The eccentric evolution of boxing armour

The first patented suit of boxing armour was registered with the US Patent Office in 1895. Joseph Donovan’s invention offered protection to the most vulnerable parts of the boxer’s anatomy and included an inbuilt electrical scoring system.

At last electricity has been brought to the direct aid of boxers, and the followers of the manly art of self defense will hail with delight the device just patented by Mr. Joseph Donovan of Chicago. We will let Mr. Donovan describe his invention in his own language, as follows:

It is well known that sparring or boxing is one of the most health-giving exercises in the whole range of athletics, developing endurance, stability of physique, a quickness of eyesight and action, and tending to bring out in its finest and quickest form every muscle of the body. Unfortunately, however, with all these good qualities there is a roughness and a brutality with it, which has thrown it almost entirely outside the pale of legitimate athletics, and to eliminate these rough and objectionable features entirely to those practicing boxing by padding over all the vulnerable points above the belt and providing each and all of these points with a registering device, so that all blows shall be rung up and registered automatically, thus reducing boxing to a simple test of quickness and endurance, and nothing more, is the principal object of my invention.

A form of pneumatic armour for boxers was tested in 1897. Unlike Donovan’s suit, the pneumatic armour did not offer any form of scoring function; it was intended simply to preserve the sparring partners of would-be champions in training.

By 1913, another entrepreneur – Dr. Otis Brewster – was promoting his own boxing armour, designed especially so that youngsters could train in boxing safely.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Dr. Brewster patented a heavy-duty suit of steel armour to protect soldiers against small arms fire and in close-quarters bayonet combat.

Although trials proved that the soldiers could kneel, lie down, run and even jump while wearing Brewster’s armour, and that it was proof against both rifle bullets and sledgehammers, it was never adopted by the War Department. This may have been due to the fact that Brewster wanted $600,000 for his invention.

Boxing vs. la savate (circa 1869)

From “Fores’s Sporting Notes and Sketches”, 1894:

YES, I have seen one or two queer events in the boxing line. How time makes the running nowadays! Somehow, things seem to come and go much faster than they used to do, and, although I still feel young, it is nearly a quarter of a century since I witnessed the most amusing show, I suppose, that was ever given in the way of a contest between two exponents of the noble art of self defence— one an Englishman, and the other a Frenchman.

The match was arranged by a well-known amateur boxer, and took place in a small town in France, in the rooms of an old Frenchman who gave lessons in fencing, &c. Only about a dozen spectators were invited, and I happened to be one of the favoured few. The Englishman was one of the stars of his profession, and a real tough bruiser, and had never seen the French style of boxing, viz. ‘la savate.’ The Frenchman was one of the leading professors of the art, and had never met an Englishman. So we looked forward to seeing something that would amuse us. We were not disappointed. They both wore gloves, the weight of which I do not remember, and canvas shoes. There was no ring, so they had the whole room to manoeuvre in. The spectators stood round the corners.

I will call the Englishman ‘Tom,’ and the Frenchman ‘Alphonse.’ Tom appeared in the orthodox rig, breeches and socks, and stripped to the waist. Alphonse turned out in a white jersey and black tights. He was a great contrast to the broad-shouldered, bullet-headed Englishman, being nearly a head taller, with extraordinarily long legs, and a wild and hungry look about the eyes. They advanced to the middle of the room, and Tom held out his hand in the usual manner, but was received with a low and courteous bow from Alphonse.

Tom led off by making a feint at the face of Alphonse, who parried it, and landed Tom a smart kick on the side of the head with his right foot, followed immediately by another kick on the other side of the head with his left!

Tom’s look of astonishment was a picture, he tried in vain to get in at Alphonse, who seemed to flutter about more like a butterfly, or daddy-long-legs, than anything else; he tried to catch hold of the feet that kept playing about his head, but without avail, the head that he wanted to go for was never where the head should be, according to Tom, so practically, he had nothing to tackle, except an elongated pair of understandings that seemed to work on springs and on which he could make little or no impression.

I forget how many rounds were fought; any how, we were all convulsed with laughter till the last round, in the middle of which Alphonse threw himself back on his hands and shot out with his left foot, the sole of which was planted with terrific force full into Tom’s face.

The pugilist staggered back nearly the whole length of the room, but he recovered himself, and, with a wicked look, made a rush at Alphonse, and drove him into one of the corners, where he could not use his legs, and landed him one he will never forget, right under the jaw, which almost lifted him off his legs, and his head went with a crash against the wall, and poor Alphonse dropped senseless to the floor. Tom stood over him and muttered, ‘You d—d Froggy, I’ll teach you to play football with my head!’

It was some time before Alphonse came round, in fact, we thought at first that he was killed; however, with plenty of cold water poured over his head, and a fair quantity of cognac poured down his throat, he at last recovered, and it is needless to say, had had quite enough of it. I would go a long way to witness such another show, the extraordinary agility of the Frenchman was most astonishing, and there is no doubt an adept at ‘la savate’ is no mean adversary for an ordinary boxer to tackle.

“A new and improved ‘battel'”

In his intriguing article “The Passing of the Duel” (Chambers’s Magazine, 1906), Alfred Fellows speculated about the invention of a new and more civilised form of duelling, especially designed for English gentlemen. If properly overseen by a “Court of Honour”, he argued, this would be a more manly and visceral form of redress than was allowed under the law in 1906.

(…) a duel with deadly weapons would be out of the question as a proper solution; and the aim being to punish the offender, such a thing as a fight with fists would be almost as undesirable, for as often as not the injured party would be thrashed. A possible solution would be to order the offender to be trounced up and flogged by the other, or otherwise arrange matters so that no harm could befall the innocent person ; but apart from the fact that the guilty would never voluntarily submit to a tribunal which could only punish him, most gentlemen would feel that to hit a helpless man in cold blood was worse than receiving money from him as a solace for dishonour.

The problem is to find something which could be recognised as satisfactory by gentlemen, could take place in a school of arms or similarly suitable place, would not endanger life, would be capable of adjustment according to the righteousness of the respective causes, and perhaps having regard to size and reach (skill ought not to be so discounted), and would yet be an ordeal to both parties: the facing of sharp, physical pain, and the necessity of ignoring it. If it may be permitted to let imagination run riot for a minute, and to take unwarrantable liberties, a committee might be selected to consider the matter, and the services of Professor Sandow, Captain Alfred Hutton, Mr Eustace Miles, Mr Fry, and a professional boxer be commandeered, with some capable doctor to assist them. Perhaps, also, some professor of jiu jitsu would be useful, and these distinguished persons could then safely be left to devise a new and improved “battel”.

Although E.W. Barton-Wright may never have imagined Bartitsu as a revival of the code duello, he would have appreciated the irony of Fellows’ imagining a “new and improved ‘battel'” for gentlemen combining boxing, fencing, physical culture and jiujitsu just four years after the closure of the Bartitsu Club.

Bartitsu as “urban survival”

Bartitsu is cited as an example of urban survival training in a new book, How to Predict the Weather with a Cup of Coffee, by Matthew Cole.

Harnessing the laws of science, nature and human behaviour, this book revisits and reinvents the tricks that got us through our savage past and updates them for the 21st century. It arms you with a caveman’s toolkit for survival wherever you may be – Starbucks, the office, or a crowded tube on a Friday night – and tells you all you need to know to transform your daily grind into a non-stop adventure (you don’t even have to wear khaki).

After a summary of Bartitsu history, Cole concludes:

Barton-Wright was a man after my own heart, equipping his students for the new and very real challenges of life in a modern city. Until then, men had felt protected by the rules of decency and fair play, but that old order had crumbled. Bartitsu helped the modern gentleman meet this new test with pragmatism and dignity. Hoorah for B-W.

The case of the imaginary sensei

Eager would-be students of jiujitsu in early Edwardian England had limited options to learn the mysterious Japanese art of self defence. During the period 1899-1902 the Bartitsu Club in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue was literally the only jiujitsu school in England. By 1906, however, there were several more dojo operating in the UK, with greater or lesser degrees of legitimacy.

Some seekers (there’s one born every minute) sent away for the correspondence course advertised above, which purported to represent the Kara Ashikaga School of Jiu-jitsu in Liverpool. Not only did this course offer an infallible method of self defence “as taught at the Yoshimosa School in Japan”, but other advertisements promised that the practice of jiujitsu would cure all manner of ailments, including constipation.

The best current evidence suggests that Kara Ashikaga, the stern-looking sensei depicted in the Liverpool school’s magazine ads, did not actually exist. Rather, he was a promotional gimmick devised by the actual proprietor of the correspondence course, an Englishman named Thomas.

There appears to be no evidence that the Yoshimosa School of Jiujitsu ever existed either. The name “Yoshimasa Ashikaga” was, however, featured prominently in Lafcadio Hearn‘s book, “In Ghostly Japan”, first published in England in 1904. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Thomas simply picked out a few names that he liked the sound of and proceeded to sell his customers a bill of goods. Adding insult to injury, the four-volume correspondence course, “Jiu-jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defence by the Kara Ashikaga School” was, in fact, a direct plagiarism of “Jiu-Jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defense” by Captain H. H. Skinner.

By a strange twist of fate, for a brief time in early 1906, the Ashikaga School did feature instruction by a genuine jiujitsu sensei. Liverpool was the first British port of call of the famous Gunji Koizumi. In Koizumi’s “My Study of Judo” (1960) he mentions having taught jiujitsu at the Kara Ashikaga School.

It’s tempting to imagine a Remington Steele scenario in which Mr. Thomas, having invented a Japanese martial arts master as a figurehead, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the position to employ a real one. Sadly, the historical record does not reveal whether Koizumi played along with the charade (although it seems unlikely), nor whether Thomas had to scramble to create an actual dojo at his Electric Building address to accommodate his new instructor and, presumably, paying students. Koizumi, sensibly enough, spent only a short time at the Liverpool school before before travelling south to London, where he collaborated with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi at his Piccadilly Square dojo.

Caveat emptor

“Schools where men are taught to defend themselves against the attacks of street rowdies”

From the New York Tribune, August 30, 1903:


A Ready Means of Warding Off Felonious Assaults.

In the crowded city as well as at the lonely crossroads a man never knows when he may be called upon to defend himself. However vigilant may be the police, however strong the windows of his house, one is never absolutely secure from thug or burglar. However regular nay be his habits, however restrained his desires, still there are emergencies which may keep a citizen out until the “owl” hours or call him into unfrequented byways.

Street gangs never seemed bolder than at the present time, and their attacks upon law-abiding citizens are of frequent occurrence. The majority limit their operations to the tenement house districts, but now and then they appear where least expected. Such was the case in the alleged attack upon David Lamar’s coachman in Long Branch by “Monk” Eastman and some other members of his notorious East Side gang.

When a man is called on to face a ruffian, he needs no better weapon than a hickory walking stick. A revolver is likely to harm him more than to help. As soon as a man reaches for his weapon, his adversary has the right to shoot, and the accomplished criminal is almost sure to have his weapon ready first. The stick is the better weapon, because it is quicker. It is in one’s hand already. It is always “loaded.”

In such a crisis the first blow counts. At such a time neither endurance nor strength is as important as quickness. There is only one round, and in most instances there is only one blow. The man who gives it first, and gives it right, is the victor. One does not need to be an experienced boxer or wrestler, for his adversary on such occasions is not likely to observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules or the laws of the Greco-Roman school of wrestling. Foul means are fair at such times.

In the city of London the crime of the highwayman and burglar has increased to such an extent that many schools have sprung up in the great English metropolis where one may learn the art of stick defence. These schools have proved popular, and many of the professional fencing and boxing masters have included courses in which the pupil is taught to handle the stick. The instruction is simple, and contrasts in a striking degree with the complicated science of fencing. Neither is it anything like the old art of handling the singlestick, where two men armed with sticks parry with each other for an opening to administer a blow.

Stick defence differs from all these manly exercises in this essential — it is not a pastime between sportsmen; it is a quick and safe method of knocking out a thug.

Many a busy New Yorker, however, would never learn the art of stick defence, even though he believed it would some day save his life, if he had to go to a gymnasium or a fencing school to learn it. “I simply haven’t the time,” such a man would say.

For the same reason he has long wished to be a boxer, and secretly envied the splendid muscles of the athletes he sees at the beach when be goes down there for a Sunday swim. Neither does he know anything about wrestling or many another manly sport which would not only befriend him in an hour of need, but, best of all, build up his physique and enable him to work harder and longer, and yet feel far less weary when he leaves his office at night.

Stick defence, however, can be learned at home more easily, perhaps, than any other art of self-defence, and after a few general rules are mastered the beginner may learn how to apply them in many effective ways. He must first of all have a roommate or some other good friend who is willing to play the “thug” and to be “knocked out” some half hundred times. In imagination the “thug’s” arms will be broken, his wrists and ankles dislocated and his neck twisted.

The thug who is of Anglo-Saxon origin generally makes his assault with his fists. If he doesn’t he pulls a pistol. His most common first attack is to strike his purposed victim in the face with his left hand, and to hold back his right ready for a blow in the stomach. Nine times out of ten such a ruffian overwhelms his man and even an experienced boxer may fail to thwart such an assault. But the man with a stick, should he handle himself right, ought not only to withstand his enemy, but break his arm.

As soon as the stick man sees what his assailant is up to he clutches his enemy’s left hand with his own, and with his right, holding his stick and guarding his stomach at the same time, he cracks the thug’s arm in the crazy bone, at the elbow. At the same time he strikes he twists the arm inward, so as to make the pain of the blow still more acute. If the stick man wants to strike hard enough he can break a thug’s arm in this way.

Should one find it impossible to use this device in withstanding a left-handed attack, there is another way which proves almost as effective.

As the thug rushes for his man the stick man grasps his cane at the small end with his left hand, and with his right he clutches it near the handle. His hands are near enough together, however, so that his right elbow is at an angle of 90 degrees, and with this protruding elbow he wards off the swing of the thug’s left arm. At the same time he thrusts the handle of his cane under the chin of his foe and topples him over on his back. In case „of a right-handed attack, the man with a stick meets it in the same fashion, but with opposite hands.

Unless the sight of a pistol’s muzzle unnerves him, the man with a cane is able to dispose „of the thug who pulls a gun easier than if he used only his fists. If the pistol puller is left handed, an upward blow of the cane is best, for it knocks the weapon high into the air, and does not swerve the barrel sidewise, (in which case) the bullet is likely to reach the heart of the intended victim.

But in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the gun is in the right hand, and the stick man need only drop to his knees and at the same time strike his would-be murderer a sharp sidewise crack on the knuckles to disarm him.

As the Anglo-Saxon uses his lists, so the Italian and Spaniard have recourse to the knife. Unless such a thug is left-handed, he strikes with his right hand, and he is met by the stick man in much the same way as a left-handed fist blow is averted by the thrust of the cane’s handle under the chin. The stick man, however, holds his arms differently. He now bends his left elbow to avert the stab and shield his vitals.

As a general thing the thrust of a cane under the chin partially strangles a thug and so disconcerts him that he drops the blade from his hand. Should the ruffian use his left hand, the man with a stick grasps his weapon with his right hand around its small end and his left about its centre, and with his right elbow shielding his breast he gives the strangling thrust into his enemy’s neck.

The German also has his way of holding up a pedestrian. In the gymnasium or the army he has been trained in the use of the broadsword, or even as a peasant boy he has had his “schlagen” matches with his playmates. So when a Teuton who has settled in the New World descends to deeds of violence, he generally uses a stick. His fate, however, at the hands of the master of stick defence is likely to be as instantaneous as that of the Anglo-Saxon or Italian.

In meeting this kind of enemy an umbrella or cane with a hooked handle is the best weapon. The stick man catches the cane of his foe, hooks his assailant around the neck and then jerks his head forward. At the same time he raises his knee so that the face of the thus strikes against it with great force. This treatment makes a man see so many stars that he invariably drops his cane and thus surrenders himself to the mercy of his victor.

Some thugs have a way of coming up on victims from behind and disconcerting them with a kick. The stick man who knows the tactics of thugs is prepared for this kind of assault. As soon as he suspects what is to occur he wheels on his heel and hooks the thug by the foot with the handle of his cane or umbrella. This is sure to send the ruffian over backward on to his back.

Another way is to dodge the kick, and crack the upraised leg with a stick over the knee. Such a blow will break a man’s leg if it be administered hard enough.

Tactics which might supplement those of the London stick men have been Introduced into the United States Navy. They are trick catches which are for the most part based on the Japanese system of wrestling. A sailor renders an assailant powerless simply by twisting his muscles the wrong way. It is called the leverage system, for the reason that it tends to pry a victim’s joints apart by using the bones as levers one against another. Should a New Yorker combine both the tactics of the London stick man and the United States naval wrestler, it is safe to say that the police of this city would have far fewer holdups and burglaries to record than at the present time.

Bartitsu ref. in new superhero drama, “The Cape”

Bartitsu gets an unexpected shout-out in this preview for the new NBC superhero series, “The Cape”. From the official Cape website:

“The Cape” is a one-hour drama series starring David Lyons (“ER”) as Vince Faraday, an honest cop on a corrupt police force, who finds himself framed for a series of murders and presumed dead. He is forced into hiding, leaving behind his wife, Dana (Jennifer Ferrin, “Life on Mars”) and son, Trip (Ryan Wynott, “Flash Forward”). Fueled by a desire to reunite with his family and to battle the criminal forces that have overtaken Palm City, Faraday becomes “The Cape” his son’s favorite comic book superhero — and takes the law into his own hands.

During a training montage, the Cape’s mentor, Max Malini, says:

“British Bartitsu … the warrior dancers of the T’ang Dynasty used their robes as weapons.”

The Cape is obviously an expert martial artist armed with a super-powered cloak, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see any classical Bartitsu featured in the series. On the other hand, it’s always nice when writers do their homework. One wonders what E.W. Barton-Wright would have made of all this: