La Savate at the Alhambra Music Hall (The Graphic – 29 October, 1898)

  • Originally published on the site on Sunday, 2nd October 2016

Events during the years immediately preceding E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu initiative had not predisposed the average Londoner to look kindly upon the French arts of self-defence. In October of 1899, just as Barton-Wright was beginning to promote his new Soho Bartitsu Club,  there took place the infamous savate vs. boxing contest between Joseph Charlemont and Jerry Driscoll, which ended in much controversy and recrimination.  The nationalistic ill-will generated by that contest may have spurred Barton-Wright’s curious comments to the effect that the savate taught at the Bartitsu Club was “not as the French do it”, and very likely also fuelled his vehement argument with Charlemont’s father a few years later.

A year before the Charlemont-Driscoll match, a small group of savateurs had travelled to London under less truly antagonistic circumstances, in order to demonstrate their art for audiences at the Alhambra Music Hall.  As has been discussed previously, their display was not especially well-received by lay-people, due largely to the insular English bias against foreign sports in general – and against kicking in particular.

The following report from The Graphic is typical, but also includes two rather nice sketches of the French athletes demonstrating  their style:

Our French visitors, the apostles of “La Savate,” will doubtless find it a hard task to persuade English athletes and amateurs of the “noble art of self defence” that kicking comes within the rules fair play, and to do them justice “les Boxeurs Francais,” now exhibiting their skill and prowess nightly in Leicester Square, have never put forth any such pretension. Their motive, as they have long proclaimed, is simply to show us what French boxing is like.  This they have done to the infinite amusement of spectators at the ALHAMBRA.


Some one parodying Wordsworth’s sonnet,  apropos of this exhibition, has expressed a wish that John Leech (a famous mid-Victorian caricaturist – Ed.) were living at this hour; and it is not difficult to imagine how that sturdy contemner of foreign professors of “le sport” in all its branches would have revelled in this nightly encounter with its wire masks, its padded gloves with gauntlet wrists, and its singlesticks without basket hills.


The performers are M. Arnal, professor of the Salle Castere, and M. Boudin, a pupil of the same academy. Into the mysteries of the “coup de savate,” the “coup de figure,” and other technicalities we cannot pretend to penetrate; but the reader may get some help from the little pamphlet which these enthusiasts have prepared for the instruction of their patrons, and also from our illustrations. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that M. Arnal’s feat in felling his opponent by the “coup d’arret” provoked on Monday audible tokens of disapprobation from various parts of the House. It might be French, but in the opinion of these malcontents it was “not fair.”

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