Today marks the 59th anniversary of the death of Bartitsu founder Edward William Barton-Wright.
Born in Bangalore, India, he was the third of six children of railway engineer William Barton Wright and his wife, Janet. Edward travelled widely as a youth, matriculating in France and Germany and then operating mining concessions in Spain, Egypt and Portugal. After studying jiujitsu in Japan for approximately three years, he returned to London and opened his Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in 1899.
The Bartitsu Club era was a relatively prosperous and happy time for Barton-Wright, but it was short-lived. By 1902, for reasons that are still unknown to us, the Club had ceased operating as a martial arts school. The instructors that Barton-Wright had gathered dispersed, and he himself spent the rest of his career working as a physical therapist.
Barton-Wright’s life was punctuated by genuine innovations and bold plans, but plagued by financial and legal problems. A bankruptcy suit brought by a disgruntled former employee in 1910 seems to have dealt his professional life a crippling blow. From 1938 onwards, his therapeutic clinic was in his own home, a small flat in the London suburb of Surbiton.
Despite having quite literally pioneered the teaching of the Japanese martial arts in the West, E.W. Barton-Wright died in obscurity and in virtual poverty; a forgotten eccentric. To the very last, though, he remained proud of his art of Bartitsu. In a 1950 interview with Gunji Koizumi, the founder of the London Budokwai judo club, Barton-Wright recalled:
I have always been interested in the arts of self-defence. And I learned various methods, including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate, the use of the stiletto under recognised masters, and by engaging regular ‘roughs’ I trained myself until I was satisfied in practical application. Then when I went to Japan, during my three years’ sojourn there, I studied Ju-jutsu under a local teacher in Kobe who specialised in the Kata form of instruction. I then met Prof. J. Kano, who gave me some lessons. On my return to England I founded an institution at which one could learn under specialised instructors all forms of sports and combative arts. For Ju-jutsu teachers, I asked my friends in Japan and Prof. Kano to select and to send … I then worked out a system of self-defence by combining the best of all the arts I learned and called it Bartitsu.
It was not until the 1990s that scholars began to realise E. W. Barton-Wright’s historical significance in the martial arts, not least being his radical innovation of Bartitsu as a method of cross-training between Asian and European fighting styles. The influence of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and the massive popularity of Mixed Martial Arts clearly vindicate Barton-Wright’s vision. Sadly, he was simply eighty years ahead of his time.
Barton-Wright was interred at Kingston Cemetery in Surbiton. For those who may wish to pay their respects, the relevant details are:
Section E (Consecrated), Grave no. 3012A
Note that, due to his having died in poverty, he was buried in a communal grave. A local ordinance forbids the placing of individual grave markers (gravestones) on these sites, because it is impossible to determine exactly where an individual is buried. Flowers may be left at the base of a tree growing from the grave.