Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes
Regular readers of Bullshido will have enjoyed many discussions of “Bartitsu,” the style of nineteenth-century cross-training invented by a self-promoting son of empire named Edward William Barton-Wright.
That we know even the first thing about Bartitsu is thanks to years of research undertaken by a community of dedicated martial-arts historians, without whom it would have remained the subtlest of hints buried deep within a work of Edwardian fiction - namely Sherlock Holmes’ allusion to “some knowledge…of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling,” employed in his final deadly battle with his arch-nemesis, Moriaty. But from this small typographical anomaly has come an abundance of knowledge, most notably from our very own Tony “DdlR” Wolf, whose work unearthing lost texts and reconstructing distant practices has already lead to the publication of two volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium, and the formation of numerous Bartitsu groups and seminars across Europe and North America.
Now, Tony’s work brings us the sleek and engaging Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes (Freelance Academy Press, 2011), an hour-long documentary that brings vividly to life the story of Barton-Wright, and traces his legacy as it passes between figures as diverse as Holmes, Jigoro Kano, the suffragettes, and even former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin.
Barton-Wright’s story is well known: born in Bangalore in 1860, the son of a prominent railway engineer, he was a member of the sharp-elbowed middle-classes who made their way around the colonies in a bid to get ahead. Claiming to have learnt boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and knife fighting while working in various mining camps, his business took him to Japan, where he studied jiu-jitsu (and may have briefly trained under Kano), before returning to Britain where he began to advocate cross-training in a range of martial arts.
While this definitive biography is narrated for us over rich period illustrations, the real strength of the documentary lies in the expert interviews that unpack the historical context from which Bartitsu emerged - as well as the anxieties on which it hoped to capitalize. Chief among these was the class antagonism that pervaded every aspect of British life, as the rapid industrialization and mass expansion of urban areas throughout the nineteenth-century lead to a flood of rural workers coming into cities to live in close and uneasy proximity. New social frictions, combined with widespread poverty, lead to a rise in violent crime - or, at least, the perception of a rise in violent crime - that was answered by the formation of an organized police force, and by a perpetual concern among the middle-classes about the unstinting criminality of the urban poor.
Although he felt threatened, in matters of self-defence, the nineteenth-century bourgeois male was at an unfortunate disadvantage. The carrying of swords and pistols on public highways had long been obsolete, and, as the widespread panic induced by the “garroting” craze had shown, those men who had invested in anti-garroting collars and pistols were widely ridiculed for effeminacy. Into that gap stepped Barton-Wright, demonstrating the many ways in which a gentleman might employ everyday objects - hats, coats, walking sticks, bicycles - in self-defence, while also introducing his “scientifically planned” system of punches, kicks, locks and throws. Articles in periodicals were supplemented by musical hall exhibitions featuring his Japanese instructors, Yukio Tani and Sadokazu Uyenishi, until, in 1898, Barton-Wright opened a Bartitsu club at 67B Shaftsbury Avenue (note the pleasingly Holmesian “B”).
While the institution boasted the best instructors - adding the cane-master Pierre Vigny and wrestler Armand Cherpillod to Tani and Uyenishi - the institution appears to have been founded on somewhat contradictory principles. As Wolf subtly emphasizes, on the one hand, both advertising and popular entertainment played an important part in the development of the system; while on the other, the club’s strict committee structure and exclusive membership rules automatically narrowed its prospective clientele. Inevitably, it struggled. Perhaps himself an embodiment of these contradictions - part-showman, part-social climber - Barton-Wright was certainly a difficult man to get along with, and when the club closed in early 1902, it was amidst scuffles and rancour.
Following the Bartitsu club’s demise, the documentary shifts its focus from Barton-Wright himself, who seems to have turned his back on teaching self-defence, to consider the ways in which his influence spooled out across the western martial arts world. Having brought jiu-jitsu to Europe, for example, its popularity increased up until the First World War, and was adopted by policemen, boy scouts, and suffragettes. Similarly, the influence of Barton-Wright’s philosophy of cross-training informed the practices of other martial artists - including Vigny and Tani – from there becoming a many-tentacled thing influencing, among others, the colonial Indian police force, and the Haganah Jewish self-defence forces in Palestine (hence Yitzak Rabin).
As an innovator, Barton-Wright was far ahead of his time, and this superbly watchable piece of martial arts history rightly returns him to a place of prominence. The urge to train Bartitsu is hard to resist having watched this fascinating hour, and if there are any criticisms, it’s that the few enactments are all too brief, and the short piece of full-contact footage we see is somewhat hampered by the necessity of the players to wear full body armour (not that I’m volunteering for a re-shoot.) Now we'll all have to start up clubs. Highly recommended.