Jiujitsu: “Not So Much of a Novelty” circa 1900?

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Thursday, 17th February 2011

I do not recognise a trip, throw or hold in the Japanese method which is not to be found in the Lancashire, Devonshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, Greco-Roman or Catch-hold styles. Even the scissors-throw has been practiced by rongas and poachers since time immemorial, and is known among them as the ‘Salisbury Shake’. – Professor Andrew Newton

At the height of the early 1900s controversy surrounding the efficiency of Japanese unarmed combat, it was not uncommon for critics to suggest that jiujitsu was, in fact, nothing new at all; that similar or identical methods were already known in the Western world. Charles Charlemont, championing the cause of French kickboxing against the supposed novelties of jiujitsu, responded to a journalist’s question by remarking:

What do I think of this jiujitsu, which is attaining such excellent publicity? I think that it has been here in Europe for a long time. The proof is here.

… and drew from his library a copy of the book Clear Instructions on the Excellent Art of Wrestling (1674). The parallels between the method detailed in that book and jiujitsu were not lost on Bartitsu Club instructor Capt. Alfred Hutton, who included an escort technique from Clear Instructions in his monograph on Ju Jitsu for Schoolboys.

Similarly, Police Sergeant G.H. Wheeldon was to note:

I might say that with the exception of one throw, the whole of the throws in Ju-jutsu are to be found in the Cornish or the Cumberland and Westmoreland styles. Also the scissors-hold belongs to the catch-as-catch-can, and I can prove this by books published in 1826, many years before Japan opened her doors to other nations.

It’s true that nationalistic sentiment was rife during the Edwardian era and also that there are, in fact, many common techniques between traditional Japanese and English wrestling styles. It’s also true that some of the most vehement critics were evidently not aware of the full jiujitsu repertoire. Still, it’s intriguing to speculate about the parallel tradition of unorthodox fighting tricks hinted at in some of these comments.

As described in the 1913 book The Walled City: a Story of the Criminal Insane, by Edward Huntington Williams, there had apparently existed an un-named system of control and escort holds, clandestinely practiced among workers in American psychiatric hospitals and dating back to the mid-19th century:

None of these methods were countenanced by any of the officers in control of any institution; and, in truth, a large number of the officers never even suspected their existence, although the attendants sometimes used them under the very noses of their superior officers, without detection, or without injury to the patient. And when the much advertised Japanese jiu jitsu took the country by storm as a novelty a few years ago these veteran attendants had their little laugh all to themselves. It wasn’t so much of a novelty to them as to the generality of people.

Even earlier, self defence “tricks” far outside the rules of boxing and wrestling had frequently been appended to manuals on orthodox combat sports, or occasionally catalogued in books such as the Baron Charles de Berenger’s How to Protect Life and Property (1838). As the anonymous author of the article Tricks of Self Defence (1899) put it:

“There is a lot of talk about new methods of self-defence,” said an old sporting man, “but it seems to me that it is only an elaboration of what almost every man who followed the game in past days had to know or go under.

It’s entirely possible that some of the unusual techniques recorded in early 20th century jiujitsu manuals were remnants of this informal tradition, which likely comprised equal parts improvisation, word-of-mouth example and “gym wisdom” passed along by generations of athletes, street fighters and police trainers. In a sense, perhaps, Barton-Wright’s introduction of jiujitsu and development of Bartitsu offered a framework by which some of these tricks could be practiced and recorded.

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