Fun and games at the London Bath Club

The famous Bath Club features significantly in the history of Bartitsu.  Founded at #34 Dover Street in 1894, the Club was named for its large indoor swimming pool – a great novelty at the time.  The pool featured several diving boards and a “Newman’s water-chute” for sliding, as well as a flying trapeze and a set of “travelling rings” suspended from the ceiling, challenging the most athletic Club members to traverse the length of the pool without getting wet.

The Club building was also equipped with a fencing salon and a gymnasium as well as steam-rooms, showers, an opulent dining room and “overnight rooms”.  A comparatively progressive institution, membership was available to both men and women; the latter had their own dedicated entrance, a gesture which might be read either as condescension or as extravagant courtesy, or possibly both at once.

In March of 1899 the Bath Club was the venue for one of E.W. Barton-Wright’s jiujitsu demonstrations.  He later noted that he had been awarded a membership in the Club due to his feat of defeating seven larger men within three minutes at a previous display.  The Bath Club demonstration was, notably, the first time Barton-Wright had collaborated with the famed historical fencing revivalist, Captain Alfred Hutton, who later joined the teaching staff at Barton-Wright’s own Bartitsu Club.

This event may well also have been Barton-Wright’s introduction to Hutton’s rapier-and-dagger fencing partner, William Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough.  A notable athlete and a prolific public servant, Grenfell was the president of the Bath Club and he was to go on to become the president of the Bartitsu Club. Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon was another famous Bath Club member who subsequently also joined the Bartitsu Club.

The Bath Club was the venue for several other unusual sporting displays, including a peculiar spectacle organised by Alfred Hutton two months after the Bartitsu display. “Water tilting” was a one-off revival of a type of aquatic jousting, which had apparently been amongst Henry VIII’s favourite sports.  According to a newspaper report:

A large and gaily dressed assemblage watched the pair of old-fashioned-looking warriors tilt at one another in the waters of the bath, one of them holding a long spear (with padded point) and a stout leather buckler, the other paddling behind him in the cranky craft, which only just held both when both were evenly balanced. The two shallow boats put out from their respective ends at the word ‘Go,’ and one pair were soon struggling in the water, amidst the merriment of the audience.

The new sport of water polo was also a great attraction:

In 1910, the Club hosted an exhibition of a “novel and exciting aero-swimming game” in which competitors equipped with elaborate kite-like gliders leaped off one of the diving platforms, endeavouring to soar a short distance before their flight came to an inevitably wet end:

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.