Jiujitsu: “not so much of a novelty” circa 1900?

I do not recognise a trip, throw or hold in the Japanese method which is not to be found in the Lancashire, Devonshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, Greco-Roman or Catch-hold styles. Even the scissors-throw has been practiced by rongas and poachers since time immemorial, and is known among them as the ‘Salisbury Shake’. – Professor Andrew Newton

At the height of the early 1900s controversy surrounding the efficiency of Japanese unarmed combat, it was not uncommon for critics to suggest that jiujitsu was, in fact, nothing new at all; that similar or identical methods were already known in the Western world. Charles Charlemont, championing the cause of French kickboxing against the supposed novelties of jiujitsu, responded to a journalist’s question by remarking:

What do I think of this jiujitsu, which is attaining such excellent publicity? I think that it has been here in Europe for a long time. The proof is here.

… and drew from his library a copy of the book Clear Instructions on the Excellent Art of Wrestling (1674). The parallels between the method detailed in that book and jiujitsu were not lost on Bartitsu Club instructor Capt. Alfred Hutton, who included an escort technique from Clear Instructions in his monograph on Ju Jitsu for Schoolboys.

Similarly, Police Sergeant G.H. Wheeldon was to note:

I might say that with the exception of one throw, the whole of the throws in Ju-jutsu are to be found in the Cornish or the Cumberland and Westmoreland styles. Also the scissors-hold belongs to the catch-as-catch-can, and I can prove this by books published in 1826, many years before Japan opened her doors to other nations.

It’s true that nationalistic sentiment was rife during the Edwardian era and also that there are, in fact, many common techniques between traditional Japanese and English wrestling styles. It’s also true that some of the most vehement critics were evidently not aware of the full jiujitsu repertoire. Still, it’s intriguing to speculate about the parallel tradition of unorthodox fighting tricks hinted at in some of these comments.

As described in the 1913 book The Walled City: a Story of the Criminal Insane, by Edward Huntington Williams, there had apparently existed an un-named system of control and escort holds, clandestinely practiced among workers in American psychiatric hospitals and dating back to the mid-19th century:

None of these methods were countenanced by any of the officers in control of any institution; and, in truth, a large number of the officers never even suspected their existence, although the attendants sometimes used them under the very noses of their superior officers, without detection, or without injury to the patient. And when the much advertised Japanese jiu jitsu took the country by storm as a novelty a few years ago these veteran attendants had their little laugh all to themselves. It wasn’t so much of a novelty to them as to the generality of people.

Even earlier, self defence “tricks” far outside the rules of boxing and wrestling had frequently been appended to manuals on orthodox combat sports, or occasionally catalogued in books such as the Baron Charles de Berenger’s How to Protect Life and Property (1838). As the anonymous author of the article Tricks of Self Defence (1899) put it:

“There is a lot of talk about new methods of self-defence,” said an old sporting man, “but it seems to me that it is only an elaboration of what almost every man who followed the game in past days had to know or go under.

It’s entirely possible that some of the unusual techniques recorded in early 20th century jiujitsu manuals were remnants of this informal tradition, which likely comprised equal parts improvisation, word-of-mouth example and “gym wisdom” passed along by generations of athletes, street fighters and police trainers. In a sense, perhaps, Barton-Wright’s introduction of jiujitsu and development of Bartitsu offered a framework by which some of these tricks could be practiced and recorded.

Bartitsu and historical fencing

“The fence of the case of rapiers, as of all the other Elizabethan weapons, is much in vogue at the present time at the Bartitsu Club, now the headquarters of ancient swordplay in this country …”
– Captain Alfred Hutton, “The Sword and the Centuries” (1902)

Alfred Hutton was at the centre of the late-Victorian revival of “ancient swordplay”, or historical fencing styles including the use of the raper and dagger, sword and handbuckler and two-handed sword. Beginning in the 1880s he had tutored a small but enthusiastic group of students, most initially in their young teens, via a boys’ club attached to the School of Arms of the London Rifle Brigade.

Hutton and his colleague, the novelist Egerton Castle, organised a number of historical fencing exhibitions during the 1890s. By 1900 Hutton’s cadre of Elizabethan swordsmen had performed throughout the city of London and had even been invited to demonstrate their skills at a grand “Festival of Historical Swordplay” in Belgium.

Shortly after E.W. Barton-Wright returned to London from Japan and started promoting his new Bartitsu method, he joined Hutton on the lecture/demonstration circuit. Mixed Bartitsu and historical fencing exhibitions were held, most notably at the exclusive Bath Club and at a fund-raising event for Guy’s Hospital.

Hutton joined a number of notables, including politicians and minor nobility, in supporting Barton-Wright’s desire to establish a permanent training academy. When B-W opened his Bartitsu Club in Soho, Hutton began holding historical fencing classes there as well. His students included some prominent London actors, who studied historical fencing for use in stage combat, as well as young men from the L.R.B. School of Arms. Hutton also served on the Club’s Committee, which approved or declined applications from would-be Bartitsu Club members.

Given Barton-Wright’s emphasis on Bartitsu as practical self defence, it’s unlikely that historical fencing per se was considered to be a formal part of the Bartitsu curriculum. It is evident, however, that informal cross-training did take place; Hutton offered a glowing review of Pierre Vigny’s method of self defence with a walking stick, and even demonstrated that method during a 1902 newspaper interview. It’s also likely that he took some jiujitsu lessons at the Club, either with Barton-Wright or with instructors Yukio Tani or Sadakazu Uyenishi. Hutton produced a monograph on jiujitsu techniques for schoolboys and later offered a jiujitsu-based class in humane control and restraint techniques for doctors working in London psychiatric hospitals.

Sadly, the untimely closure of the Bartitsu Club seems to have brought an end to the collaborations between Barton-Wright and Hutton. But during the year 1901, when the Club was a hive of activity, one might have signed up for classes in recreational rapier or longsword fencing alongside jiujitsu, boxing, wrestling and walking stick defence. It must have been quite the scene.