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 mystery of the “Japanised Englishman”

Pieter M.C. Toepoel was, in a sense, the E.W. Barton-Wright of the Netherlands. A boxing and physical culture teacher and something of a free-thinker, attracted to novelties, Toepoel was the first man to teach Japanese martial arts in Holland. He eventually developed a Bartitsu-like method combining boxing, jiujitsu and even self defence with a walking stick.

In his 1910 book Het origineele jujutsu, Toepoel recalled that:

…in 1899 I read in an English Magazine about an international system of self defence which had used amongst others a couple of pins from jiujitsu.

This is obviously a reference to E.W. Barton-Wright’s Pearsons Magazine articles on Bartitsu. Thus inspired, Toepoel made his way to London and possibly Paris and seems to have picked up an eclectic jiujitsu education. His book name-drops former Bartitsu Club instructors Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani as well as Koyama, Miyami, Re-nie (Ernest Regnier, who pioneered jiujitsu in Paris), Okashi, Saito and Apollo (strongman William Bankier, who became Tani’s manager after the Bartitsu Club era), but does not identify Toepoel’s (main?) instructor in the art.

Most puzzlingly, Toepoel refers to learning jiujitsu upon the thin carpet of a shabby old London boxing club, and described his teacher – introduced to him by some boxing acquaintances – as a “Japanised Englishman” who had trained daily for seven years with Taro Miyake. Toepoel further notes that they would stop practicing when others entered the club, implying that this was a security precaution so that others would not “steal” their techniques; he was also apparently made to promise that he would never teach jiujitsu himself in the UK.

This is all very curious; who was the “Japanised Englishman”, and why all the secrecy?

Toepoel refers to both Tani’s Oxford Street school and to Uyenishi’s Golden Square dojo, which would seem to date his training in London to the period of roughly 1904-1909. By that time, there were several books and numerous articles available on jiujitsu, not to mention two full-time schools and several rather marginal ones. Although Japanese wrestling was hardly being taught on every street corner, it was quite widely available and it’s odd that a jiujitsu teacher at that time would have been quite so secretive.

Taro Miyake arrived in London in 1905, so it would seem to be impossible that any English jiujitsuka could have trained with him for seven years prior to 1910, unless that person had begun studying with Miyake in Japan.

On the face of it, and assuming that Pieter Toepoel was above adding in a bit of spurious detail for the sake of drama, there were only a few jiujitsu practitioners in London at that time who could conceivably have been described as “Japanised Englishmen”. Our candidates include:

E.W. Barton-Wright, who does not seem to have impressed anyone else as being “Japanised”, but who had spent three years in Japan and apparently spoke Japanese tolerably well.

William Garrud, who was teaching his own classes (in person and by correspondence) by 1905, but Garrud was possibly even less “Japanised” than was Barton-Wright.

“Professor Vernon-Smith”, who advertised jiujitsu classes at his Anglo-Japanese Institute of Self Defence (3 Vernon Place, Bloomsbury Square). The latter school seems to have employed Sadakazu Uyenishi as well as “a staff of expert instructors teaching gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, fencing, la savate etc.”; very little else is known about it, or about Vernon-Smith.

William E. Steers, a passionate Japanophile who travelled to Japan in 1903, studied jiujitsu there with fellow expatriate Englishman E.J. Harrison and returned to London in 1904, where he began training at Sadakazu Uyenishi’s school. Later, circa May 1912, Steers went back to Japan and studied judo with founder Jigoro Kano, who described him as being “the most earnest foreign student I have ever had”.

On the face of it, W.E. Steers seems to be the best candidate. The dates roughly match up and Steers’ huge enthusiasm for all things Japanese might well have led to his being characterised as a “Japanised Englishman”. The detail of Toepoel’s instructor training for seven years with Taro Miyake is still puzzling, in that Miyake was affiliated with Tani’s Oxford Street school, while Steers was enrolled at Uyenishi’s dojo at Golden Square. However, it is reported that Steers did study judo with the famous Mitsuyo Maeda from the year 1907, when the latter first arrived in London.

Shifting into pure speculation; assuming that W.E. Steers was Pieter Toepoel’s jiujitsu teacher, why would there have been such secrecy surrounding their lessons? Perhaps Steers felt that he was not really qualified to teach the art; I have found no other records of him as an instructor, though he was active and influential at the administrative level during the early years of the London Budokwai. As he was not a teacher in any official sense, though, Steers would presumably not have been concerned about Toepoel as a potential commercial rival, so why would he have required that the latter promise never to teach jiujitsu in the UK?

Also, Steers was evidently quite a wealthy man, so a shabby, thinly-carpeted boxing school seems an odd choice for a training venue, unless, again, Toepoel’s lessons were being “hidden” for some reason.

Research is ongoing …