“Ancient Duels and Modern Fighting”: an Account of the Elizabethan Fencing and Bartitsu Display at the London Bath Club (March 9, 1899)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Thursday, 3rd March 2016

The following is a highly detailed account of the famous exhibition of both Elizabethan fencing and Bartitsu performed at the Bath Club during March of 1899.  This event was particularly significant to Bartitsu history in that it marked what was probably the first collaboration between E.W. Barton-Wright and Captain Alfred Hutton, who later joined the Board of Directors of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club and also taught historical fencing classes there.

It’s likely that the Bath Club exhibition was also the first time Barton-Wright met William Henry Grenfell (Lord Desborough), who went on to champion the Club in the media and to serve as its president, and also Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who later studied wrestling with Bartitsu Club instructor Armand Cherpillod.

This account, by an anonymous writer in the St. James’s Gazette, is clearly either closely based on notes by Captain Hutton or may actually have been written by him.  It includes several “new” details about Barton-Wright’s self defence exhibition, including the fact that he demonstrated self defence techniques using a pipe-case and a pen-holder – presumably in the manner of yawara sticks, as pressure weapons against an opponent’s bones and pressure points at extreme close quarters.

The writer’s comment about Barton-Wright demonstrating “the way to fall in the manner most disconcerting your opponent” is almost certainly a reference to sutemi or “sacrifice throw” techniques, which were unusual enough to excite comment from many witnesses of early Bartitsu displays.  Because most styles of European wrestling at this time were fought “to the fall”, the tactic of deliberately falling so as to use your own weight and momentum to throw the opponent (as in the jiujitsu tomoenage or “stomach throw”) was highly novel.

For an in-depth study of the late 19th century revival of Elizabethan fencing, including a chapter on Captain Hutton’s association with the Bartitsu Club, see Ancient Swordplay: The Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London.

Bartitsu/historical fencing exhibition at the Bath Club.

The Exhibition of Ancient Fence given at the Bath Club last night was one of the most interesting and varied that have been seen for a long while. Beginning with bout at Sword and Buckler, a game which can traced back to the Saxons and was in full vogue in the sixteenth century, Mr. Malcolm Fraser and Mr. E. D. Johnson gave a capital display of this somewhat boisterous art, though the stroke with the false edge just above the knee was hardly so conspicuous it might have been, considering the fatality which has always followed it ever since the immortal Coup de Jarnac.

The next fight, between Captain Matthey and Mr. Stenson Cooke, exhibited the beauties of a “case of rapiers,” that artful game with sword in each hand which Marozzo advised his pupils to study as very useful weapons to impose upon their adversary in a duel. The same master has much to say about the Two-Hand Sword, in which Mr. Cooke tried the strength of Mr. Gate in the next number the programme. This was the favourite weapon of our Henry VIII, who was peculiarly proficient in this form of fence derived from the system of the short staff.

Ladies Night at the Bath Club

It is interesting to note, in passing, that all the “armes blanches”, of which there were many in the sixteenth century, were probably derived from simple wooden weapons. Of these the most formidable was the quarter-staff, eight feet in length, which became the halbert, and is now represented by the bayonet and rifle. So skilful were the men of Devon with this weapon that one Master Peeake, of Tavistock, is recorded to have fought (and beaten) three Spaniards at once, armed only with his quarter-staff against their swords and daggers. Besides this, there was the “short staf of convenyent length,” described by George Silver; and it is pleasant coincidence that the “Paradoxes of Defence,” written by this famous Elizabethan Master at the end of .the sixteenth century, have just been republished (George Bell and Sons) by the same Captain Matthey who put his precepts so deftly into practice Bath Club last night.

The book is one that will be of the highest value to all who care for the science arms, as printed copies of the original are extremely rare, and have been chiefly known hitherto through the quotations given in Mr. Egerton Castle’s “Schools and Masters of Fence.” Rules for this shorter staff form the basis of the two-handed sword-play, and of the more modern French baton.

Third among these typical wooden weapons comes the ordinary cudgel or stout walking-stick, with which the medieval apprentice often used his hand-buckler. It still exists in the blackthorn of the Irish and the canne of the Frenchman, and in the sixteenth century gave rise to the sword and buckler play, as well to the game of sword and dagger and various other variations. In the book just published by Captain Matthey (a manuscript hitherto unprinted), George Silver is now for the first time given to English readers, though Captain Hutton had already referred to the rules for the “grip” given in this ancient treatise. This meant that the furious charge of an opponent could be met by seizing his hand or hilt or wrist with your own left hand, and then dispatching him with thrust, cut, or blow from the pummel; “after whiche,” says George Silver, “you may strike up his heels ” and so make an end.

There is no doubt that these guards and ripostes have been far too much neglected by modern army instructors, merely because the artificial rules of the duello have been allowed to spoil the free play of every faculty which is inevitable in battle. The use the butt of a rifle is deadly and often far more swift than thrust with bayonet; in the same way, if officers were taught to use their left hands in the guard, when possible, and to be ready with hilt, point or edge of the sword at the riposte, their possibilities attack and defence would be trebled.

The science of the grips alone will make a man a fighter, as distinguished from a fencer; and for a nation which laughs at the duello and does not do all its fighting in gymnasiums, it is quite unnecessary to be bound by mere convention.

The next exhibition of the “ arme blanche” was a fight between Captain Hutton and Mr. W. H. Grenfell, both armed with rapiers and daggers, and a very pretty game they made of it.  Thus doubly weaponed, the fencer’s game is very much the boxer’s. The slip, the pass, the feint, are all very similar. And we can sympathize still with old George Silver’s indignation at those new-fangled Italian masters who “fought as you sing prick-song, one, two, and the third in your bosom”, and used the point in manner far too deadly for these English, “who were strong, but had no cunning.”

"Fencing and Bartitsu at the Bath Club" - from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.  Captain Alfred Hutton and W.H. Grenfell demonstrate rapier and dagger fencing, while E.W. Barton-Wright displays Japanese unarmed combat.

After some admirable play with Rapier and Cloak, the most interesting and novel item in the programme began. Mr. E. W. Barton-Wright gave his extraordinary demonstration of combined methods of defence, to which boxing, the savate, the dagger, the cudgel, and the secrets of Japanese wrestling seem each to have contributed of their best. It is impossible to describe it fully here. But to see a man on his back, and yet prove completely victorious over any one rash enough attack him, or to behold Mr. Barton-Wright, armed with a pipe-case or a pen-holder, defending himself easily and holding his opponent in nerveless subjection, is to realise that there is more in “Bartitsu,” as the Japanese game is called, than meets the eye.

Mr. Barton-Wright began by describing the weak points in a man’s anatomy and exhibiting the way to fall in the manner most disconcerting your opponent. Most unfortunately, the opponent whose name appeared in the programme was in no need of any further attention in the way of falls, as he had put his shoulder out in cab accident the day before, and Mr. Barlon-Wright’s knee had been injured at the same time, so severely that he was unable to do more than give very convincing hints of how deal with turbulent adversaries, to break their arms, fracture their legs, or hurl them round the room in graceful attitudes, or otherwise impress them with the mastery of mind over matter. All this will be done in real earnest when Mr. Barton-Wright gives his full performance at St. James’s Hall, and the present little foretaste may be taken as a warning to all bear-fighters not to frequent Piccadilly while that show is in progress.

The Bath Club may be congratulated for a most picturesque display. The stage, set in the middle of a swimming-bath, offered continual possibilities of emotion, but no-one gave an involuntary swimming exhibition, and the nearest approach to a sensation was at the first stroke delivered in the Two-hand Sword-play, which recalled the famous duel in “Anne of Gierstein,” for Mr. Stenson Cooke struck one blow and shivered his weapon into two pieces with a very realistic crash of steel. Apart from that, perhaps the most dramatic episode in cold steel was when Captain Hutton, in giving several examples of the “grips and closes,” as taught George Silver aforesaid, suddenly disarmed Captain Matthey and administered a crashing blow with his hilt upon the point of his opponent’s jaw. An evening that included even boxing, in its exemplification of the various arts of self-defence, came to a pleasant conclusion with some pretty exhibitions of high-diving by the lady-instructress of the club.

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