An updated history of weaponised umbrellas

The release of Kingsman: the Secret Service promises to introduce a new generation of film-goers to the weaponised umbrella, a time-tested motif in anime, comic books, film, literature and television.  The bulletproof Kingsman umbrella comes equipped with all manner of gadgets, from a stunning projectile launcher to a TASER bola, as seen in this video:

However, while this fictional high-tech development in defensive bumbershootery is undoubtedly impressive, it is well worth noting that there has been a hundred-plus year history of attempts to weaponise the humble brolly in real life. These have included the development of martial arts techniques as well as the invention of actual, combat-augmented umbrellas.

As early as 1838, the Baron Charles de Berenger suggested several ingenious methods for using an umbrella in defence against highwaymen and ruffians, including simply shooting straight through it with a flintlock pistol:

In 1897, J.F. Sullivan proposed the umbrella as a misunderstood weapon in his tongue-in-cheek article for the Ludgate Monthy.

Only a few years later, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright took the subject seriously in his two-part article series for Pearson’s Magazine, explaining the use of the umbrella and walking stick in self defence. The cane/umbrella were considered the first line of defence in the Bartitsu arsenal, which also included boxing, wrestling and jujitsu.

After the London Bartitsu Club closed under mysterious circumstances in 1902, instructors Pierre Vigny and his wife, who is known to us only as “Miss Sanderson”, continued to teach the use of umbrellas and parasols as defensive weapons. By 1908 the concept had made its way to the United States, being taught at the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture and featured in Popular Mechanics Magazine.

The remainder of the 20th century has seen the use of umbrellas as weapons of assassination:

… as well as numerous developments of the “umbrella sword” motif:

… and, of course, the Unbreakable Umbrella:

French news reports during mid-2011 suggested that the bodyguards of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy would soon be carrying a new defensive weapon – the Para Pactum umbrella. Reinforced with kevlar, the Para Pactum has apparently been tested against attack dogs and is also proof against knives, acid and thrown projectiles:

M. Vigny’s School of Self Defence (1904)

From the Daily News, May 27, 1904:

All good citizens will rejoice to learn that a new and efficacious method of abolishing those pests of the streets known as Hooligans has been discovered and put into practical application by a French gentleman named M. Pierre Vigny.

Some years ago the idea occurred to M. Vigny, who, it may be mentioned, has been fencing muster to a French crack cavalry regiment, that it would be possible to discover a system by which people could guard themselves against the cowardly methods of assault practised by the blackguards of the streets. M. Vigny accordingly proceeded to study the methods of Hooligans in the slums of London and Liverpool. When he acquired first-hand knowledge of their ways, he repaired to Paris, where he sought wisdom from the Thugs and Apaches, ruffians who assault pedestrians with sand-bags and life-preservers, and then, for the purpose of finishing his education, he spent considerable time amongst the ruffians of Rome and Naples, who are proficient in the use of the murderous stiletto, and completed his curriculum in the Bowery of New York and the slums of Chicago.

He thus became conversant with every device of the street ruffian, and, what is of more importance, he discovered how to protect himself effectively from every weapon, with the exception of firearms, they use, including loaded belts, sand-bags, bludgeons, knives and daggers, with the instrumentality of a humble walking stick!

For the purpose of imparting this art he has established a “School of Self Defence” in a street near Oxford-street, which is largely patronised by young aristocrats, city men, actors, and others whose pursuits necessitate their being out late. Ladies also receive instruction at this unique school in large numbers, and M. Vigny maintains that anyone who has mastered the system of self-defence with a walking-stick or umbrella, which he has inaugurated, is a match for at least half a dozen street ruffians armed with belts or knives!

“Philosophy of the walking stick” (1899)

This excerpt from the Liverpool Mercury (Friday 5th May, 1899) may be among the first news reports in English concerning Professor Pierre Vigny, who would thereafter become a key instructor at E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club in Soho.

Either a walking-stick or an umbrella is now considered an indispensable part of a gentleman’s attire, but few of those who carry these articles know how to use them effectively. Carlyle dealt with the philosophy of clothes in a ponderous volume, which few people have ever finished; but it has been left to Professor Pierre Vigny to illustrate in a practical manner the philosophy of the walking-stick.

On Wednesday night, in the Salle Bertrand, Warwick-street, London, he gave an exhibition of what can be done with it as a weapon of defence as well as ornament, and gained the applause of an audience which comprised many of the best foilists and escrimeurs in London. In his hands the baton became a veritable poem, and showed a capability of development undreamt of by most people, whose chief use of either cane or umbrella is to whirl it in the hand like a windmill, to the imminent danger of their neighbours.

M. Vigny walks in with a stout oak stick, looking like a countryman on his first visit to London, who does not know much about anything. A gang of sharpers surround him as easy prey, and are considerably surprised when the cudgel falls on their heads with a force and dexterity which put them to flight. The same thing happened when M. Vigny was armed with only an elegant, neatly-folded umbrella. In fact, the possibilities of defence with even a fragile stick were shown to be unbounded.

In addition to this display, which was both clever and brilliant, M. Vigny gave exhibitions of his skill with foils, single-stick, sabres, duelling-swords, French and English boxing, and club-swinging, his opponents comprising such experts as Staff – sergeant Betts, Mr. John Jenkinson, Professor Anastasie, M. Felix Bertrand, Mr. Egerton Castle, Professor Danguy, Professor Perkins, and others. The “assault” was undoubtedly one of the best seen in London for a long time.

An interview with Emelyne Godfrey

Emelyne Godfrey is the author of the books Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and its newly published sister volume, Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society.

Q – Emy, can you describe how the new book fits in to your ongoing research on the topic of self defence during the “long Victorian era”?

A – It was effectively the third chapter of my PhD on Victorians and self-defence (which focused on H. G. Wells’ Ann Veronica and women’s self-defence and martial arts in Edwardian literature) but as I started researching for this book, I found so much new material so it felt as if I was starting the research from scratch. Writing it took somewhat longer than expected!

Q – What were your motivations for writing on this topic?  In particular, how did the new book come about?

A – The books were ultimately the result of my mother’s suggestion a number of years ago that I go on a self-defence course which she had seen advertised on TV. At the time, I was a student at Birkbeck College, London, doing the MA in Victorian Studies and was casting about in my mind for a topic for a PhD and was reading about the Ripper murders when it occurred to me to ask how men and women defended themselves during this time. Alongside that, I learned from speaking to women after the self-defence course was that concepts of safety as they relate to feminism were so subjective.

Q – In what way?

A – Our self-defence instructor told us she refused to go out on her own after 8pm, which some women said didn’t sound very empowering, or feasible, especially if you were a student at Birkbeck, when some classes ended at 9pm. What was empowering? Avoiding danger or staying out a bit later and taking the last bus home? Other questions also popped up: how did one respond to being accosted or threatened, where were the sources of danger, and did men and women assess threat in different ways. I started interviewing anybody I saw about the subject of safety and I was passionate about seeking the answers. Intriguingly, men and women were debating these questions in the Victorian era, a time which saw a massive growth in London’s population and also witnessed the growing numbers of independent women of all backgrounds engaged in all kinds of work, and also philanthropy, travel and political campaigning.

Q – The subtitle refers to “Dagger-Fans and Suffragettes” – can you tell us what a “Dagger-Fan” is?

A – The dagger-fan was a novelty hand fan, designed in the shape of a dagger in its sheath. It’s kept at The Fan Museum in Greenwich, which displays some gorgeous fans from throughout the ages. At least one contemporary commentator observed with humour that such a dangerously shaped accessory might subtly discourage unwanted admirers who might lurk on trains or at street corner.

The dagger-fan is symbolic of all the many kinds of subtle means, discussed in this book,  that a woman could employ to deflect threat while out and about – gesturing with her fan, a humorous retort, disguise, a clever use of eye contact. As Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Mona Caird’s The Wing of Azrael, remind us, the ‘marriage market’ and the Victorian home could be a place of danger where all kinds of self-defence skills were needed. What I think all the writers examined in this book show is that there were some areas of life where the law couldn’t reach, and women had to be able to learn to protect themselves.

Q – Of all the heroines described in your book, who is your favorite, and why?

A – I admire the character of Judith Lee as she’s an independent spirit, and she can defend herself using jujitsu against a variety of criminals. I also think that the way an author writes about danger is as important as characterisation. While Judith Lee gets very angry, she has an understated, almost stiff-upper-lip way of talking about peril, which is quite amusing, a credit to the skills of her creator, Richard Marsh, was actually an intriguing figure himself.

Q – In what way?

A – He was involved in amateur dramatics before his writing career began, he also had a gift for portraying the mindsets and distinctive voices of his characters. He was author of the horror-thriller, The Beetle: A Mystery, which was published in 1897, the year in which Dracula appeared, and, according to a number of scholars, was more popular than Bram Stoker’s novel for some decades.  Marsh also spent some time in jail, changed his name and became a prolific writer. What interests me about Marsh was that he combined horror and violence with humour in his stories. His work daringly referenced contemporary crimes such as the Whitechapel Murders – you can see shades of that in his Judith Lee story, Conscience. He really struck a chord with the public with his depiction of Judith Lee, who was in many ways Sherlock Holmes’s equivalent.

Q – You’re also the publicity officer for the H.G. Wells Society.  How does Wells’ character Ann Veronica fit in with your theme?

A – I must say that don’t agree with all of Wells’s views on, for example, women, and some of his views are quite controversial today (he was in many ways a man of his time as well as being a forward thinker) but I think he’s a wonderful novelist and wordsmith whose work is both stirring, lightly humorous and cheekily iconoclastic. I do love his depiction of Ann Veronica, his Edwardian heroine, who wants to see life. A keen hockey player, she also learns jujitsu at high school and uses her knowledge of martial arts to defeat the rather sleazy Mr Ramage, who tries to take advantage of her in a locked hotel room. I think Wells sensitively portrays her feelings of guilt at having tackled him quite so effectively, but at least she does defend herself and doesn’t rely on a hero to come along and save her.

I see Judith Lee and Ann Veronica as early equivalents of feisty women in today’s literature and culture, particularly Buffy Summers from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and even Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey – they aren’t invulnerable, they suffer setbacks, deal with the ups and downs of love but they each have their own particular powers and channel their anger into the hand-to-hand defence of good causes.

Q – Finally, Emy, your book includes a chapter on Edith Garrud and the martial arts training of the Suffragettes.  The image of the jujitsuffragettes is easily romanticised by modern readers.  What would you say was the actual, and/or symbolic, social significance of Suffragettes training in the martial arts circa 1913?

A – I’m still making up my mind on that subject. On the one hand, I do agree that there is a tendency to romanticise jujitsuffragettes today, probably because the idea of a woman wearing a corset, big hair and an even bigger hat fighting a man and felling him to the floor cuts a bit of an incongruous yet charming and quaint image in the modern mind.  I think some campaigners enjoyed the limelight too and, as H.G. Wells, suggests in Ann Veronica, some may have joined the movement to do something exciting. Some of them also espoused some more violent means which were controversial.

On the other hand, when you read what some militants went through in jail – sleep, hunger and thirst striking – and how they fought against the ignominy of force feeding (and the Bodyguard bravely protected their leaders from re-arrest and torture under the Cat and Mouse Act) you really get a sense of how brave these women were. I think that whether or not the vote was won by women’s war effort, the suffragettes, and indeed suffragists, raised the public consciousness with regard to female suffrage; it’s something I always think about when I put my cross on the ballot paper.

 

Postscript

Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger, is out in paperback in March 2013. Both books are discounted 50% until 31 December 2012. Emelyne will be speaking about garotting (Victorian-era mugging) and Bartitsu at the Victorian Macabre Evening at Blackwell’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, between 6.30-9pm on 14 December 2012, with Jonathan Sale, who will be discussing his book, Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented.  The event is free (please register with Blackwell’s beforehand so that they know the number of seats needed) and Emelyne’s books will be sold for £20.99 on the night.

“Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society: From Dagger-Fans to Suffragettes”

The topic of women and danger has long fascinated historians. Emelyne Godfrey’s new book, available now from Palgrave Macmillan, innovatively situates both well-known and more obscure themes within the cultural context of the development of self-defence for ladies during the period from circa 1850 to 1914. Elizabeth Robins, Mona Caird and Anne Brontë considered the role of physiognomy in spotting rogue suitors, the nature of feminine anger and the dangers inside and outside the home. H.G. Wells’s controversial novel, Ann Veronica (1909), is refreshingly re-examined as a testament to the growth of women’s sports while the accompanying proliferation of women’s martial arts classes was promoted by Edith Garrud, the trainer for the suffragette Bodyguard. Richard Marsh’s detective, Judith Lee, a lip-reader and jujitsu practitioner, has been likened to Sherlock Holmes; her encounters with the Edwardian criminal underworld are explored here. Emelyne Godfrey introduces major themes in this area, showcasing a wealth of literary sources, artefacts and archival documents.

Contents

List of Figures
Acknowledgments
A Note on the Text
Abbreviations
Introduction
PART I: ‘A DOOR OPEN, A DOOR SHUT’
On the Street
Danger en Route
Behind Closed Doors: Bogey-Husbands in Disguise: Mona Caird’s The Wing of Azrael (1889)
PART II: FIGHTING FOR EMANCIPATION
Elizabeth Robins’ The Convert
The Last Heroine Left?
PART III: THE PRE-WAR FEMALE GAZE
‘Where Are You Going To, My Pretty Maid?’: Elizabeth Robins on White Slavery
Read My Lips
Bibliography
Index

Note that the publishers are offering a 50% discount on both this book and the companion volume Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature until 30 November, valid in the UK and Europe. Simply enter the code WGODFREY2012a at the Palgrave Publishing website checkout.

The Bartitsu School of Arms 2012 in text, video and images

The second annual Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture was a three-day conference and training seminar held in Chicago between September 7-9, 2012. The event was hosted by the Bartitsu Club of Chicago and based at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio.

Day 1

Our band of stalwart adventurers met at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighburhood just before noon, embarking in a small but spirited convoy to La Salle, IL to tour the Hegeler Carus Mansion and its historic gymnasium – normally a two-hour trip. Unfortunately we were delayed by unusually heavy traffic leaving the city, but the Hegeler Carus Mansion staff were kind enough to delay the start of the 2.00 tour to accommodate us. En route, a nascent plan emerged to write a Bartitsu-themed “anthem”, perhaps in the style of a c1900 music hall song. We also met SoA instructor Allen Reed, who lives somewhat near La Salle, at the site.

The mansion tour was fascinating, particularly re. the Hegeler and Carus families’ close connections to events such as the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the spread of Zen Buddhism to the Western world and to the publishing industry via their in-house “Open Court” company. By special permission of the Hegeler Carus Foundation, instructor Tony Wolf was then able to lead an extended, “up close” tour of the famous 1876-vintage gymnasium, which he has been helping to research and re-assemble. Two Bartitsu Club of Chicago members were afterwards inspired to construct their own “teeter ladder” exercise apparatus, which would surely be a unique addition to the Forteza gymuseum; as far as we know, the original teeter ladder in the mansion’s gym is the only surviving example of its type.

Our return to Chicago was significantly delayed by extremely heavy traffic, due in part to a Bruce Springsteen concert, but we were just about able to get everyone fed and at the Lincoln Square Theatre in time for the beginning of Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride.

The play is set during the late Victorian era and actually opens with the title character – a no-nonsense, Mary Poppinsish member of the Society of Lady Detectives – making adroit use of jujitsu and then her parasol to fend off various assailants. Further fight scenes showcased everything from smallsword fencing to pugilism in the context of an ostensible Jack the Ripper mystery, but in fact the mysteries to be solved were of a different and more personal nature. All ended happily for the heroines and the audience was left hoping for further adventures with the S.O.L.D.

Day 2

We began the first full training day with a tour of the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio and then a mini-lecture on Bartitsu history. Warm-ups began by simply walking around the space for orientation, then jogging, then jogging backwards, then jogging while throwing an antique leather medicine ball to and fro (nothing like it for breaking the ice).

We continued the warm-up with a series of synergy exercises stressing efficient whole-body movement, unbalancing tactics and elbow/hip alignment.

Next up was a set of two circuit training sessions in which small groups rotated between short classes taught by three instructors; Allen Reed teaching collar-and-elbow wrestling and jujitsu throws, Tony Wolf teaching fisticuffs and Mark Donnelly teaching cane techniques. These sessions were followed by some “integration” training, making the point that Bartitsu really comes to life when the various skills/styles are tested against each other and combined together.

After lunch we reconvened for longer, specialized classes with each instructor. Mark taught a session on umbrella/parasol defense via the “bayonet” grip; Forteza Fitness instructor Keith Jennings taught some catch wrestling holds, takedowns and reversals; Allen presented several canonical Bartitsu/jujitsu kata, and drills arising from opponent resistance; Tony taught “combat improvisation” based on various canonical unarmed and armed set-plays.

Then each instructor in turn was invited to contribute to a combat scenario beginning with cane fighting, segueing through boxing and throwing and ending up on the ground.

The last session of the day was devoted to informal “breakaway” groups and included some spirited cane sparring, pugilism drills, scenario-based cane techniques, free submission grappling and even some Bowie knife work. Serious points to those young enthusiasts who, after a very full day of Bartitsu training, still had enough energy to squeeze in a kettlebell session.

At 7.00 pm we met in the Victorian-themed side room at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House – all dark green velvet, dark polished wood and maroon trimmings – and spent a very pleasant couple of hours eating, drinking and chatting before retiring gratefully, if not necessarily gracefully, to home and rest.

Day 3

The final day of the School of Arms began with an orientation and quick Bartitsu history lesson for the four new (Sunday only) participants. We started the warm-up with forward and backward jogging and medicine ball tossing, then rotated through whole-group exercises/balance games taught by Mark Donnelly, Allen Reed and Tony Wolf, including iterations of wrist wrestling, stick wrestling, stand-off and finger-fencing.

Next we cycled through two circuit training rounds of small group mini-lessons (roughly 15 minutes each), in which Mark concentrated on cane work, Allen on jujitsu throws and Tony on integrating standing grappling with fisticuffs and low kicking.

After lunch each of the instructors taught a longer, 45 minute class for the whole group. Mark focused on the technical and tactical dynamics of parrying and countering with the cane. Allen taught applications of two canonical jujitsu kata vs multiple opponents and Tony gave a session on spontaneously combining three canonical kata/set-plays (two jujitsu, one cane) in response to opponent resistance.

We then set up for the Antagonisticathlon, which proved to be by far the roughest and wildest rendition of that event yet. The combination of stirring Sherlock Holmes and Steampunk music via the PA system and the presence of an audience fed into a quite extraordinary mixture of hard fighting and surreal Victorianesque humour. It was a sight to see.

After the warm-downs, the School of Arms ended on a high note, with thanks to our hosts at Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts for providing the perfect venue for this event, to the instructors and to the brave souls who volunteered as ruffians in the Antagonisticathlon. We then passed out participation certificates and posed for group photos before retiring to O’Shaughnessy’s for drinks and farewells.

Special thanks to the members of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago who volunteered to host and chauffeur out-of-towners, the staff at the Hegeler Carus Mansion and to all the participants, some of whom had traveled considerable distances for the event.

Onwards to the Bartitsu School of Arms 2013 …

“Waylaid by a ruffian!”

A cautionary tale of urban maleficence. Don’t let this happen to you! Ladies and gentlemen alike are invited to arm themselves against the tide of ruffianism by attending the second annual Bartitsu School of Arms in Chicago (September 8-9, 2012) – see this page for all details!

M. Vigny’s School of Self Defence (Daily News, 27 May, 1904)

“All good citizens will rejoice to learn that a new and efficacious method of abolishing those pests of the streets known as Hooligans Has been discovered and put into practical application by a French gentleman named M. Pierre Vigny.

Some years ago the idea occurred to M. Vigny, who, it may be mentioned, has been fencing master to a French crack cavalry regiment, that it would be possible to discover a system by which people could guard themselves against the cowardly methods of assault practiced by the blackguards of the streets. M. Vigny accordingly proceeded to study the methods of Hooligans in the slums of London and Liverpool.

When he acquired first-hand knowledge of their ways, he repaired to Paris, where he sought wisdom from the Thugs and Apaches, ruffians who assault pedestrians with sand-bags and life-preservers, and then, for the purpose of finishing his education, he spent some considerable time amongst the ruffians of Rome and Naples, who are proficient in the use of the murderous stiletto, and completed his curriculum in tho Bowery of New York and tho slums of Chicago.

He thus became conversant with every device of the street ruffian, and, what is of more importance, he discovered how to protect himself effectively from every weapon, with the exception of firearms, they use, including loaded bolts, sand-bags, bludgeons, knives, and daggers, with the instrumentality of a humble walking stick!

For the purpose of imparting this art he has established a ‘School of Self Defence’ in a street near Oxford-street, which is largely patronised by young aristocrats, city men, actors, and others whose pursuits necessitate their being out late.

Ladies also receive instruction at this unique school in large numbers, and M. Vigny maintains that anyone who has mastered the system of self-defence with a walking-stick or umbrella, which he has inaugurated, is a match for at least half a dozen street ruffians armed with belts or knives!”

Self defence training of the New Zealand Peace Scouts (1910)

The Peace Scouts, a precursor to the Girl Guide movement in New Zealand, were active between 1908 and 1923. They may well have been the first national organisation to promote self defence training for girls. The image above is taken from the book Peace Scouting for Girls (1910).

Jujitsuffragette Edith Garrud back in the news

Follow this link to read an Islington Tribune article about Edith Garrud (pictured left, above), who was the jujitsu and self defence trainer of the Suffragette Bodyguard society.  We eagerly await the unveiling of her commemorative plaque.