“Sherlock Holmes and Bartitsu” (Part One)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Saturday, 28th August 2010

The Bartitsu Society is privileged to be able to host this memoir by Michael Bertram Wooster, the grandson of the late Sir Henry St John Merrivale, 9th Baronet (1871-1965).

Sir Henry’s acquaintance with the illustrious Holmes family offers fascinating insight into Sherlock Holmes’ infatuation with the antagonistic arts, as methods of self defence were described at the turn of the 20th century. Most intriguing and significant, from our point of view, is the revelation that S. Holmes actively collaborated with E. W. Barton-Wright in the founding of Bartitsu …

Sir Henry was the founding head of the Security Service Bureau’s Office of Counter-Intelligence. He served in that position between 1909 and 1914. His office was enfolded into the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI-5) shortly after the outbreak of World War I. During this time his only superior was Captain Vernon Kell, a man my grandfather detested.

Captain Vernon Kell

Sir Henry’s job often brought him into contact with Mycroft Holmes, who was then a senior official in the Foreign Office. Both men were members of the Diogenes, a venerable Pall Mall Gentleman’s Club. (There is a bit of controversy over when the two actually met. My great grand-uncle, George Byron Merrivale, spread scandalous rumors that the Old Man was actually Mycroft’s bastard son. I will note these rumors only to say that I don’t believe them. The idea of portly young Mycroft Holmes seducing Agnes Honoria Merrivale, staunch Methodist daughter of the Reverend William Gayle, is enough to make one laugh.)

Nevertheless, Holmes and Merrivale became good friends and formal confidants, after the reserved fashion of those times. It was my grandfather’s influence – and his large private collection of Holmes family memorabilia – which persuaded the Vernet Foundation in Paris to allow me – at that time, a mere Oxford undergraduate – entree to its Sherlock Holmes archives.

From these sources I have had access to information which, I believe, allows me to speak with some minor authority on the subject of Sherlock Holmes, Jujutsu and Bartitsu.

I can tell you this:

Sherlock Holmes, as an athlete, tended to focus on those exercises which strengthened the muscles and improved his cardiovascular system. He walked, hiked, wrestled and swam. He was an early advocate of both Hatha Yoga and scientific weight-training. (His archive contained correspondences with Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard’s Hemenway Gymnasium, the wrestler Martin “Farmer” Burns, strongmen Louis Cyr and Eugen Sandow.)

Holmes was an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman. As a child in Yorkshire, he was informally schooled in Bataireacht (traditional Gaelic stick fencing) by an Irish geometry tutor named Moriarty.

Holmes seems to have been a natural at bare-knuckle fisticuffs. On the night of his retirement benefit, Walter McMurdo, “the Slaughter-House Kid”, went three rounds with the amateur pugilist. Four years later, McMurdo still distinctly remembered the power of younger man’s right cross. “Ah,” he said, “you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the Fancy.” This was not good-natured guff on McMurdo’s part, either. A single left-handed straight from Holmes was enough to lay-out Roaring Jack Woodley, a ruffian from Farnham, Surrey.

So here we have a man whose favoured means of self defense is striking and whose primary weapons are fists, an old Malacca walking-stick and a weighted riding-crop.

How did such a man gravitate toward Bartitsu?

The genesis of Holmes’ interest in martial arts came in April of 1887. During a brief respite in Reigate, Surrey, Holmes found himself attacked by the Cunninghams, a murderous father and son, who ungallantly rushed him as a team. Holmes, seeing young Alec Cunningham closing quickly, attempted to keep his opponent at a distance by firing a jab. To Holmes great surprise, the son charged in recklessly and “ate the blow” to create an opening for his father. Both of these Reigate gentlemen had dabbled in boxing; and both had wrestled extensively in college. Squire Alec knew that a jab has little power behind it and simply bulled through for a rough takedown.

Holmes survived the attack – mainly due to the intervention of others – but he did not forget the lesson. He required a system of fighting which would allow him to defeat multiple opponents. And, although a master at striking, he needed to focus more on grappling and evasion.

For reasons known only to himself, Holmes chose to concentrate on Asian martial arts in this regard. It was perhaps a symptom of the times. The Orient held a certain fascination for Victorian Bohemia. The Mikado was a recent smash hit. Madam Blavatsky was raving about magical Himalayan priests. The Japanese Exhibition had recently drawn record crowds in Knightsbridge.

In a letter to Victor Trevor, an old college friend, written in June of that year, Sherlock Holmes wrote:

I owe a significant debt to that imbecile Athelney Jones. His brother-in-law spent nearly sixteen years as a missionary in (Guangdong Province). The Reverend Grubbe acquired a smattering of (Wing Chun) Kung Fu in that time and Jones has convinced him to teach me all he knows of it.

As a fighting style, (Wing Chun) reminds me a bit of bareknuckles and savate, but with a wrestler’s stance and limited footwork. The entire body moves forward foursquare, elbows bent and arms rarely extended in full, to fire vertical punches utilizing the heel or edge of the palm. The knuckles are reserved for pummeling softer, less bony areas. The focus of (Wing Chun) is on balance and stance, with economy of movement along a center line. There is a series of ingenious blocks and counter-strikes. When my comprehension of it becomes adequate, I will tell you later about the remarkable practice of ‘trapping hands’.

(Trevor-Pitt, 1969/113/-07)

His diary entry for Wednesday, 10 August 1887 states:

I have recently acquired a small Cantonese monograph on a system of Chinese Boxing called Choy Li Fut. It turned up a fortnight ago at a dollyshop near Wapping Old Stairs. Phineas the pawnbroker, knowing my tastes and anticipating my pleasure, ran it round immediately. Pratchett at the British Museum is helping me with the translation. So far it seems just the thing for dispatching multiple opponents.

(Pike, 1954/053/-02)

The first mention of Jujutsu comes from a letter to Mycroft Holmes, dated Tuesday, 10 January 1888.

I have heard much recently of a clandestine style of Japanese wrestling called Kumiuchi or Jiu-Jitsu. It is – by all accounts – a sophisticated and scientific method of grappling derived from a close study of anatomy and physiology. It employs leverage and balance to an impressive degree and implements a series of hooks and body throws similar in technique to that of the robust Lancastrian catch wrestlers of recent popular acclaim. I have been informed that a practitioner of this Nipponese art can manipulate and distort the joints of the body – not merely limbs, but also neck and shoulders – to the maximal range of motion, and in a direction inimical to their alignment. The slightest application of pressure is thereafter able to subdue even the most powerful of foes.

I am, as you well know, a pugilist by nature. I am most comfortable standing upright and using my fists. My brief studies of (Wing Chun) and Choy Li Fut have afforded a slight level of ease with elbows, knees and feet. I recognize that this is not enough.

I have no wish to ever find myself prostrate on the ground during an assault, however I must of necessity entertain the possibility that I may – through whatever agency – end up once again in that position. I must, therefore, develop a comprehensive understanding of grappling and wrestling so that I might know what to do once I am there. I feel that this Kumiuchi might provide me with that skill and discernment.

It is a most singular and perplexing task which I now undertake, as stimulating and unusual as any which I have faced in my professional career. I will seek an introduction to a competent samurai and compel him through whatever means I can to teach me his art. The natural obstinacy of the Japanese will hinder me, no doubt; and their understandable distrust of both the Law and the Gaijin might just contain me altogether.

(Russell, 1948/038/-15)

Holmes was neither hindered nor constrained for very long. He discovered his first ‘samurai’ (or rather, jujutsuka) in a certain Mr. Sato, a fruiterer & seed dealer from Limehouse. Sato, a practitioner of Sekiguchi-ryû, had been expelled from Japan shortly before the Satsuma Rebellion. He had several family members in Wapping who straddled the borderlines of the law, and it is believed that Sato’s arrangement with Holmes allowed them a bit of leeway where the Met was concerned.

Holmes devoted nearly two years to the study of Sekiguchi-ryû Jujitsu. His apprenticeship was intense and exhausting, but also sporadic: necessarily interrupted by casework.

In September of 1889, Holmes made the acquaintance of Dr. Kano Jigoro, a former economics professor who was in London studying European teaching methods for the Japanese Ministry of Education. At 28, Kano was already a legend in Budô circles. A long-time student of Tenjin Shin’yô-ryû, Kano had ultimately devised his own martial art by combining elements from the five major Jujutsu schools. The resulting system – Judo – proved remarkably effective.

Holmes had heard stories of Kano’s invincibility from Sato sensei and decided to make the Judoka’s acquaintance. They arranged an introduction at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Holmes recorded the event in his journal.

The man who rose to greet me was young, some eight-and-twenty years at the outside, well groomed and trimly clad, with extraordinary refinement and economy in his bearing. He was rather short in stature with a thick head of black hair and a prominent mustache.

He bore few physical signs of the professional wrestler or pugilist – no fractured nose, cauliflower ear, facial asymmetry or enlarged knuckles – but his wrists were exceedingly thick and the muscles of the triceps surae were so enlarged as to distort the calf of his trousers.

The young Jigoro Kano.

His suit and bowler were both new. The suit was of an English cut – Gieves & Hawkes of Savile Row, unless I am much mistaken. The elbows were not in the least frayed and the trouser knees un-worn. The bowler, when removed (using the right hand), revealed a small mark on the inner band which reads “Gustave de Rubempre, Milliner, 27 rue de la Tour, Marseilles.” His brogues looked to be French as well. In any event, they were neither scuffed nor dented; the leather almost pristine.

When we shook hands, I sensed a vague odor of Savon de Marseille. Grip surprisingly firm and strong. His nails were short and neat with no signs of discoloration, pitting or deformity.

I then remarked ‘You have recently been in Marseille, I perceive.’ He was suitably astonished.

(Pike, 1954/053/-)

Holmes himself was surprised to discover that the Japanese gentleman was completely fluent in English.

We discussed the philosophy behind his practices. He said: “The linguistic root of both Ju-jitsu and Ju-do is ‘Ju’, which means ‘gentleness’ or ‘pliancy’. I know that some people confuse gentleness and weakness. One should never do this. A gentle man is supple and flexible in both mind and body. A hard man, on the other hand, is stiff, unweildy and unbending. ‘Ju’, therefore, is the rapier rather than a broadsword.

Let us say that I am challenged by a man who weighs eighteen stone. Now I am not a large man, being but some nine stone. If he pushes me with all of his strength, I am sure to stumble or fall down, even if I resist with all my might. This is opposing strength with strength. But if, instead of opposing him, I give way to the extent he has pushed, withdrawing my body and maintaining my balance, my opponent will lose his balance. Weakened by his awkward position, he will be unable to use all his strength. Because I retain my balance, my strength remains intact. Now I am stronger than my antagonist and can defeat him by using only half my strength, keeping the other half available for some other purpose. Even if you are stronger than your opponent, it is better first to give way. By doing so you conserve energy while exhausting your adversary.”

I understood immediately, of course: in Ju-do one gains strength by utilizing an adversary’s aggression and redirecting it accordingly. This reminded me of the words of Ecclesiastes, and so I quoted that bit of scripture to him: ‘Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.’

‘You have moralized a course of action,’ he said, ‘but the principle is correct.’”


The two men made a powerful impression on each other. As Holmes would later say, “mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

There is reason to believe that Holmes began an informal study of Judo under the tutelage of Professor Kano. Over the course of the next five months – between September 1889, when the two first met, to January of 1891, when Kano returned to Japan – Holmes only undertook three cases. (These would be The Wisteria Lodge, The Adventure of the Silver Blaze and The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.) None of these cases occupied him for more than five days.

Four months later, on 4 May 1891, Sherlock Holmes faced Professor James Moriarty, the godfather of London’s underworld, on a narrow ledge above the Reichenbach Falls in Meiringen, Bern, Switzerland.

In The Adventure of the Empty House, Dr.John Watson quotes his friend’s description of that violent encounter.

I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. I read an inexorable purpose in his grey eyes. I exchanged some remarks with him, therefore, and obtained his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received. I left it with my cigarette-box and my stick and I walked along the pathway, Moriarty still at my heels. When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of … the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water.

An artist’s impression of Holmes’ battle with Moriarty.

And then Holmes himself disappeared for a little over three years.

Onward to Part Two.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Jiujitsu, Sherlock Holmes. Bookmark the permalink.