehead. The ink-pot made a nasty hole in his head, and his face was splashed with ink. I would have wiped away the ink, but found that he was dead, so it did not matter.

“That,” said I to the Editor, “brings us to business.”

“Your business?” he queried, as he hurled a solid ebony ruler at my head.

“Self-defence, a new system,” I replied, and I swung him in front of me with such lightning speed that he warded off the ruler. It caught him in the wind, but he recovered in about half an hour.

I waited for him to speak, or to make some move. He seated himself, and pressed a button in his desk. A bell rang without, and another messenger entered.

“Put that in the waste paper basket”—he pointed to the corpse—“and fill my ink-pot.”

I took a seat while his instructions were being carried out, and when the messenger had retired we discussed my business, and came to terms.

Before I give any particulars (I refuse explanations) of my art of self-defence, perhaps it will not be amiss to make a few introductory remarks as to the general conception of self-defence.

In foreign countries, when a foreigner fights, he has only one goal, and that is to get the better of his adversary, and any means is considered justifiable to obtain this end. Of course his idea of honour differs from ours, so that, whereas with us Nature’s weapons are considered the only honourable method of settling a dispute, a foreigner will not hesitate to use a wardrobe, a beer barrel, a knife and fork, or, in fact, anything that comes handy. It is to meet eventualities of this kind that my system has been devised. The general principles may be thus summed up. (1) To get an opponent whom you can trust to do as you wish; (2) to surprise your opponent by the strangeness of your movement, and their infinite variety.

Some of the feats which 1 shall now describe may, perhaps, seem difficult, but if my instructions are carefully followed, and everything requisite is kept conveniently at hand, I feel sure that steady practice will make them quite easy of performance.

Feat No. 1. I will suppose now that you are walking along a silent street at night and you are attacked by a man with a knife and fork. It is always well at night to wear your overcoat hung on your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves. This will facilitate the mode of defence needed for the knife and fork attack.

When the man approaches you throw off your coat and give it to him, mention that you will return, and hurry off to the nearest butcher’s shop. (If all the shops are closed, have no compunction in knocking up a butcher, seize the toughest steak you can find and return to the scene of action.)

If the man is gone, you have lost your overcoat, but your defence has been successful, and you are a steak, albeit a tough one, to the good.

If the ruffian is still there, approach him swiftly and impale the steak on his fork. While he is wrestling with the steak, take hold of him by the right leg, jerk it quickly forward, push your head into the pit of his stomach and he will lie down. Then you can recover the steak and your overcoat, and if you feel so inclined you will be able to take the knife and fork and any valuables he may have.

This feat needs only a little practice to be always successful.

Feat No. 2. Here is an excellent method of forcing an undesirable person to leave a room. Say, for instance, he is a big man and overawes the policeman you may feel it necessary to call in, the best thing to do then is to immediately hire or buy a windlass, have it firmly fixed somewhere outside the room, test the chain, procure a padlock with a Yale lock and then enter the room again with the end of the chain and the padlock held in the left hand, which it will be as well to conceal behind your back.

Walk straight up to the undesirable person, seize him by the left leg, bring forward your chain, and, without telling him what you are going to do, lock the chain carefully round his ankle. Return then without loss of time to the windlass, turn the handle quickly but firmly, and in a very short time the undesirable person will leave the room. While performing this feat it will be well to keep so far out of your opponent’s reach as to make it impossible for him to hit you or retaliate in any way.

In case any one should fight shy of the practical use of this trick, it may be added that the person thus treated would, should he resist the action of the chain, feel such pain as to compel him to submit meekly long before any serious injury could be done to him.

It will not be necessary to impress upon the reader the importance of knowing how any undesirable person may be promptly ejected from a room. Thousands of cases have occurred in which a knowledge of this method would have been of inestimable service. No one could resist the treatment I have suggested, as the reader will be able to understand for himself by testing it on his friends.

“Sherlock’s Baritsu Den” – a baritsu-themed gym in a Hanover hotel

The game is afoot at the Gästeresidenz PelikanViertel boarding house in Hanover, Germany, which boasts what is almost certainly the world’s only baritsu-themed boutique gymnasium.

The basement gym was opened in 2015 and features modern exercise equipment including a treadmill, cross-trainer, rowing machine, bicycle ergometer and a multifunctional gym system. The baritsu theme is maintained, however, thanks to an elaborate wall mural by graffiti artist BeNeR1, punching bag, natural wooden floor and exposed brick features, benches modified from vintage gymnastics pommel horses and stylish Victorian towel hooks.

More images of the Baritsu Den are available here.

“Self Defence for Women” by Nohata Showa (1914) now translated and re-published

Although Emily Diana Watts’ Fine Art of Jujutsu was first published in 1906, Self Defense for Women (1914) may well have been the first booklet written by a female author to specifically deal with jujutsu as self-defence for women, as distinct from treating it as an athletic accomplishment.

Above: an armlock restraint technique from Self Defence for Women.

Nohata Showa was the pen-name of Nobatake Yaeko.  Her booklet is a short compendium of martial arts techniques selected to be of particular use to women who are attacked by men:

The fundamental (principle) of Jujutsu is to use the opponent’s power. You can win by moving nimbly at the right time, without using much power. Should you ingrain these techniques into your body, even a cute weak girl can wrap up a large man and achieve a win!

She also wrote that:

While I was returning to my abode from running an errand just the other night I encountered a frightful situation. I was able to imitate the handful of Jujutsu moves I learned and, despite my slight form, was able to avoid falling prey to a dastardly scoundrel. It was an absolutely thrilling experience.

Additionally, Showa referred to the foundation of a Women’s Self Defence League:

Should any reader of this book have, by chanced toppled, restrained or otherwise through self-defense measures thrown a ruffian or [man] attempting mischief, this organization will award you … a large certificate reading “Meiji Imperial Achievement Award”.

Given the time she was writing, it’s possible that Showa was inspired by the Suffragettes Self Defence Club of London, which was organised by Edith Garrud under the auspices of the Women’s Freedom League from circa 1909 onwards.

Above: Suffragette jujutsu instructor Edith Garrud demonstrates a restraint hold.

The newly translated, full-colour edition of Self Defence for Women is now available here.