Mary Russell, the “Flying Duchess”

  • Originally published on the site on Sunday, 7th October 2018

Emily (Diana) Watts‘ 1905 book The Fine Art of Jujutsu is historically significant as the first Japanese unarmed combat manual to have been written by a woman, and also the first English-language manual to represent Kodokan judo.

Mrs. Watts’ book was dedicated to “Her Grace the Duchess of Bedford, with grateful affection”, and the photographs illustrating the Fine Art were taken on the lawns of Bedford Abbey in Bedfordshire, which was one of the Duchess’s homes.  According to Meriel Buxton, the author of the biography The Flying Duchess: Mary du Caurroy Bedford, 1865-1937, the Duchess not only leant her property and patronage to Mrs. Watts’ project, but also took an active part in its production as a demonstrator in many of the photographs.

Confirming the Duchess’s role in The Fine Art of Jujutsu is complicated by the claim by some modern researchers that she also wrote the book’s introduction.  In fact, Mrs. Watts wrote the introduction herself, following a preface written by Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton.  Newspaper archive searches fail to bring up any other connection between the Duchess of Bedford and jujutsu training.

However, although Mrs. Watts only named Sadakazu Uyenishi among the several people photographed assisting her in the technical photos, one of her female sparring partners does closely resemble the Duchess.  Speculatively, she may have been a private student of the art.

The Duchess of Bedford led an adventurous life as a sportswoman and organiser of charities, notably establishing and working in a series of cottage hospitals on the grounds of Bedford Abbey to care for wounded soldiers during the First World War.  She was also a pioneering aviatrix, gaining her pilot’s license during her mid-60s and accomplishing several long-distance flights.  She died at the age of 71, in March of 1937, when her plane went down in the North Sea; her body was never recovered.

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