The formidable W.H. Grenfell; 1st Baron Desborough and President of the Bartitsu Club

A short video demonstrating the athletic, historical and cultural significance of William Henry Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough, who is soon to be commemorated with a Sporting Legacy exhibition staged at his former home, Taplow Court, in Buckinghamshire, England.

The 6’5″ sportsman, aristocrat and parliamentarian was a larger than life figure in more ways than one.  The grounds of Taplow Court had yielded one of the most important Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds of the late 19th century, and the mansion itself was the salon of the clique of prominent politicians and intellectuals known at “The Souls“.

Among Grenfell’s many achievements as an Olympic athlete, adventurer and patron of numerous causes, he had been named as the President of the Bartitsu Club in Soho.  In fact, he provided one of the earliest references to that Club in an interview for the London Daily Mail during June of 1899:

“The idea,” said Mr. Grenfell, to a “Daily Mail” representative, “is to establish an athletic class for people of good standing, and it seemed to us best to establish it in the form of a club, so as to be able to exclude undesirable persons. So members will be able to come themselves, and to send their children and the ladies of their family for instruction with every assurance that they will be running no risk of objectionable associations.”

“Is Bartitsu, then, a sport for women and children?”

”Oh, we are not going to confine ourselves to Japanese wrestling. Athletic exercises of many kinds and physical culture will be taught, but with this difference, that physical culture will be taught in a new form, which will make it interesting.”

“And this new art of self-defence?”

”Bartitsu; that will be taught as part of the general scheme of physical culture. And you know it is very desirable to teach people how to protect themselves against violence.”

It is highly likely that Grenfell, along with his colleague Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, first became aware of E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” when Barton-Wright performed an exhibition at the famous Bath Club.  Grenfell was, at that time, the President of the latter Club as well – in fact, he held presidencies in numerous social and sporting institutions.  His enthusiastic patronage must have been a great boon to Barton-Wright, who always intended the Bartitsu Club to appeal to a wealthy clientele.  In the highly class-conscious London of 1900, the backing of a man like Grenfell was a prerequisite to respectability; however, it was not enough to sustain such a novel venture as the Bartitsu Club, which closed in early 1902.

William Grenfell was also instrumental in staging the 1908 London Olympiad, serving as the President of the Olympic Association and guiding the nascent Games through both triumph and tragedy.

The great tragedy of Grenfell’s private life, though, was that all three of his sons died young; Julian and Gerald were killed mere months apart in the chaos of the First World War, and Ivo died in a car accident in 1926.  Thus, when William himself died in 1945, the Barony of Desborough became extinct.

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon: Bartitsu Club member and Titanic survivor

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (22 July 1862 – 20 April 1931) was a prominent Scottish landowner and athlete who is today best known as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic Sea on April 15, 1912.

A keen fencer, Duff Gordon was also a member of the Bath Club, a London Club that featured an indoor swimming pool (a great novelty in the late 1800s) and counted many athletes among its members. He may well have witnessed Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright’s demonstration there in 1899.

Fencing and Bartitsu at the Bath Club, 1899

Duff Gordon’s colleague William Grenfell, the first Baron Desborough, was at that time the president of the Bath Club and likewise went on to become associated with Bartitsu, accepting the presidency of the Bartitsu Club.

In Bartitsu Club instructor Armand Cherpillod’s memoir La vie d’un champion: Cours de culture physique et de jiu-jitsu (1933), Cherpillod recalled a compliment paid to him by Duff Gordon, who had been one of his students. Cherpillod had successfully represented the Bartitsu Club in a challenge contest against the wrestler Joe Carroll. Duff Gordon, remarking on the public reaction to the Swiss Cherpillod defeating the English champion, was reported to have said “you did not only beat Carroll, but you punished England.”

Both Duff Gordon and Grenfell were members of the organising committee of the 1908 London Olympic Games.

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (right) poses with W. Bean and Captain MacDonnell,  holding duelling pistols and protective masks.

In 1912, Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife, the famous fashion designer Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon, became embroiled in a massive scandal surrounding the circumstances of their surviving the wreck of the Titanic. It was popularly alleged that the wealthy Duff Gordon had bribed members of the crew of their lifeboat not to return to help people left swimming for their lives as the ship sank.  He was fully cleared of these charges after an exhaustive inquiry, which accepted that, among many other details, Duff Gordon had not bribed the crewmen but rather gave each of them some money out of gratitude and to compensate them for their lost wages and jobs. Sadly, however, the unjust stigma of the scandal ruined his reputation and he spent much of the rest of his life shunning the public eye.

A recently discovered cache of letters by Cosmo and Lucy Duff Gordon offers a poignant perspective on one of the great tragedies of the early 20th century.

Defence Against “Hooligans”: Bartitsu Methods in London (1901)

An article by “S.L.B.” from “The Sketch”, April 10, 1901:

Last year, a very interesting exhibition of self defence was given at St. James’s Hall, and was the subject of prolonged discussion by many of the people present. Mr. Edward Barton-Wright, who gave the demonstration, was honoured with an invitation to repeat it before the Prince of Wales, but he met with a bicycle accident and the exhibition became impossible. It may be that the style of self-defence introduced to public notice would have failed to attract attention by reason of its novelty alone, but Mr. Barton-Wright had not mastered it without the firm intent to give it a fair chance before the public. He proceeded to found a Club at 67b, Shaftesbury Avenue, where physical culture may be studied under Professors of all nationalities, some of the best of the world’s athletes and sportsmen being engaged as instructors. To-day the work is in full swing, stimulated by the uprising of the “hooligan”.

In his early days, Mr. Barton-Wright was an engineer, and his duties took him into strange lands and among ill-disposed people. He had to go slowly, and to learn that the knowledge of boxing under the Queensberry rules, his sole accomplishment then among the arts of self-defence, is of little or no use against men who attack their opponents with feet as well as hands, from below the belt as well as above it, from the back as well as face-to-face, and with bludgeons, life-preservers, knives and other persuasive weapons. The straightforward stroke that, catching the ruffian upon the “point” or “mark”, disables him from further attempts, is of little or no good when it cannot be delivered, and in every city he visited the young engineer found more and more to learn.

Soon he was seized with the bright idea of combining the self-defence of all nations into a system that, when properly acquired, should enable a man to defy anything but firearms or a sudden stab in the dark.

The chief point to bear in mind was that an adequate system of defence must be able to meet any form of attack; the man who endeavours to disable you by kicking you in the stomach is entitled to as much respect and consideration as he who strives to garrote you, or to try the relative resisting powers of a loaded stick and your skull.

The Bartitsu Club, through its Professors, over whom Mr. Barton-Wright keeps an admonishing eye, guarantees you against all danger. In one corner is M. Vigny, the World’s Champion with the single-stick: the Champion who is the acknowledged master of savate trains his pupils in another. He could kill you and twenty like
you if he so desired in the interval between breakfast and lunch – but, as a matter of fact, he never does. He leads you gently on with gloves and single-stick, through the mazes of the arts, until, at last, with your trained eye and supple muscles, no unskilled brute force can put you out, literally or metaphorically.

In another part of the Club are more Champions, this time from far Japan, where self-defence is taken far more seriously than here. The Champion Wrestler of Osaka, or one of the shining lights among the trainers for the Tokio police, dressed in the picturesque garb of his corner of the Far East, will teach you once more of how little you know of the muscles that keep you perpendicular, and of the startling effects of sudden leverage properly applied. The Japanese Champions are terribly strong and powerful; at a private rehearsal of their work, given some two months ago on the Alhambra stage, I saw a little Jap. who is about five feet nothing in height and eight stone in weight, do just what he liked with a strong North of England wrestler more than six feet high, broad, muscular and confident. The little one ended by putting his opponent gently on his back, and the big one looked as if he did not know how it was done.

There is no form of grip that the Japanese jujitsu work does not meet and foil, and in Japan a policeman learns the jujitsu wrestling as part of his equipment for active service. One of the Club trainers was professionally engaged to teach the police in Japan before he came to England to serve under Mr. Barton-Wright.

When you have mastered the various branches of the work done at the Club, which includes a system of physical drill taught by another Champion, this time from Switzerland, the world is before you, even though a “Hooligan” be behind you. You are not only safe from attack, you can do just what you like with the attacking party. He is as helpless in your well-trained hands as a railway-engine in the hands of its driver. The “Hooligan” does not understand the principles on which he works; you do, and, if it pleases you to make his machinery ineffective for further assaults upon unoffending citizens, you can do so in a way that cannot be believed until it is seen. No part of South London need have terrors for you; Menilmontant, La Vilette and the shadier side of the Bois are as safe for you in Paris as the Place de l’Opera. I find myself wishing that the Bartitsu Club had been in Shaftesbury Avenue as recently as some five or six years ago, when shortly after midnight the slums of Soho would send forth ruffians at whose approach wise men sought the light.

The work of the Club makes a strong appeal to Englishmen, because they are naturally of an adventurous disposition and have a great aversion to the use of any but natural weapons of defence in the brawls that they are bound to encounter now and again. There is a keen pleasure in being able to turn the tables on a man who tries to assault us suddenly and by means that he relies upon to give him an unfair advantage. I am well assured that a few of Mr. Barton-Wright’s pupils sent into a district infested by “Hooligans” would do more to bring about law and order than a dozen casual arrests followed by committal with hard labour, with or without the “cat”. And there is an element of sport in the Bartitsu method that should appeal to any “Hooligan” with a sense of humour.

“Sherlock Holmes and Bartitsu”

E.W. Barton-Wright (left) and Sherlock Holmes (seated, right). is pleased to present this illustrated essay in three parts by Michael Bertram Wooster. Drawing from his grandfather’s memoirs and from the archives of the Vernet Foundation (Paris), amongst other sources, Mr. Wooster’s essay details the hitherto mysterious collaboration between famed consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and E.W. Barton-Wright in devising the latter’s “New Art of Self Defence”, Bartitsu.

Part One details Holmes’ enthusiasm for physical culture, his growing fascination with Asian martial arts and association with judo founder Jigoro Kano.

Part Two offers insight into Holmes’ meeting and subsequent friendship with E.W. Barton-Wright and the genesis of the Bartitsu Club in Soho.

Part Three outlines the eventual downfall of the Bartitsu Club, the further activities of both Holmes and Barton-Wright and finally resolves the mystery of Holmes’ “baritsu” as recorded by his colleague, Dr. John Watson.

We hope that you enjoy the journey.

Members of the Original Bartitsu Club

Although E.W. Barton-Wright’s martial arts school was only open for a few years, it attracted some notable members and students.

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon was a keen fencer who also studied Swiss wrestling at the Club, under the tutelage of Armand Cherpillod.  Gordon later achieved notoriety as one of the few adult male survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic; he was charged with having bribed the lifeboat crew members not to rescue others from the water, though his defence was that he was grateful to them and was trying to reward their courage.

Captain Alfred Hutton taught historical fencing classes at the Bartitsu Club and also appears to have studied jiujitsu there.  Along with his colleague, the novelist Egerton Castle, Hutton was largely responsible for reviving the practice of competitive fencing in England during the late 19th century, and their studies of “ancient swordplay” – the use of the rapier and dagger, two-handed sword, etc. – presaged the modern Historical European Martial Arts movement by the best part of a century.

Captain (later Sir) Ernest George Stenson Cooke and Captain Frank Herbert Whittow were members of both the Bartitsu Club and of Hutton’s training group at the London Rifle Brigade’s School of Arms.  They participated in numerous martial arts exhibitions, including several that combined Bartitsu with historical fencing, at the turn of the 20th century.

Captain F.C. Laing was a keen Bartitsu student who cross-trained in jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting while on leave from the Army.  Returning to active duty in India, Laing wrote an article describing his training and detailing a number of Vigny/Bartitsu walking stick defence techniques.

William Henry Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough, was described by a contemporary as being “the very pattern and model of an English sporting gentleman.”  A fencer, big-game hunter and mountaineer, he swam the rapids at Niagara Falls twice, climbed the Matterhorn three times, rowed across the English Channel and was the amateur punting champion of the upper Thames.  Bartitsu would probably have counted amongst his milder pursuits.