The Bartitsu Club as Imagined in “Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons” (2015)

  • Originally published on the site on Monday, 6th November 2017

In the 2015 graphic novel Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons, the Bartitsu School of Arms serves as the gymnasium and headquarters of a secret society of female bodyguards who protect the radical suffragettes from arrest and assault. The graphic novels were commissioned as part of the Foreworld Saga, a multimedia franchise initiated by speculative fiction authors Neal Stephenson and Mark Teppo.

While there was a real-life Bodyguard team who defended Emmeline Pankhurst and other notable suffragettes circa 1913/14, they were not, historically, based at the Bartitsu Club, which had closed its doors for the last time in 1902.

That said, as shown in the graphic novels, this fictional Bartitsu Club did draw a great deal of inspiration from history …

Amazons training in the Bartitsu Club

The physical layout of the Suffrajitsu universe’s Bartitsu School of Arms is closely based on that of the Forteza Western Martial Arts school in Ravenswood, Chicago (home of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago).  Comparatively little is known about the layout of the real Bartitsu Club in Shaftesbury Avenue, except that it was a large basement space featuring white tiled walls and support pillars.

The stalwart chap bracing the punching bag in the foreground is Armand Cherpillod, who was (in real history) the Bartitsu Club’s wrestling and physical culture instructor.

The two jiujitsu throws shown in the foreground and medium ground are closely based on techniques shown in Emily Watts‘ Fine Art of Jiu-jutsu (1906).  Mrs. Watts was, in fact, a student of Sadakazu Uyenishi, who is shown observing the suffragette Bodyguards’ training in the medium background.

The Amazons shown in the background are practicing the Vigny style of stick fighting and savate, as taught at the real Bartitsu Club by Pierre Vigny.  The Amazon defending herself against her training partner’s savate kick is demonstrating a variation of “How to Defend Yourself with a Stick against the most Dangerous Kick of an Expert Kicker“, as per Barton-Wright’s 1901 article Self-Defence With A Walking Stick.

The elaborate sigil above Uyenishi’s head is the symbol of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, a secret order of martial artists who play a major role in the earlier Foreworld stories.

The longsword and other swords barely visible on the wall behind Uyenishi are nods to Captain Alfred Hutton, who taught Elizabethan-era fencing styles at the real Bartitsu Club.

The Amazons emerging from a trapdoor hidden under the mats of the Bartitsu Club is a reference to an anecdote told by Edith Garrud, who taught self-defence to the real suffragette Bodyguard team (and who makes a cameo appearance in the third panel above).

According to Edith, her London dojo was used as a safe-house by suffragettes escaping from the police after window-smashing protests.  It featured a trapdoor in which they would hide their street clothes and any remaining missile weapons, so they would appear to be innocently practicing jiujitsu when the police came knocking at the dojo door.

The technique posters shown in the background of this picture are actually miniaturised images of real Bartitsu techniques from E.W. Barton-Wright’s “Self-Defence with a Walking Stick” article.

The sparring equipment worn by Barton-Wright and his niece and student Persephone is based on protective clothing actually worn by combat athletes during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, including cricket pads for the knees and shins, padded fencing gloves, sabre fencing masks and padded vests.

Barton-Wright (left) is assuming the classic “rear guard” of Vigny stick fighting, while Persephone counters with the “double-handed guard”.

This picture of the Bartitsu Club’s elaborate electrotherapy clinic, which is adjacent to the combat gymnasium, is closely based on photographs of Barton-Wright’s real clinic.  After the Bartitsu Club closed, Barton-Wright persisted in the therapeutic field for the remainder of his career, specialising in various forms of heat, light, electrical and vibrational therapies to alleviate the pain of arthritis and rheumatism.

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