“Bartitsu: Its Exponent Interviewed” (1901)

The following interview with Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette of 5 September 1901, during the height of the Bartitsu Club era.


One of our contributors lately called on Mr. Barton-Wright in his well-appointed gymnasium in Shaftesbury Avenue, when the following conversation took place:

What is the word Bartitsu? – It is a compound word, made up of parts of my own name, and of the Japanese Ju-jitsu, which means fighting to the last.

What do you claim for your system? – It teaches a man to defend himself effectively without firearms or any other weapons than a stick or umbrella, against the attack or another, perhaps much stronger or heavier than himself.

How does it differ from the usual fencing or boxing? – The fencing and boxing generally taught in schools-of-arms is too academic. Although it trains the eye to a certain extent, it is of little use except as a game played with persons who will observe the rules. Most of the hits in (single)stick or sabre play are taken up by the hilt, which a man is not very likely to take out with him on his walks. The head, too, which is a part which an assailant who means business would naturally go for, is so well protected that the learner gets careless of exposing it.

And the boxing? – The same objection. The amateur is seldom taught how to hit really hard, which is what you must do in a row. Nor is he protected against the savate, which would certainly be used on him by foreign ruffians, or the cowardly kicks often given by the English Hooligan. A little knowledge of boxing is really rather a disadvantage to (the defender) if his assailant happens to be skilled at it, because (the assailant) will will know exactly how his victim is likely to hit and guard.

And you can teach any one to protect himself against all this? – Certainly. The walking-stick play we will show you directly. As to boxing, we have guards which are not at all like the guards taught in schools, and which will make the assailant hurt his own hand and arm very seriously. So we teach a savate not at all like the French savate, but much more deadly, and which, if properly used, will smash the opponent’s ankle or even his ribs. Even if it be not used, it is very useful in teaching the pupil to keep his feet, which are almost as important in a scrimmage as his head.

Anything else? – My own experience is that the biggest man in a fight generally tries to close. By the grips or clutches I can teach, the biggest man can be seized and made powerless in a few seconds.

If you sow this knowledge broadcast it might be bad for the police. – Yes; but it cannot be picked up without a regular course of instruction, or merely by seeing the tricks. Moreover, this is a club with a committee of gentlemen, among whom are Lord Alwyne Compton, Mr. Herbert Gladstone, and others, and no-one is taught here unless we are satisfied that he is not likely to make bad use of his knowledge.

It must have taken you some time to work out all this? – Yes, but it was in great measure a matter of necessity. As a mining engineer in all parts of the world, I have often had to deal with very unscrupulous fighters, and, being a light man, I had to protect myself with something else than my fists.

Mr. Barton-Wright then gave our contributor a demonstration of his method. His fencing-master, M. Pierre Vigny, stripped to the waist and without any other weapon than an ordinary walking-stick, will allow you to attack him with singlestick, sabre, knife or any other short weapon without your being able to touch him, he taking all blows on what fencers call the forte of his stick. He will at the same time reply on your head, and knuckles; while, if he is given a stick with the ordinary crook handle, he will catch you by the arm, leg or back of the neck, inflicting in nearly every case a nasty fall. He has also a guard in boxing on which you will hurt your own arm without getting within his distance, while he can kick you on the chin, in the wind, or on the ankle. As to the usual brutal kick of the London rough, his guard for it (not difficult to learn) will cause the rough to break his own leg, and the harder he kicks the worse it will be for him.

Mr. Barton-Wright himself shows you wrestling tricks, by which, by merely taking hold of a man’s hand, you have him at your mercy, and can throw him on the ground or lead him about as you wish, the principle being, apparently, that you set your muscles and joints against your opponent’s in such a way that the more he struggles, the more he hurts himself.

A couple decidedly bad to beat.

An interview with Kirk Lawson

A revised and updated edition of Kirk Lawson‘s book Banned from Boxing: The Forgotten Grappling Techniques of Classic Pugilism is now available from this site.

What was your original motivation to write “Banned from Boxing”?

More than a decade ago I started working with Ken Pfrenger, a noted martial researcher in his own right, and he introduced me to old school boxing. He called it “Classic Pugilism” to differentiate it from modern boxing. Ken introduced me to strikes that aren’t used any longer in modern boxing and other elements including, surprisingly enough to me, grappling. Oh, I was familiar with blending boxing and grappling; MMA was in full swing by then, but the idea that grappling had been included, then was removed, and now was making its way back in captivated me. What’s more, so few people knew that grappling had been such an important part of boxing. Sure, there were a few people who had read some of the antique manuals, but the vast majority of both boxers and more traditional martial artists (read: “Asian stylists”) had no idea and, indeed, would sometimes scoff at the suggestion.

I recall similar reactions when awareness of historical fencing first started to penetrate into other martial spheres.

As I became more familiar with the work of bygone pugilists I became more and more convinced that their style of boxing needed to be remembered in the modern era. In particular the grappling, because, well, to be honest, that is what held my attention. Though I suppose I justified it by telling myself that the grappling was the largest, perhaps the most important, chunk of what had been forgotten. While true, I just simply had developed a minor obsession with the material.

Additionally, I hoped to address the lack of a solid naming convention for these old techniques. One of the advantages of doing modern Judo, for instance, is that a given technique has the same name in Ohio, California, Germany, and Japan and has for the last century. Not so with the old pugilistic grappling. Often I would find 2 or 3 old authors agree on a name, but then there would be 1 or 2 others who would show the same technique in the illustrations but call it something else. So I hoped to be able to apply common, consistent names.

How have your readers responded to the first edition?

The response has been far greater and more positive than I ever could have guessed. I always knew that antique boxing techniques would be somewhat niche but the interest seems to have broken stylistic boundaries.

That’s usually a good thing.

Many readers look on the material as a historic curiosity but, because they love historic curiosities, they read the material anyway, even though they don’t believe the “antiquated” material to have much modern application. On the other hand there are a whole series of different modern martial artists who have interest and express that they feel the material is applicable, either directly or indirectly, to their studies. These range from modern boxers interested in expanding their repertoire, MMA fans looking for something a bit different from the other guys, Asian stylist interested in martial arts in general, and the growing Western Martial Arts community looking for historic accuracy.

Have you seen interest from any unexpected quarters?

Quite surprising to me is interest coming from the direction of Steampunk enthusiasts who are also looking for historically accurate material to give their hobby an additional dimension and new flavor.

What is new in the second edition?

While the second edition is an evolution of the first, it’s not just a series of spelling corrections and slightly updated photographs. Since I published the first edition, I have continued to read and republish other antique boxing manuals and kept coming across great new material and illustrations which I was dying to add to the book. After collecting and organizing the new material, I ended up with 60 or 70 individual notes ranging from “re-write this paragraph” to specific authors’ advice on specific techniques like Owen Swift’s advice on the Cross-Buttock or Shaw’s break for Front Chancery. In the end I had updated 11 of the chapters, added 19 completely new historic illustrations, and a half dozen or so new sources.

Freshest in my mind, and perhaps most intriguing to some, is new material in the chapter “Pull the Hair, Poke the Eye, Oh My!” Here I added material which is best termed “Pressure Point Attacks” in historic boxing. It kind of surprised me the first time I saw these sort of attacks in the antique manuals, but there they were. It’s not a large section but I expect it to be the most attention grabbing.

Finally, as a Bartitsu instructor yourself, how would you say the material in “Banned from Boxing” can be relevant to Bartitsu, or neo-Bartitsu?

Well, it’s obviously all speculation and informed guesswork. However, this material blends historic boxing and grappling in a way similar to what we think Barton-Wright was teaching. With that in mind, the material in “Banned from Boxing” can easily act as a bridge between the historic “striking” material and grappling. The old boxers had a specific skill set and a long tradition of mixing the two within the confines of their sport so I think there’s a lot that we can glean from what they were doing and move it forward into the speculative neo-Bartitsu context.

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson on Bartitsu

Popular science fiction author Neal Stephenson‘s comments on Bartitsu, from a recent interview with the UK Daily Telegraph:

“So we’d mostly been doing longsword, in my little group,” says Stephenson. Ropes of muscle on his forearms attest to this, as do the pictures online of a Stephenson-designed spring-loaded practice sword that flexes on impact to soften a blow. “But we became interested in cane-fighting, which was taught in London a hundred years ago or so as part of this school of Bartitsu, founded by EW Barton-Wright, a railway engineer who’d picked up ju-jitsu in Japan. And he brought in a Swiss guy called Vigny who’d taken informal methods of walking-stick-fu and codified them into a system called la canne: he taught the part of the curriculum which involved fighting with walking sticks.”

No way, I say.

“Yeah. There’s a whole curriculum over fighting with bicycles. Pictures of an Edwardian lady in a floor-length dress and a huge hat with flowers, riding primly down a country lane, and when a ruffian comes out she uses some trick with the bicycle to flatten him and rides off. It’s great stuff. The bicycles we’re not sure how to approach, but we’ve created a little assembly line to make rattan canes, with a knob on the end. But there’s, you know, how to use a bicycle pump as a weapon. How to defend yourself with a parasol. Crazy.”