The Origins of Bartitsu

The founder of Bartitsu was born on November the 8th of the year 1860 in Bangalore, India.  His name at birth was Edward William Wright.  His mother, Janet, was of Scottish descent and his Northumbrian father, William, was a prominent railway engineer. As Edward Wright was growing up he travelled to many different countries, receiving both a traditional education and a chance to explore various martial arts.  In his early 30s he legally changed his name to Edward William Barton-Wright.

As he was to explain to Budokwai founder Gunji Koizumi:

I have always been interested in the arts of self-defence and I learned various methods including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of the stiletto under recognised masters, and by engaging toughs I trained myself until I was satisfied in practical application. (Koizumi, 1950).

While working in Japan, Barton-Wright had studied two different jiujitsu ryu (schools): the Shinden-Fudo Ryu under sensei Terajima Kuniichiro in Kobe and Kodokan Jiujitsu, possibly with Kano Jigoro, in Tokyo.

By the time he returned to England from Japan in 1898, he was a man of the world, an enthusiastic entrepreneur ready to make his mark by combining all of the martial arts that he had been exposed to into a single, unified whole. Although initially focussing on jiujitsu, which had been exhibited once or twice before in England but never taught there, Barton-Wright’s vision was broader than any one method:

Bartitsu has been devised with a view to impart to peacefully disposed men the science of defending themselves against ruffians or bullies, and comprises not only boxing but also the use of the stick, feet, and a very tricky and clever style of Japanese wrestling, in which weight and strength play only a very minor part. (Barton-Wright, 1902)

Bartitsu’s cultural origins can be traced to three primary popular trends of the 1890s. These include the media-fed panic concerning street violence, both “at home” and abroad; the public fascination with Asian (especially Japanese) culture, and the fad of Physical Culture and a means of developing both moral and corporal fitness.

The Gentlemanly Art Of Self Defence

Bartitsu was geared specifically towards the problems of self defence in an urban, industrialised society, and was promoted to the middle and upper classes at a time when the bourgeoisie of Europe were becoming increasingly alarmed about their own safety. The phenomenon of street gangsterism was receiving wide publicity through the newspapers, which had recently discovered that sensational stories about sport and violence attracted a greater readership than did political reportage.

Lurid articles detailed the latest atrocities of the Apaches, the feared street-fighters of the notorious Montmartre district in Paris, as well as the exploits of Hooligans, Cornermen, Scuttlers, and other gangsters prowling the streets of London, Dublin, Liverpool and Manchester. Even further afield, Larrikins prowled the back alleys of Sydney and Auckland, and the ethnic gang warfare of New York City was the stuff of legend.

Riding the crest of this wave, Barton-Wright promoted Bartitsu as an alternative to living in fear, both at home and while travelling abroad. It was specifically designed as a gentlemanly art of self defence. Historian Emelyne Godfrey notes:

Bartitsu was self-defence for the connoisseur, enabling the gentleman to reassert his physical presence on the street in a manner that was not only artful but aesthetically appealing. Barton-Wright’s martial art invited the gentleman to test his physical and mental skills, rather than simply purchasing one of the many weapons available. (Godfrey, 2005)

Orientalism

On March 31, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and the “Black Ships” of the United States Navy had forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa. Over the next fifty years, Japanese culture became increasingly available to the Western World and Barton-Wright’s martial art was introduced at a time of almost unprecedented public interest and enthusiasm for all things Japanese.

One of his most significant Bartitsu presentations was to the members of the Japan Society of London, which had grown out of a meeting of the International Congress of Orientalists held in London on September 9, 1891.

The charter of the Japan Society was “the encouragement of Japanese studies and for the purpose of bringing together all those in the United Kingdom and throughout the world who are interested in Japanese matters”. After Barton-Wright’s lecture and demonstration the Chairman, Mr. Diosy, said that:

This wonderful art of self-defence, when used as it should be, in defending the weak against the strong, would be of great service in those countries where one would not find fair play (Lecture on “Jiujitsu and Judo”, delivered to the Japan Society of London # 20, Hanover Square, London, February 13, 1901)

Physical Culture

The third major influence upon Bartitsu was the increasing European enthusiasm for what had become known as “Physical Culture”.

One social consequence of the Industrial Revolution had been the perception of a steady decline in the physical condition of Britain’s increasingly sedentary middle and upper classes. This co-incided with an emerging re-definition of “sport” as a wholesome athletic activity that could be pursued by amateurs, as opposed to the gambling culture of prize-fighting, horse-racing and womanising.

This combination also led to the establishment of urban gymnasia to correct corpulency and other ailments associated with the sedentary lifestyle. By the late 1800s, a large number of competing systems of calisthenic, weightlifting and other forms of exercise had become available to the public.

Scientific boxing, along with quarterstaff play and the arts of singlestick, sabre, foil and bayonet fencing were all enthusiastically embraced by students at the salles d’armes and gymnasia that flourished in major English cities towards the end of the 1800s. Notable examples in London included the Young Men’s Christian Association, the German Gymnasium and the Inns of Court School of Arms. In these gymnasia, amateur boxers rubbed shoulders with fencers in a range of styles, wrestlers and other enthusiasts of the manly arts.

The largely middle-class physical culture phenomenon included a wide variety of exercise systems, more or less dependent upon Indian clubs, dumb-bells, rope and pulley exercisers, pommel horses, gymnastic equipment and elaborate weight-lifting apparatus. Many of these exercises found their way into the curricula of contemporary martial arts and combat sports academies and eventually also into public display via civilian Assaults at Arms, which were often arranged as fund raisers by amateur athletic clubs.

Physical culture also became associated with dietary and even spiritual concerns, as in the ethic of “Muscular Christianity,” a phrase that had been coined in an anonymous Saturday Review notice in 1857. According to researcher Joe Svinth:

The phrase described the philosophy that a perfect Christian gentleman should be able to fear God, play sports, and doctor a horse with equal skill. “The object of education,” said an editorial in Spirit of the Times, “is to make men out of boys. Real live men, not bookworms, not smart fellows, but manly fellows.”

The Latin phrase mens sane in corpore sano, a sound mind in a healthy body, became the motto for many British boys’ schools in the mid-late 1800s. The “sound mind” aspect was interpreted as moral rectitude rather than as intellectual prowess, and Muscular Christianity offered a new model of masculinity for generations of young Englishmen.

In promoting Bartitsu, Barton-Wright often noted the physical benefits to be accrued by regular practice of the art:

Besides being a most useful and practical accomplishment, this new art of self-defence with a walking-stick is to be recommended as a most exhilarating and graceful exercise. (“Self-defence with a Walking-stick (Part 2)” E.W. Barton-Wright, Pearson’s Magazine, 11, February 1901, 195-204.)

Bartitsu also comprises a system of physical culture which is as complete and thorough as the art of self defence. (“The Latest Fashionable Pastime: The Bartitsu Club”. Black and White Budget magazine, 29-12-1900)

[Originally written by Tony Wolf 15/01/07]

29 Comments

  • By Nick Collins, Tuesday, 7th October 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Ever since I was 13 When I first read Sherlock Holmes,I always wanted to know what Bartitsu was.
    Now that my curiosity is satisfied, I was wondering if there are seminars happening in England in the near Future?

  • By James, Tuesday, 7th October 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    Hi Nick, thanks for your comment.

    There are irregular Bartitsu seminars held in England. Whereabouts are you located?

  • By Bill Casey, Friday, 29th May 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Bartitsu in many respects has become “canemaster.” Mr. Mark Shuey, Sr. is the grandmaster of canemasters intl. Check it out!

  • By James, Friday, 29th May 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    Hi Bill, thanks for commenting.

    I’d disagree about Bartitsu having become ‘Canemasters’. The cane techniques of Bartitsu come from Vigny’s La Canne, whilst I believe Mr Shuey has a background in Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido and Tang Soo Do.

  • By Tony Wolf, Sunday, 31st May 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    Hi Bill,

    just echoing James, to the effect that while Vigny/Bartitsu cane fighting and the CaneMasters system use a similar weapon, there is no actual historical connection between these styles.

    Cheers,

    Tony

  • By Nicc, Saturday, 13th June 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    Is there anywhere in London where one can learn the art of Bartitsu?

  • By James, Saturday, 13th June 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I offer private classes and occasional seminars in the London area. Drop me a mail if you’d like to organise something.

  • By sef, Friday, 21st August 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    hey james

    do you know if the japanese man in the first picture is terajima kuniichiro?

    just doing some research.

    thanks

    i have really enjoyed this site

  • By James, Friday, 21st August 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    Hi Sef,

    I’m not sure, but I’ve mailed Tony to ask him, as I think he sourced the picture.

  • By Tony Wolf, Friday, 21st August 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Hi Sef,

    the ID of Barton-Wright’s demo partner in these pictures (and the style they’re demonstrating) is one of the great Bartitsu mysteries.

    On the face of it, since we know that he trained primarily with Terajima Kuniichiro in Kobe, it seems not unlikely that it’s Kuniichiro and that the demo. is of Shinden-Fudo Ryu waza; note that this is not, apparently, the SFR associated with the Bujinkan, but another school with the same name.

    On the other hand, the man in the pictures bears a strong resemblance to Yazo Eguchi of the Kyushin Ryu.

    Research is ongoing …

    Cheers,

    Tony

  • By damion, Thursday, 17th September 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    hey, would love to visit your dojo or a seminar next time I´m in England!
    How regular are they. Do you give regular classes?
    Cheers
    Damion

  • By James, Thursday, 17th September 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Hi Damion,

    There are a few options for training, depending on where in the world you are. Details of all the classes we know about can be found here.

    Cheers,

    James.

  • By Corinne, Tuesday, 22nd December 2009 @ 2:53 am

    Thank you for a very thorough description and history of bartitsu. I can see that many self defense classes (especially for women)have a strong basis in this art.

    It will be interesting to see if there is a surge in interest once the new Sherlock Holmes movie is released everywhere.

  • By James, Tuesday, 22nd December 2009 @ 2:58 am

    Thanks Corinne. I hope the film is a success as well,

  • By Fianna, Monday, 18th January 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    This thing reminds me of a philipine martial art called “arnis kala” that is practiced with a pair of medium to small size staffs…(and it´s VERY effective…)

  • By James, Friday, 29th January 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    Hi Fianna, thanks for commenting.

    I’m not familiar with that particular form of Arnis, but I know those arts are very well regarded. Bartitsu comes from a different base, but it is not surprising you see similarities. There are similar techniques in all martial arts.

  • By Gabriel, Wednesday, 7th April 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    I have great respect for Bartitsu, especially it’s origins and it’s ‘rebirth’ if you will. I was wondering if there is any reputable school in New York? Or if not are there any regular seminars held there? Thank you!

  • By Bartitsu Society, Thursday, 15th April 2010 @ 8:26 am

    Hi Gabriel,

    I’m not aware of any schools or study groups in NY, but there is talk of running a major seminar on the East Coast later this year. I suggest that you join the Bartitsu Forum Yahoo Group email list to keep abreast of developments in that area.

  • By Derek Lyons, Monday, 7th March 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    A film should be made on the life of Edward William Barton-Wright, which would be wonderful. Hugh Jackman would be perfect to play E W Barton -Wright t and Tony Wolf could be an adviser on this movie!
    What do you guys think??

    Directed by Tim Burton or someone with creative vision!

  • By Bartitsu Society, Tuesday, 8th March 2011 @ 12:22 am

    Hi Derek,

    I’m not sure that Barton-Wright’s story would be all that commercially appealing as a drama, but we have recently produced a documentary treatment which should be available very soon.

  • By Derek Lyons, Tuesday, 8th March 2011 @ 7:36 pm

    I look forward to seeing the documentary when it is released!

    Thanks to Bartitsu Society for your reply.

  • By Barry Mottershead, Sunday, 27th March 2011 @ 2:01 am

    Hi: I am amazed with Mr. Barton Wright’s story. I live in Edmonton, Alberta Canada and as I would imagine there is not any affiliated schools around do you have DVD educational courses available or are there instructional books available from you or other sources? I instruct Aikido but am an advocate of learning any fighting style that will aid me while defending myself or my family from harm. I stress to my students how important it is to learn as many techniques possible- Many people have forgotten that Aikido is a Martial Art and was derived from two very brutal styles of Japanese martial arts.
    Thanks for the article and hopefully some help in obtaining more information on this style of defence.
    Barry Mottershead

  • By Bartitsu Society, Sunday, 27th March 2011 @ 8:01 am

    Hi Barry,

    we don’t have any formal instructional DVDs, but there are some videos available on this site. Try clicking on the “videos” link under “Categories” on the right hand side of the screen. The two volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium are available via the Antagonistics Emporium.

    If you’re interested in Bartitsu I suggest that you join the Bartitsu Forum to correspond with other enthusiasts.

  • By Yours Truly, Sunday, 19th June 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    Bartitsu — A most interesting art form. Thanks for sharing its history with the rest of the world.

  • By Andre Luiz Lace Lopes, Tuesday, 30th August 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    Dear Sir,
    I am in London rofght now (Royal Garden Hotel, room 932), I woul like to visitit your headquarter”.
    Änd donate some cds about brazilien capoeira.
    Cordially,
    André Luiz Lacé Lopes

  • By Michael Kottler, Thursday, 16th October 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    Thank you for creating and posting this informative article on Mr. Barton-Wright and his Bartitsu. Regarding the Sherlock Holmes references, this article seems to represent Sherlock Holmes as having been a real person, an intriguing possibility to be sure, but one which contradicts Mr. Holmes status as a fictional character. Can you please comment?

  • By Bartitsuka, Friday, 17th October 2014 @ 2:46 am

    This article doesn’t make any reference to Sherlock Holmes. We do have a series of three articles elsewhere on the site that are written in the tradition of “playing the great game”, which refers to “playing along” with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s presentation of Holmes as a real person.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Lost Martial Art Bartitsu Rediscovered a Century Later | Martial Arts Nomad dot com — Tuesday, 8th September 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  2. » “Chinese fighting: part of a gentleman’s education” (1845) — Saturday, 19th November 2011 @ 8:03 pm

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