Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani in action?

This newsreel clip was shot at a gala day at London’s Kensington Palace Field in the year 1928. The first half features a boxing exhibition by Alf Mancini, who was scheduled to fight Jack Hood at Birmingham for the British Welterweight Championship.

Of particular interest to Bartitsu and British jujitsu/judo history buffs, though, is the second half of the clip, which features an exhibition of judo (described as “advanced ju-jitsu”) as demonstrated by members of the “Bodokwai” (sic – should read Budokwai).

Although it’s impossible to be certain, the tori (executor of the techniques) in the judo demonstration bears a very strong resemblance to former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani, who was the first professional instructor employed by the Budokwai.


Tani aged about 40 (left), about 20 (centre) and executing a restraint technique against Budokwai founder Gunji Koizumi (right). Note the distinctive bald spot on Tani’s head in the latter picture, and compare with that of the tori in the newsreel; the photograph was taken circa 1932.

Eight years before this newsreel was shot, Tani had been formally awarded the second dan black belt rank in Kodokan judo by Professor Jigoro Kano. That recognition built upon Tani’s already vast experience as a jujitsu instructor and challenge wrestler, which dated back to his arrival in London during 1900 at the invitation of Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright. Tani would have been about 45 years old when the newsreel was shot.

If this is film footage of Yukio Tani, it represents one of only two such films known to exist, the other being a two-second shot of the then-56 year old Tani that appears at 00.25 in this 1937 newsreel:

Yukio Tani suffered a severe stroke in 1937, but he continued to teach from the sidelines of the Budokwai mats until his death on January 24th, 1950.

The only other film known to depict a former Bartitsu Club instructor in action is this re-animation of cinematographic film frames that were used to illustrate Sadakazu Uyenishi‘s “Textbook of Ju-Jitsu”:

Captain Alfred Hutton writes about his friends at the London Bartitsu Club

Captain Alfred Hutton was among the instructors who taught various branches of “antagonistics” at E.W. Barton-Wright’s School of Arms in London circa 1900.  One of England’s most prominent and respected swordsmen, Hutton was also the president of the Amateur Fencing Association and a pioneering practitioner of revived Elizabethan era fencing with weapons such as the rapier and dagger.

Although Hutton’s specialties do not appear to have been formally included as aspects of Bartitsu, it’s evident that there a good deal of cross-training took place at the Bartitsu Club; for a complete account, see Ancient Swordplay: the Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London.

In an article for The Press newspaper (8 February 1904, Page 10), Captain Hutton reminisced about some colourful characters and incidents from his long experience of fencing.  He also offered the following remarks upon his Bartitsu Club colleagues and their methods of antagonistics:

Before bringing my passing recollections to a close as regards people I have met, and as having been more especially connected with the use of defensive and offensive weapons, I should like to refer to my friend Monsieur Pierre Vigny, a Swiss gentleman, devoted to all athletic exercises, and certainly master of the art of self defence by means of an ordinary walking-stick, a Malacca cane being preferred.  The exercise is most useful in case of attack by footpads, most interesting as a sport, and most exhilarating in a game. It beats single-stick.  However, it would take far too long for me to give further explanations.

There is another new development of athleticism which I strongly advocate, viz., Ju-jitsu, or Japanese wrestling.  I am too old to go in for regular wrestling as it obtains in Japan, easy as it may look, but my good friends Uyenishi and Tani put me up to about eighty kata, or tricks, which even at my age may one day or another come in useful. In modified form the art might be advantageously practised by a small boy when meeting a great hulking bully; indeed, the successful way in which a twelve-year-old friend of mine who knew some tricks of Japanese wrestling floored his parent in my presence was most instructive in spite of its apparent disrespect.

My Japanese friends tell me it is one of the most amusing sights to watch the little native policemen in Japan throwing and capturing huge, stalwart, European sailors who have supped not wisely but too well.

These anecdotes clearly demonstrate that Hutton took a keen practical interest in the classes offered by his fellow Bartitsu Club “professors”. He occasionally demonstrated the Vigny method of self defence with a walking stick during interviews, and he offered a somewhat more detailed account of the Vigny system in his book The Sword and the Centuries.  It was also in that book that he described the Bartitsu Club as being “the headquarters of ancient swordplay in England”.

As it turned out, Hutton did find use for some of the 80 “kata” he learned from Tani and Uyenishi, beginning when he penned a short monograph on Ju Jitsu, or Japanese Wrestling, for Schoolboys. A few years later, Hutton demonstrated a number of jujitsu “tricks” for a panel of doctors working in one of London’s psychiatric hospitals.  This was almost certainly the first time Asian martial arts had been applied towards the problem of humane self defence and restraint in a therapeutic environment.

Review: “100 Years of Judo in Great Britain”, Volume 1

This review is specific to Volume 1 of a two-part series of books by the late judoka and historian Richard Bowen (1926-2005), whose extensive private collection of judo/jujitsu books and ephemera now forms the Bowen Collection at Bath University.

The “Reclaiming of its true spirit” subtitle is curious, in that aside from a few scattered editorial comments, the book does not actually address reclaiming judo’s “true spirit”. Rather, Volume 1 of 100 Years of Judo in Great Britain offers a very thorough history of the early 20th century personalities and politics of jujitsu and judo in the UK, with generous asides exploring Japanese martial arts in the USA and elsewhere during the same period.

Bowen was obviously a devoted and very careful scholar, with long-term access to rare archives, diaries etc. in addition to in-depth first-hand knowledge of the subject and many of its principal figures. Specific to Bartitsu, he performed pioneering research into the lives of Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright, music hall challenge wrestlers Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi and strongman/jujitsu promoter William “Apollo” Bankier, amongst many other notables. 100 Years of Judo in Great Britain cites and offers extensive quotes from numerous c1900 newspaper articles, etc. that promise to open new doors for contemporary Bartitsu researchers. Also, students of Brazilian jujitsu/MMA history will be interested to read about Mitsuyo “Conde Koma” Maeda’s early experiences as a challenge wrestler in London.

Perhaps unavoidably, given that the book was published posthumously, some sections are obviously better polished than others. Frustratingly at times, there are no chapter headings, contents pages nor index, though there are almost 100 pages of carefully annotated end-notes. The proof-reading also leaves quite a lot to be desired. Ultimately, though, these are minor quibbles in comparison with the absolute wealth of knowledge and detail to be found in this book. It is a unique and very valuable contribution to martial arts scholarship.

Uyenishi vs. the Guardsman

An interesting snippet from the August 4th, 1905 edition of the Auckland Star, describing a contest between former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi and the wrestling champion of the Royal Horse Guards.

A tremendous struggle took place in the riding school at Windsor recently between Corporal Shoeingsmith Fraser, of the Royal Horse Guards (of which regiment he is champion wrestler), and Professor S. K. Uyenishi, the well-known instructor in the art of Japanese self-defence, of Golden Square, W.C. Mr Uyenishi, who has been appointed instructor in his art in the Aldershot Gymnasium, came over by motor-car from the famous camp to give a display.

On his request for an opponent from the audience, Corporal Fraser came forward amid loud applause. The little man certainly took on a stiff bargain, as the giant guardsman must have weighed nearly twice as much as he, but after a truly Titanic struggle he succeeded in hurling the soldier clean over his head on to the platform. Mr Uyenishi admitted that Fraser was the most difficult man he had ever had to deal with, and it must be confessed that the contest was a wonderful example of how futile the greatest strength is made to appear when pitted against the wonderful Japanese science. Two very interested spectators were Prince Alexander of Teck and Major-General Baden-Powell.

Professors of self defence

I resolved on putting myself into the hands of some professor of self-defence, who whilst he knocked me about for his amusement, and worked me into a state of complete exhaustion for my improvement in condition as for his own benefit in pocket, should teach me that noble science …

– The works of G.J. Whyte-Melville, Volume 7 (1899)

Although the term “professor of self defence” sounds odd to modern ears, attuned to associate professorship with formal academia, professors of that subject (and of boxing, physical culture, etc.) were common at the time E.W. Barton-Wright opened his Bartitsu School of Arms in London. In fact, Barton-Wright himself was referred to as a professor of self defence by reporter Mary Nugent, in her December 1901 article “Barton-Wright and his Japanese Wrestlers”.

Typically, a professor of self defence circa 1900 was a combat athlete in his post-competitive years, when and if they turned to teaching their skills. In some cases, such as that of Bartitsu School instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi, the term was used to describe still-active competitors who also worked as self defence teachers. Never, apparently, a “rank” to be awarded, antagonistic professorship was simply an honourific title, equivalent to the Japanese sensei or the modern English coach.

… the services of Professor Sandow, Captain Alfred Hutton, Mr Eustace Miles, Mr Fry, and a professional boxer (could) be commandeered, with some capable doctor to assist them. Perhaps, also, some professor of jiu jitsu would be useful, and these distinguished persons could then safely be left to devise a new and improved ‘battel.’

– Chambers’s Journal (1906)

Professorship has also been retained, or has evolved into a specific rank in some contemporary martial arts, including Gracie jiu-jitsu, capoeira and kenpo as well as various Filipino martial arts. Curiously, one of the few similar instances of the original implications having survived in modern English is that of traditional Punch and Judy puppeteers, who are customarily called professors.

Although the implications of the word “professor” became increasingly specialised in 20th and 21st century English, and are commonly understood to refer to formal academic rank, the Merriam Webster dictionary offers several definitions:

1: one that professes, avows, or declares
2: a) a faculty member of the highest academic rank at an institution of higher education
b) a teacher at a university, college, or sometimes secondary school
c) one that teaches or professes special knowledge of an art, sport, or occupation requiring skill

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.

William E. Steers and the Hilltop dojo

(With thanks to the late Richard Bowen as well as to John Bowen and Joe Svinth.)

William E. Steers is one of the “mystery men” of the early British jiujitsu scene. His name appears in connection with those of many more famous figures – London Budokwai principal Gunji Koizumi, judo founder Jigoro Kano, soldier/author/journalist E.J. Harrison and pioneering challenge wrestlers Mitsuyo Maeda, Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi.

Unfortunately, few biographical details are available, and those that are offer a scattershot impression of William Steers. We know that he was born circa 1857. Contemporary sources noted him as having been an auditor for the British Ministry of Munitions; he was also an “extraordinary scholar” and a member of the Society of Arts. By the age of forty he had evidently travelled widely in various capacities throughout the British Empire, possibly as far away as New Zealand.

In 1903 Steers set sail for Japan, where he befriended E.J. Harrison and began training in jiujitsu. Returning to London the following year, Steers joined the Golden Square dojo of former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi. There he made the acquaintance of Gunji Koizumi, who had recently arrived from Liverpool where he had been briefly affiliated with the highly dubious Kara Ashikaga School of Jiujitsu. During this period Steers may also have studied with Mitsuyo Maeda, a prominent competitor on the professional wrestling circuit.

Circa 1909, Steers commissioned the design and construction of an extraordinary house in the Surrey Downs. As it was built atop one of the highest hills in the Tandridge district, near the town of Caterham, Steers named his new home “Hilltop”.

Created by the architectural firm of Parker and Unwin, Hilltop featured a unique blending of Japanese aesthetics with those of the then-burgeoning English Arts and Crafts movement. According to an article in The Craftsman journal of 1910:

By a life spent in close study of the characters and customs of many nations, perhaps more especially of the Japanese, he has gained that breadth of outlook which much travel alone can give, and has come to feel that we have much to learn from the older civilizations of the East, civilizations which on the other hand, we of the West are beginning to mar.

It’s likely that the gi-wearing figure standing in the doorway in the following picture is Steers himself:

The interior of the house featured a graceful combination of Asian and European motifs:

 

However, by far the most unusual feature of Hilltop was its gymnasium, which melded the typical features of an Edwardian physical culture studio with those of a Japanese martial arts dojo.

Quoting the architect:

… when Mr. Steers came to settle in England it was his wish to do this in a home and among surroundings which would make it possible for him to practice and demonstrate to others what he had come to believe in. His position being as follows:—that it is everyone’s first duty to society and to himself or herself to be always in the most perfect health possible. He even goes so far as to say that few of us are justified in being ill, and would put no duty before that of keeping in perfect health, claiming that only when this has been accomplished are we capable of our best in any sphere, and that it is our duty never to give anything short of our best.

Believing in the physical and perhaps even greater mental alertness and agility resulting from the practice of the Japanese art of self-defense, jiujitsu, he would have it taught in our schools and colleges, to our military, naval and police forces. He holds that its practice gives a physical, mental and moral self-reliance which nothing else can.

One of the principal rooms of his house had therefore to be so planned as to give ample facilities for the practice of this art, while at the same time it was not to be spoiled for the many other uses to which it might be put. On the accompanying plans this room is called the gymnasium. It is worthy of careful study from both decorator and athlete.

It was not possible to secure quite as much sunshine in this room as could have been wished, partly owing to considerations for its privacy and partly to the necessary position for the living room. The gymnasium, however, gets all the northeast, east and southeast sun there may be, that is the morning sun, and its use as a gymnasium is almost entirely in the morning. The front of this room being composed of rolling shutters and large opening windows through which one enters onto an exercising lawn, terminating in an open-air swimming bath, necessitated extreme privacy and therefore an aspect away from the road which runs by the south end of the house. The room is carried to the full height of the house—that is, two stories—so, when the rolling shutters, together with the French windows on either side of them and the row of windows above are all open, as is almost always the case, the room is a very high one with practically one side open; in fact, it becomes a three-walled room. This sense of openness and airiness may be experienced which would be unobtainable in a less lofty room, even though as open in front. The floor, like a dancing floor, is carried on springs, and is covered with Japanese reed mats two inches thick. A dressing room and bath are connected with the gymnasium.

In summer, with mattresses thrown down at night upon the reed mats and the front thrown open, this room becomes one of the most delightful sleeping apartments imaginable. The Japanese custom of having no apartments set aside exclusively for sleeping in is one that Mr. Steers holds we might well adopt. Is it not possible that in some of our smaller houses we could frequently with advantage so adapt the furniture in some of the rooms in which part of our daily occupations are performed, that by simply throwing down mattresses and bedclothes when night comes we could sleep quite comfortably? Some claim that it is unhealthy to sleep at night in a room used in the daytime; surely this idea belongs to the days when it was customary to keep all windows closed. In these days when we all appreciate the hygienic value of fresh air and no longer open windows merely to “air the room,” but live with the windows open day and night, this claim can have no significance.

The decoration of the gymnasium was undertaken by Mr. Hugh Wallis of Altrincham. He was asked to go to Caterham, to stand in the middle of the room and imagine he was standing in a green glade or clearing in a forest, then to paint on the rough plaster of the walls the vistas among the trees, their foliage, boles, stems and branches, glimpses of sky and distant landscape, and in the foreground, characteristic woodland flowers in the grass. When the artist reached Caterham, however, the spirit of the delightful Surrey scenery surrounding him took so great a hold of the imagination that he had perforce to reproduce it in his delightfully decorative style. The vistas between the trees widened out and became filled with glimpses of distant country, broadening finally into wide peaceful scenes in the luxuriant Surrey countryside.

According to British judo historian Richard Bowen, Steers shared Hilltop with fellow jujitsuka E. H. Nelson, who had helped to organise their teacher Sadakazu Uyenishi’s “Text-Book of Ju-Jitsu”. Strangely, however, Steers was only to occupy Hilltop for a few years. In 1911 he sold the property and the following year he returned to Japan, where he enrolled at the Kodokan in Tokyo and became a student of Jigoro Kano’s. Kano later described Steers as having been the most earnest foreign student he had ever taught. At the age of fifty-five Steers was awarded the black belt rank in Kodokan judo, being only the second Westerner ever to achieve that rank.

Re-settling in London, Steers continued to display an almost evangelical zeal for judo, most especially for its emphasis on both moral and physical fitness. In 1918, at the age of sixty-one, he gave a speech entitled “A Perfect Manhood, or, Judo of the Kodokwan”. During the lecture he advocated free tuition in judo for almost every English citizen and performed a demonstration of “hand-throws, waist-throws, leg-throws, and lateral and frontal sutemi – a sacrifice for a gain.” This event aroused huge enthusiasm within the newly-founded London Budokwai, whose members sent copies of the text to many hundreds of politicians and educational institutions. Unfortunately, nothing came of their efforts.

Steers became Budokwai member number 52 and went on to become the clubs’ first honourary secretary. He was responsible for introducing his friend E.J. Harrison to the club, and later, the prominent American martial artist and scholar Robert W. Smith.

Steers’ most historically significant accomplishment, though, was that he was instrumental in forging ties between the London Budokwai and the Kodokan. In 1920 the Budokwai hosted a visit by Professor Kano and 4th-dan instructor Aida Hikochi, and thereafter the club officially took up the study of judo. Both former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani and Gunji Koizumi were accredited Kodokan 2nd-dan black belts, with Tani becoming the Budokwai’s first professional teacher. This shift marked the end of the era of eclectic “British jiujitsu” begun in 1898 by E.W. Barton-Wright, and the beginning of the formal development of judo in the UK.

William E. Steers died in his early 70s during the year 1930.

The case of the imaginary sensei

Eager would-be students of jiujitsu in early Edwardian England had limited options to learn the mysterious Japanese art of self defence. During the period 1899-1902 the Bartitsu Club in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue was literally the only jiujitsu school in England. By 1906, however, there were several more dojo operating in the UK, with greater or lesser degrees of legitimacy.

Some seekers (there’s one born every minute) sent away for the correspondence course advertised above, which purported to represent the Kara Ashikaga School of Jiu-jitsu in Liverpool. Not only did this course offer an infallible method of self defence “as taught at the Yoshimosa School in Japan”, but other advertisements promised that the practice of jiujitsu would cure all manner of ailments, including constipation.

The best current evidence suggests that Kara Ashikaga, the stern-looking sensei depicted in the Liverpool school’s magazine ads, did not actually exist. Rather, he was a promotional gimmick devised by the actual proprietor of the correspondence course, an Englishman named Thomas.

There appears to be no evidence that the Yoshimosa School of Jiujitsu ever existed either. The name “Yoshimasa Ashikaga” was, however, featured prominently in Lafcadio Hearn‘s book, “In Ghostly Japan”, first published in England in 1904. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Thomas simply picked out a few names that he liked the sound of and proceeded to sell his customers a bill of goods. Adding insult to injury, the four-volume correspondence course, “Jiu-jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defence by the Kara Ashikaga School” was, in fact, a direct plagiarism of “Jiu-Jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defense” by Captain H. H. Skinner.

By a strange twist of fate, for a brief time in early 1906, the Ashikaga School did feature instruction by a genuine jiujitsu sensei. Liverpool was the first British port of call of the famous Gunji Koizumi. In Koizumi’s “My Study of Judo” (1960) he mentions having taught jiujitsu at the Kara Ashikaga School.

It’s tempting to imagine a Remington Steele scenario in which Mr. Thomas, having invented a Japanese martial arts master as a figurehead, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the position to employ a real one. Sadly, the historical record does not reveal whether Koizumi played along with the charade (although it seems unlikely), nor whether Thomas had to scramble to create an actual dojo at his Electric Building address to accommodate his new instructor and, presumably, paying students. Koizumi, sensibly enough, spent only a short time at the Liverpool school before before travelling south to London, where he collaborated with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi at his Piccadilly Square dojo.

Caveat emptor

The martial athletics of Diana Watts

Even before Edith Garrud began teaching jiujitsu classes for the women and children of London, Emily Diana Watts was pioneering the way for female martial arts instructors in the Western world. This post looks at her extraordinary career as a martial athlete and physical culture innovator.

Born into a wealthy family in the year 1867, Watts developed an early enthusiasm for the “strenuous life” and in 1903 she began studying jiujitsu with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi and his associate, Akitaro Ono. By 1906 she was teaching basic classes herself at Prince’s Skating Rink in Knightsbridge. That was also the year in which she published “The Fine Art of Jujutsu“, a handsomely produced manual that was notable as being the first book in the English language to detail a number of Kodokan judo techniques.

Watts continued to study and teach jiujitsu but also found herself drawn to physical culture in the broader sense. By the beginning of the First World War she had become passionately engaged in the task of reviving classical Greek exercises via the close study of ancient statuary and artwork.

In 1914 she presented her new system in a book entitled “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal“, writing as “Diana Watts”. Although academics criticised her fashionably romantic view of classical Greece, pointing out that many of the translations she used to illustrate her points were themselves inaccurate, the book was generally very well received. On its strength, Watts was invited to join both the French Institut Marey and the American Institute of Archeology.

Her presentations put a new spin on both the fad for “Grecian” dance (exemplified by Isadora Duncan) and the traditional Victorian poses plastique. In displays of the latter type, athletes, often almost nude with their faces and bodies powdered with white makeup, would assume postures evocative of famous works of classical statuary. This form of visual theatre had been popularised by the famous strongman Eugen Sandow at the turn of the 20th century.

Rather than holding frozen postures, however, Diana Watts would demonstrate her interpretations of the athletic techniques portrayed by the statues. These included actions such as drawing a bow, hurling a discus or throwing an opponent in wrestling.

Here is a video montage of some of the exercises from “Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, re-animated from the cinematographic photographs that illustrated the original book:

Diana Watts physical culture from Tony Wolf on Vimeo.

Several critics noted the “suspicious” resemblance between Watts’ “ancient Greek” exercises and those of the Japanese martial arts. In her own words:

In selecting and systematising different series of sequential movements which shall be perfectly natural, one turns instinctively to those needed in imaginary attack and defence, not only on account of the great variety of these positions, but because of the rapidity with which they must be performed. The origin, then, of all physical training is war. Among primitive peoples, it was necessary to be always on guard against sudden attacks. For this reason, during times of peace, they practised at first a sort of mimic war, which gradually developed into a sport. The Greeks ascribed the invention of wrestling to mythical persons such as Palaestra, the daughter of Hermes, and to Theseus is given the honour of having been the first to reduce the sport to a game, with well-defined rules, and thus to have made an art of wrestling; whereas before his time it consisted of the most brutal fighting, in which the strength and weight of the adversary alone decided the victory.

In the mimic battles of the Spartans, they frequently lost eyes and ears, which tortures they accepted as the necessary sacrifice in return for the indomitable fortitude which they acquired.

At a later date, the system adopted by the Athenians had for aim beauty of form and line, and grace of movement, and no competitor was awarded a prize unless his performance had been gracefully as well as effectively achieved. Contest by wrestling was divided into two branches by the ancient Greeks. The first was the “Pale Orthe,” the upright wrestling. The second was called “Halendesis” or “Kylisis,” in which the athlete wrestled with his adversary on the ground. The “Pale Orthe” was the only kind of wrestling practised in Homeric times, and also later on in the National Games of the Greeks. The rules provided that on the fall of an athlete his adversary should allow him to rise and resume the contest if he wished, but if he fell three times, the victory was decided in favour of the other. There were also preparatory exercises called “Analeinemata,” exercises which were looked upon as of the greatest importance, since through them alone could the athlete acquire that tense elasticity of muscle necessary for the extreme rapidity required in actual wrestling.

It is, then, natural to suppose that the preparatory movements represented as nearly as possible the actual positions taken in wrestling, so that by continued practice the pupil might arrive at the unhesitating certainty and precision needed in the varied changes of position of real contest.

Antique Art gives many examples of this extraordinarily rapid form of wrestling by tripping. It appeared many centuries later among the Chinese, brought back probably through their intercourse with the Persians. The form of wrestling called Jujutsu, practised by the Japanese of the present day, is, I am convinced, a survival of the “Pale Orthe” of the Greeks. The collection of tracings on page 39, taken from Professor Krause’s book “Hellenika Gymnastik und Agonistik,” show the close resemblance of some of the Japanese throws used in Jujutsu, to those of the Greeks.


No. 1, especially, is identical with the Koshinage shoulder throw, in which the thrower drops on his knees after having hoisted his opponent upon his shoulder. This throw can be given standing or kneeling, but the latter position is much more disastrous to the victim. No. 2 is obviously the Koshinage hip-throw, as used in Jujutsu at the present day, and No. 4 has a very close resemblance to the Japanese “Shimoku,” the position of the attacker’s left hand being the only essential difference, while he is practically erect, instead of crouching on bent knees.

The “Pale Orthe” was introduced into Japan by a Chinaman about the third or fourth century, under the name of “Jujutsu,” and remained a jealously-guarded secret known to and practised by the Samurai nobles alone, until comparatively a few years ago—in 1860, I think—when the general public were allowed to learn. With the strange liking of the Chinese for all that represents the grotesque in movement, they neglected, and eventually completely lost, all the grace and beauty esteemed by the Greeks as indispensable, and retained only the dramatic and practical sides of wrestling, the genuine self-defence, which, among the Greeks, was subordinated to beauty.

It is, then, upon the preparatory movements that I place such immense importance, and it was during the study of all the rapid changes of position in this “Pale Orthe,” which demand such exquisite balance, that I found for myself the Law of Balance in movement, the application of which allows of the greatest rapidity and force with the least expenditure of energy. This law, as I have said, requires the centre of gravity of a moving body to be kept exactly and continuously over its base, an impossible achievement except under the condition of Tension already described.

As explained in “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, her training system went well beyond simple public performance, comprising a detailed method of physical, mental and even spiritual development based on the principles of balance and dynamic tension. It was also promoted as an aid to longevity, turning the tide of middle age and restoring youthful poise and energy.

Diana Watts spent many years touring on the international lecture circuit, sometimes in collaboration with other artists and researchers inspired by classical antiquity. Her personal wealth allowed her to fund these tours and to lecture free of charge, and by the 1940s she had circled the world five times, meeting Mahatma Gandhi and befriending George Bernard Shaw among other notables. She had homes in England, Italy and in Canada and was famous enough to have been written in to several novels and short stories as a sort of archetype of the eccentric physical culture enthusiast.

Watts’ system evidently worked for her, as she lived until 1968, passing away at the age of 101. Perhaps her training system is due for a revival.