Bartitsu: The English Gentleman’s Martial Art

Did you think that the martial arts were the preserve of Japan, China and other East Asian countries? Well, think again because the UK has its very own proud martial tradition.

From various types of sword fighting and wrestling systems, it also has its very own gentleman’s martial art. Mentioned in the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (because Sherlock Holmes was a practitioner), Bartitsu is the quintessential English martial art and it still exists to this day.

What is Bartitsu?

 

Bartitsu

Bartitsu is effectively the forerunner of modern day martial arts such as MMA. Traditionally, martial arts were all single system and were very much an East Asian thing with Westerners not being very well versed in them.

However, this all changed when Edward William Barton-Wright studied various martial arts in both East Asia and Europe and decided to combine the very best elements of them to form a martial art that could be used by gentleman on the tough streets of Edwardian London.

MMA has done the same thing more recently, taking the best bits of modern fighting arts and combining them into one, more effective system.

The History of Bartitsu

The founder of Bartitsu, Edward William Barton-Wright, was an accomplished engineer and his sterling work on the railways in the UK led to his services being in much demand across the world.

It was this that saw him travel to Japan to work for several years, and it was here that he began to study Japanese martial arts. He studied at east two styles of Jiu Jitsu, including Shinden Fudo Ryu, as well as Judo at the Jigoro Kano’s famous Kodokan in Tokyo.

On his return to England, Barton-Wright continued his martial arts studies and studied more homegrown arts, such as traditional British boxing and pugilism. He also studied the kickboxing type French martial art Savate, as well as French stick fighting (la canne).

In 1898, his ideas came to fruition and he announced the formation of a ‘New Art of Self Defence’ in a published pamphlet and quit his job as an engineer to open up a brand new martial arts school based in Soho’s Shaftesbury Avenue.

This new school offered Bartitsu training, as well as a wide range of therapies such as heat and light therapy and it was popular amongst a wide group of people, including athletes, politicians, soldiers and aristocrats. As time went on, the art developed and weapons such as walking sticks and umbrellas were added to the system, as these were often carried by gentlemen of the day.

Some of the greatest martial artists from around the world came to teach and study at the school, including S. Yamamoto, Armand Cherpillod, Pierre Vigny and K. Tani.

Sadly, after a few years, the Bartitsu school closed down, and his students went their own way and established their own schools of self defence, but not before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes practicing Bartitsu in the Adventure of the Empty House (although he did spell it ‘Baritsu’. Barton-Wright continued to teach Bartitsu until the 1920s but spent the rest of his career as a physical therapist, dying in 1951 at the age of 90.

What does Bartitsu consist of?

Bartitsu’s effectiveness rested upon the fact that it took the best bit from several tough and effective martial arts. These include:

Boxing

Unlike the boxers of today who are constantly moving in a fluid way, the boxers of Barton-Wright’s day were more stiff and upright. This was the style he taught in Bartitsu. Despite the difference in then and now, the old style of boxing could still deliver a very hard and very effective punch with both hands.

Jujitsu

The main style that underpins Bartitsu, Jujitsu influence can also be seen in the name of Bartitsu. A martial art that was based upon the art of the Samurai, Jujitsu encompasses punches, kicks, locks and throws and was a popular pastime in the 19th Century with President of the United States of America Teddy Roosevelt being a practitioner.

Savate

Savate, also known as Boxe Francaise is a French style of kickboxing that was developed by French sailors who were fond of street fighting. Based on kicks and slaps, it is a fast paced and exciting martial art.

Stick fighting

French stick fighting, also known as ‘la canne’ was popularised by Pierre Vigny who Barton-Wright brought across to London to teach his students. Because English gentlemen often carried umbrellas and canes, he amended the art to take account of these and it was a deadly system utilised these weapons to all parts of the body.

Some typical Bartitsu techniques

Much of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu makes use of what is known as improvised fighting, and makes use of improvised weapons and surprises. These include:

  • Using your cloak or coat – Barton-Wright taught several techniques that utilised clothing. Throwing a heavy overcoat over an attacker can contain him and enable you to take control of a situation quickly and efficiently.
  • Using your hat – Hats were often used in Bartitsu, whether it be to distract an attacker or to use it as a weapon.
  • Handkerchief – All gentlemen carried a handkerchief and this was very handy to be used as a distraction as well as temporarily blinding an attacker.

Where can I study Bartitsu?

Classes are available across the UK, so if you would like to study this ‘gentleman’s martial art, then take a look at the list below to see if there are any clubs or instructors near you.