“Sherlock Holmes and Bartitsu” (Part Two)

The second chapter of Michael Bertram Wooster’s extraordinary memoir details the collaboration between consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright, including samples of their detailed technical correspondence.

(Holmes) would later claim that he had traveled incognito to Lhassa, Mecca, war-torn Khartoum and Montpellier, France. These seem formidable objectives for a British tourist wishing to avoid scrutiny. On the other hand, Mycroft allegedly hinted to my grandfather that Sherlock attended the Kodokan Institute in the early 1890s. Perhaps the encounter with Moriarty convinced him that he needed a thorough grounding in Judo. It should be noted that, among Holmes’ many correspondents of that decade, two – Captain H. M. Hughes and E. J. Harrison – were European Kodokan graduates.

In any event, it was Kano who, in 1896, introduced Holmes to yet another British Jujutsuka.

E.W. Barton-Wright, 1899

Edward William Barton-Wright was a civil engineer for E. H. Hunter & Company, living in Kobe. A world-traveler and life-long student of the martial disciplines, Barton-Wright had been evolving his own eclectic fighting style for many years.

“I have always been interested in the arts of self defense,” he told Gunji Koizumi in 1950, “and I learned various methods including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of stiletto under recognized masters, and by engaging toughs. I trained myself until I was satisfied in their practical application.”

Barton-Wright might have had occasion to observe or study Tenjin Shin’yô-ryû while in Yokohama. In Kobe, the persistent engineer convinced a local sensei named Terajima Kuniichiro to train him in Shinden Fudo Ryu. He also somehow found time to participate in Kyushu Ryu demonstrations with Shihan Yoshinori Eguchi of Kumamoto Prefecture. This last lead to a brief acquaintance with Kano Jigoro (a close associate of Eguchi Shihan) who, in turn, passed him along to yet another friend.

In June of 1896, Kano penned a short letter to Sherlock Holmes, in which he encouraged the two Englishmen to exchange letters.

“I do not know (Barton-Wright) well,” he wrote, “but I sense talent and an inquisitive mind. Between the two of you perhaps one might say there is a similarity of intent.” (Kano, 1983/198/03)

Sherlock Holmes and Edward Barton-Wright subsequently carried on a correspondence which lasted for seven years. Only twelve letters survive today; all but three of them are to found in the archives of the Vernet Foundation at 28 Rue Juve in Paris. The rest are in the hands of a private collector whose name I have promised not to reveal. Everything thing else has been lost. These papers were originally housed in a safety-deposit box at Cox and Co., Charing Cross, which was damaged quite badly during the London blitz.

Surprisingly little of their conversation involved the fighting arts. For the most part these letters form a near compendium of Victorian naturopathy. The two men discussed, at length; acupuncture, vibra-massage, phrenology, mesmerism, cataphoresis, Pythagorean diet, and the relative merits of fasting. At times the tone of eccentric brilliance becomes almost comical. In one letter, Barton-Wright lovingly describes the mechanisms of a Toepler-Holtz 20-plate electro-static inducer. In another, Holmes repeatedly advocates the consumption of royal jelly.

The first mention of Bartitsu comes from a diary entry, dated September 1896, in which Holmes writes:

BW has for some time envisioned a new system of self-defense which would combine his favorite techniques from Asian and European combat arts into a coherent whole. His style is devised for the purpose of rendering any normal person capable of protecting themselves from to any method of attack that might arise.

It is his fancy to call it Bartitsu, derived obviously from ju-jitsu and his own surname.

The system, as he envisions it, breaks down into three parts (which ideally will flow together seamlessly in practice.)

I) The Art of Defending Oneself with a Weapon

Bartitsu will provide weapons training of a sort. BW primarily wishes to teach the different methods of defending oneself with a walking-stick or umbrella (nearly ubiquitous items in modern society). He appreciates the way a stick extends the range of ones defenses. I am not yet certain which method (or combination thereof) he will focus upon – be it singlestick, Bâton français, Canne d’Arme, scherma di bastone, faction fighting or the like – but it will no doubt play a profound role in his school. BW has stated his intention of writing to the French maitre d’armes Mons. Vigny, who evidently has some strong ideas in this regard.

Fencing will be taught, of course, as it emphasizes timing and cadence; as well as speed, economy, precision and footwork.

II) The Art of Striking with the Limbs

This will encompass boxing and the use of lower limbs in an offensive and defensive manner. The student will learn balance and movement, how to determine and maintain adequate distance from an opponent, and the importance of efficient footwork. BW will teach the basic boxing punches, as well as practical kicks (most of them either drawn directly or modified from savate and ashi-ate-waza, with the notable exception of the Cumbrian stomp.)

The student will also learn to defend himself by Evading the Blow (slipping, bobbing and Tenkan pivoting) and Guarding or Checking the Blow (blocking and parrying).

As I understand it, Bartitsu will teach Striking primarily as a defensive means of allowing the student to gain close-quarters in regards to his assailant, at which time the focus will turn to

III) The Art of Grappling

The student will learn to overcome his opponent through use of throws, holds, pins, foot-sweeps, traps, locks and chokes.

This system sounds viable in theory; I am sure that the fine points will be worked out on the mat.

BW plans to form a sporting club in London which will disseminate this system among a select and suitable membership. As BW pictures it, this will serve as both a gymnasium and a school-of-arms, offering a variety of classes in different antagonistic systems, each of which will be taught by a master of the chosen art. BW quite rightly considers himself qualified to conduct classes in several of these. In addition, he has approached Professor Kano, sensei Yataoru Handa of Osaka, and some others in Japan about possibly finding talented young Ju-do or Ju-jitsu teachers willing to train Englishmen. BW will bring these champions to London at his own expense (or rather, they shall earn their keep through tournament prizes and private wagers which gamble upon their skill.)

BW intends to scour Europe for specialized instructors in other forms of sport and combative arts as well – not limited to boxers, wrestlers, swordsmen and stick fighters, perhaps even a professeur of la boxe Francaise. (Although – typical Englishman – he avers that ‘French Foot Fighting’ is utterly useless.)

While he has no doubt that many will wish to watch and learn Jujutsu from Japanese experts, BW will also encourage the Jujutsuka to study classical boxing, wrestling and savate so that they might recognize the likely attack scenarios of an English opponent. There will be an emphasis on randori (competition). Each master will engage and spar with the others, each learning the system of the other so as to adapt and improve their own.

(Pike, 1954/053/03)

When Barton-Wright arrived in London in late 1898, he sought to put these plans into action. He dined several times with Sherlock Holmes at the Cafe Royal, discussing his goals and intentions for Bartitsu. Holmes proved to be an enthusiastic and creative co-conspirator; offering much helpful advice and, at times, proffering subtle critiques of both his friend’s aspirations and late-Victorian society.

4 November 1898

A New Art of Self Defense for the Average Man is a most felicitous phrase and I have no doubt that Bartitsu, presented to the general public under that rubric, will win popular acclaim and prove most successful. It occurs to me, however, that most of the subscribers to your system will find little practical use for it. The average West End gentleman will never, throughout the course of his long life, encounter a true threat of physical violence. There is a great fixed gulf which lies between the refined classes and the bludgers, hooligans and nobblers who haunt their fears. The latter tend to stay within their own neighborhoods, east of the City and north of the Thames.

(Vernet Collection: Holmes, 1988/217/01)

Despite such raillery, Holmes seemed genuinely excited by the idea of Bartitsu; the union of East and West, the democratic testing of techniques, the scientific perfection of brawling. He spent several months introducing his new friend to wealthy and socially prominent ‘physical culture enthusiasts’, many of whom had previously consulted him as clients. These included Herbert Gladstone, Captain Alfred Hutton, Lord Alwyne Compton, Lord Arthur Cecil, Lord Emsworth, Baron Chuffnell and Lord Robert St. Simon. When Bartitsu Limited was incorporated on 26th November, the board of directors included Compton, Cecil and Hutton.

Barton-Wright was elated, and he happily reported each public relations coup.

January 1899

I have agreed to write a series of articles for Pearson’s Magazine, which will explain the concept of Bartitsu and offer, with the assistance of either photographs or line-drawings, several of the three-hundred methods of attack and counter-attack that comprise it. While it will not be possible through such an abbreviated medium to do complete justice to the subject, I am hoping that the scope of these feats will allow the reader to intuit that Bartitsu offers a practical way of meeting every conceivable contingency. As you yourself have so often said, “There is no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive a response.”

For example:

A Way of Defending yourself, when a Man Strikes at your Face with his Right Fist

This is a most useful feat and I am certain that many will wish to learn it. Naturally there are numerous ways to meet this threat. The method I have chosen here is rather terrible in effect and some objection may be taken to apparent brutality of it. When considering the advantages of Bartitsu, it must be remembered that there are times when no method is too severe to be adopted in order to protect oneself. We are not, after all, teaching a sport, but rather a method of defense. One cannot always expect an opponent to conduct himself in the recognised style of English fair play and in such cases one must use whatever means lay at hand to overthrow an assailant without any risk of harm to oneself.

We assume that your assailant strikes at you with his right fist. You must guard yourself by raising your left arm quickly and receiving the blow on the radius of your forearm. This must be done rather aggressively so that your block lands solidly at the base of his brachioradialis muscle, halfway down the assailant’s upper limb.

Strike your assailant’s right shoulder with the heel of your right palm. With the same hand, grab a firm hold of his coat-cloth and pull this shoulder downward.

Quickly raise your right knee up and drive it forcefully into your assailant’s côleî. This will immediately cause him to bend foreword, so as to protect that most sensitive area.

Continue pulling your assailant’s right shoulder down as you pass your left arm under the crook of his right arm. As you do this you should pivot clockwise on the ball of your left foot and placed your right foot to the side so that you are standing sideways in relation to your opponent. Place your left hand on top of your right hand. The assailant’s arm should now be resting on your left shoulder.

In this position you should have no difficulty in forcing him to his knees.

(This letter is accompanied by a line drawing showing an ushiro ude gatami style of shoulder lock.)

(Vernet Collection: Holmes, 1988/217/02)

When he had finished the article, Barton-Wright sent a copy for Holmes to peruse. The great detective sent a warm response, which ended with an odd admonition.

Never underestimate the efficacy of a knee to the thigh, my dear Barton-Wright. I was once able to subdue a skilled Whitechapel punisher of nearly 18 stone by clinching him tightly with a rear bear hug and repeatedly driving the point of my kneecap into his hamstrings.

(Vernet Collection: Holmes, 1988/217/04)

In February, Barton-Wright encountered a slight set-back.

I have been asked to omit a section of my Pearson’s article which demonstrates how to meet a knife attack and disarm the assailant. Messrs. Pearson and Everett thought it inadvisable that such great publicity should be given to these feats. While I understand the nature of their concern, I feel that these methods provide a simple and effective way to meet contingencies of that kind. I was attacked by men with knives on several occasions during a long residence in Portugal, and in every case I succeeded in disabling my adversary without being hurt myself, although I had not even a stick in my hand with which to defend myself.

To which Holmes responded:

This omission is no doubt for the best. Such tasks are difficult, dangerous and should not be entered lightly.

The last time I was required to defend myself against a dagger was in August of 1889. A certain Mr. (Joseph Harrison) possessed rather more viciousness that I gave him credit for. Upon discovery, he flew at me with his knife. Fortunately he was a novice with the sticker. His blade was a mere 3 inches in length; not nearly long enough to penetrate the heart through layers of fascia, chest muscles, and rib cage. I was able to evade his thrust, but had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him. I gave him a rather sharp kick to the shin and then another to the arbor vitae. By this time I was able to gain control of his elbow and could disarm him with a blow to the carotid artery. He looked murder out of the only eye he could see with when we had finished.

(Vernet Collection: Holmes, 1988/217/05)

Otherwise, things were going well.

The Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture was established at 67a Shaftesbury Avenue in Soho. Pierre Vigny agreed to give instruction on his revolutionary method of stick fighting. Four talented young Jujitsu teachers soon arrived from Japan: S. Yamamoto, Sadakazu Uyenishi and the Tani Brothers. Barton-Wright began advertising his system at different venues with a series of lectures, demonstrations and challenges. Holmes attended several and was amused by his friend’s promotional sense.

On 22 August 1901, the Bartitsu Club was preparing for a public lecture and exhibition at the Tivoli Theatre. They invited the press and a few comrades to a private rehearsal. Holmes was among them.

The next morning he wrote Barton-Wright a congratulatory note. At one point, he mildly took his friend to task for certain comments about European wrestling which could have been interpreted as sardonic or condescending. Barton-Wright wrote a short reply which denied the allegation, while at the same time also seemed to confirm it.

I have no bias against the Greco-Romans, as you seem to believe. I merely feel a certainty, born of experience, that there are more elegant and effective styles of wrestling in the world. To my knowledge none of the great European wrestlers has ever prevailed against a champion of Ju-do or Ju-jitsu, and in fact most refuse to even run that risk for fear of having their necks broken. My mind, as ever, remains open. I am perfectly willing to study anything which can add to my store of practical knowledge. I am fully prepared to learn a new style of western wrestling should I encounter a wrestler who can convince me that his power resides in reproducible technique and not to an aberration of personal size or brute strength.

(Sheridan, 1947/042/03)

It is interesting to note that, within a month’s time, Vigny was dispatched to Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, to recruit a young all-in wrestling phenom named Armand Cherpillod.

The only known photograph of E.W. Barton-Wright (left) and Sherlock Holmes (circa 1900).

Holmes was a frequent visitor to the Shaftesbury Avenue Club. He greatly enjoyed watching the bouts and attending lessons in various fighting styles. He regularly made use of the club’s gymnasium.

A notebook from that period also give us some insight into his exercise program. Sherlock Holmes sought to train his entire body during each workout session and his exercises were designed for both strength and endurance. His typical workout featured sprints, stretches, bends, push-ups, jumping jacks, handstands, fast high knee raises, sandbag lifting and skipping-rope. He would wind a length of thick nautical rope around a chin-bar so that the ends hung down; his pull-ups were done while gripping this rope. Sometimes he would hold tennis balls in his hands while doing the pull-ups. Depending on his mood, he would incorporate various pieces of gym equipment into his routine. Holmes was equally adept with the barbell, the dumbell, wand pulley, Indian club, medicine ball, crusher, kettlebell and swingbell.

This workout routine becomes even more remarkable when one considers that Sherlock Holmes was, at this time, a forty-eight year old man.

After a long workout Holmes would sometimes avail himself of the Club’s sun lamps and radiant heat baths. More often, he would stop into Nevill’s Turkish Baths on his way home.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays Holmes would focus on his punching, kicking and footwork drills. (These sessions often ended with sparring or “back and forth” with a partner.) Holmes very much enjoyed sparring. He tested himself against anyone who he thought might offer him a challenge.

One of the instructors in particular intrigued him.

From Holmes to Barton-Wright, dated 16 August 1901:

I’m a bit of a single-stick expert, as you know, and have been fencing since my first year at Oxford. Thus, I am most fascinated by Monsieur Vigny’s use of the cane. The guards were not what I expected, but I now find them to be rather inspired.

And again, from 9 April 1902:

Vigny and I were able to engage in a short assault this evening. In the end, the Frenchman was too much for me, but I would like to think that I gave as well as I received. As we saluted he congratulated me on my competence with the stick and on my tolerance for blows.

I encountered him again upon leaving. He eyed my walking stick approvingly and said, “Ah, a silver-mounted malacca cane. Very fine. I have one myself.”

We had a short cordial conversation and shook hands. “I understand that you once rendered a service for Monsieur Charles Charlemont, the (savate) champion,” he said, (no doubt referring to that dreadful business of the Azure Window). “I have long wished to meet him. If you should see him again soon, please tell him that I am at his disposal, for any stake he should want. Queensberry rules, of course.”

He walked away without another word.

At this point, the conversation between E.W. Barton-Wright and Sherlock Holmes comes to a full stop.

Continue to Part Three.

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