Bartitsu is an eclectic martial art and self defence method originally developed in England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
History: In 1898, Edward William Barton-Wright, a British engineer who had been building railways in Japan, returned to England and announced the formation of a “New Art of Self Defence”. This art, he claimed, combined the best elements of a range of fighting styles into a unified whole, which he had named Bartitsu. The word was a portmanteau of his own surname and of “jiujitsu”.
As detailed in a series of articles Barton-Wright produced for Pearson’s Magazine between 1899 and 1904, Bartitsu was largely drawn from the Shinden Fudo, Tenjin-Shinyo, Fusen and Daito Ryu schools of koryu (“classical”) jujutsu and from Kodokan judo.
The art also incorporated combat techniques from British boxing, Swiss schwingen, French savate, and a defensive stick fighting style that had been developed by Professeur Pierre Vigny of Switzerland.
The golden years of Bartitsu: Between 1899 and 1903, Barton-Wright set about publicising his art through magazine articles, interviews and a series of demonstrations or “assaults at arms” at various London venues. He established a school called the Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Phyical Culture, also known as the Bartitsu Club, which was located at #67b Shaftesbury Avenue in Soho.
In an article for Sandow’s Magazine published in 1902, journalist Mary Nugent described the Bartitsu Club as “… a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light, with ‘champions’ prowling around it like tigers.”
Via correspondence with Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo, and other contacts in Japan, Barton-Wright arranged for Japanese jujutsu practitioners Yukio Tani and Sadekazu Uyenishi to travel to London and serve as instructors at the Bartitsu Club. Swiss master-at-arms Pierre Vigny and wrestler Armand Cherpillod were also employed as teachers at the Club.
As well as teaching well-to-do Londoners, their duties included performing demonstrations and competing in challenge matches against fighters representing other combat styles. In addition, the Club became the headquarters for a group of fencing antiquarians led by Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton, and it served as their base for experimenting with historical fencing techniques, which they taught to members of London’s acting elite for use in stage combat.
Bartitsu Club membership included Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who was later to achieve notoriety as one of the few adult male survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, as well as Captain F.C. Laing of the 12th Bengal Infantry, who subsequently wrote an article on Bartitsu stick fighting techniques which was published in the Journal of the United Service Institution of India.
Barton-Wright later reported that, during this period, he had challenged and defeated seven larger men within three minutes as part of a Bartitsu demonstration he gave at St. James’s Hall. He said this feat earned him a membership in the prestigious Bath Club and also a Royal Command to appear before Edward, Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, Barton-Wright then suffered an injury to his hand, due either to a fight in a Kentish country lane or a bicycling accident, which prevented him from appearing before the Prince.
Bartitsu as a self defence method: It is unclear whether Barton-Wright ever devised a formal curriculum for Bartitsu as a self defence method. He encouraged members of the Bartitsu Club to study each of the four major hand-to-hand combat styles taught at the Club, with the goal of mastering each style well enough that they could be used against the others if needed. This process was similar to the modern concept of cross-training.
Based on Barton-Wright’s writings upon this subject, contemporary researchers believe that Bartitsu placed greatest emphasis upon the Vigny cane fighting system at the striking range and upon jujutsu (and, secondarily, the “all-in” style of European wrestling) at the grappling range. Savate and boxing methods were used to segue between these two ranges, or as a means of first response should the defender not be armed with a walking stick. Barton-Wright also modified the techniques of both boxing and savate for self defence purposes, as distinct from academic training and sporting competition.
According to interviewer Mary Nugent, Barton-Wright instituted an unusual pedagogical system whereby students were first required to attend private training sessions before being allowed to join class groups. It is currently believed that both private and group classes included pre-arranged exercises, especially for use in rehearsing those techniques that were too dangerous to be performed at full speed or contact, as well as free-sparring and fencing bouts.
Many Bartitsu self defence techniques and sequences were recorded by Barton-Wright himself in his series of articles for Pearson’s Magazine. The specific details of other Bartitsu stick fighting training drills were recorded in Captain Laing’s article.
The decline of Bartitsu: Despite his enthusiasm, Barton-Wright seems to have been a mediocre promoter and the fame of his associates and their jujutsu quickly eclipsed that of Bartitsu. By 1903, the Bartitsu Club had closed its doors for the last time; subsequent speculation had it that both the enrollment fee and the tuition fees had been too high.
Most of Barton-Wright’s assistants, including jujutsuka Yukio Tani and Sadekazu Uyenishi and Swiss self defence expert Pierre Vigny, established their own self defence and combat sports gymnasia in London. After breaking with Barton-Wright, purportedly due to an argument and a fight, Tani also continued his work as a professional music-hall wrestler under the shrewd management of William Bankier, a strength performer and magazine publisher who went by the stage name of “Apollo”.
Although Barton-Wright may have continued to develop and teach his martial art at least until the 1920s, it never again returned to prominence. Bartitsu might have been completely forgotten if not for a chance mention by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his Sherlock Holmes mystery stories. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903), Holmes explained that he had escaped the clutches of his enemy Professor Moriarty through his knowledge of “baritsu, or Japanese wrestling”. Doyle mis-spelled the name of the art; this error, in addition to the anachronism of portraying Bartitsu in a story set several years before the art had actually been invented, was enough to intrigue and confuse Holmesian scholars for most of the next century.
E.W. Barton-Wright spent the rest of his career working as a physical therapist specialising in innovative (and sometimes controversial) forms of heat, light, and radiation therapy. In 1950, Barton-Wright was interviewed for an article appearing in the Budokwai newsletter, and later that year he was presented to the audience at a Budokwai gathering in London. He died in 1951, at the age of 90, and was buried in what the late martial arts historian Richard Bowen described as being “a pauper’s grave.”
The Bartitsu legacy: In many ways, E.W. Barton-Wright was a man ahead of his time. He was among the first Europeans known to have studied the Japanese martial arts, and was almost certainly the first to have taught them in Europe, the Commonwealth of Nations or the Americas.
Bartitsu was probably the first martial art to have deliberately combined Asian and European fighting styles towards addressing the problems of civilian/urban self-defence in an “unarmed society”. In this, Barton-Wright anticipated Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do approach by over seventy years. Barton-Wright’s philosophy of pragmatic eclecticism was taken up by other early 20th century European self-defence specialists, including Percy Longhurst, George Dubois and Jean-Joseph Renaud, all of whom had studied with former Bartitsu Club instructors.
A similar philosophy was later to be embraced by Bill Underwood, William E. Fairbairn and others charged with developing close combat systems for use by Allied troops during the Second World War. Underwood had actually studied jujutsu with Yukio Tani and another jujutsuka, Taro Miyake, in London during the first decade of the 20th century. The systems founded by Underwood, Fairbairn, and their contemporaries became the basis for most military and police close-combat training throughout the Western world during the 20th century.
E.W. Barton-Wright is also remembered as a pioneering promoter of mixed martial arts or MMA contests, in which experts in different fighting styles compete under common rules. Barton-Wright’s champions, including Yukio Tani and Swiss schwingen wrestler Armand Cherpillod, enjoyed considerable success in these contests, which anticipated the MMA phenomenon of the 1990s by a hundred years.
The Bartitsu Club was the first school of its type in Europe to offer specialised classes in women’s self defence, a practice taken up after the Club’s demise by students of Yukio Tani and Sadekazu Uyenishi including Edith Garrud and Emily Watts. Mrs. Garrud established her own jiujitsu dojo (school) in London and also taught the art to members of the militant Suffragette movement, establishing an early association between self defence training and the political philosophy of feminism.
Contemporary interest in Bartitsu: In 2001, the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences (EJMAS) web site began to re-publish many of Barton-Wright’s magazine articles that had been uncovered by Richard Bowen. Almost immediately, the “Self Defence with a Walking Stick” articles attracted a minor cult following and the illustrations were reproduced, often with humorous captions or other alterations, on a number of other sites.
In 2002, an international association of Bartitsu enthusiasts, known as the Bartitsu Society, was formed to research and then revive E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence”. The Bartitsu Society divides Bartitsu research into two related fields, those of canonical Bartitsu (the self-defense sequences that were detailed by Barton-Wright and his assistants between 1899-1902) and neo-Bartitsu (modern, individualised interpretations drawing from, but not bound to, the original source material). The Society communicates via an email group established by author Will Thomas and individual members occasionally offer practical workshops in Bartitsu fighting techniques.
In August 2005, the Society published a book, The Bartitsu Compendium, which was edited by Tony Wolf. The Compendium details the complete history of the art as well as a technical curriculum for canonical Bartitsu.
In September 2006, Bartitsu Society member Kirk Lawson released a DVD presentation entitled Bartitsu – the Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes, which is a presentation of Bartitsu techniques as demonstrated at the Spring ’06 Cumann Bhata Western Martial Arts Seminar.
In October 2006, the Bartitsu Society launched the Bartitsu.org website, which includes information on the history, theory and practice of Barton-Wright’s martial art. Proceeds from the sales of the Bartitsu Compendium and the Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes DVD have been dedicated to creating a memorial for E.W. Barton-Wright.You might also like: