The Fighting Arts of Sherlock Holmes, Part 1

  • Originally published on the site on Tuesday, 9th February 2010 is pleased to present this two-part article series by Bartitsu Society member Mike Ball.

The unusually action-heavy focus of the recently released Sherlock Holmes movie highlights a certain misconception about one of history’s greatest fictional detectives – the idea that he is solely a detective and possesses no physical skills to complement his intellect. Read on, and you will discover, if you were not already aware, that not only was Holmes skilled in fisticuffs and other manly arts [1], but that his creator’s choice of combative methods have roots in a very rich and interesting martial history.

A Master of Antagonistics

It is mentioned by Watson, as the narrator of the first Sherlock Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet”, that Holmes is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman”, and there are several references in the canon to Holmes employing the first two of these skills. These references are fairly scant [2], possibly because Conan Doyle did not want his stories compared to those published in the “penny dreadfuls”, which were a sort of British precursor to the pulp novels of the ’30s and ’40s. Their lurid tales were often heavy on the action and the fight scenes tended to be prolonged and detailed.

There is no incidence of Holmes using an actual sword on any of his cases, but one of his other noted athletic pursuits does in fact derive from the usage of the blade. Singlestick, also sometimes referred to as cudgel-play, was a method of fencing that simulated the use of the broadsword and sabre, and was to these weapons somewhat as the foil is to the rapier. Practised as it was with a round wooden rod about forty inches in length, skills acquired in this game could be immediately applied to defending oneself with the gentleman’s walking stick. In “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, Holmes goes up against multiple assailants and despite his singlestick expertise, comes off second best:

“I’m a bit of a single-stick expert, as you know. I took most of them on my guard. It was the second man that was too much for me.”

Here is the encounter from “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” as interpreted by the fight choreographer of the Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett. Rather than the sword-derived techniques of singlestick, however, the focus is on two-handed methods which are more suitable for the close range at which the fight scene has been constructed.


“Only a ruffian deals a blow with the back of the hand. A gentleman uses the straight left!”
– Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Boxing in the English sporting tradition, which predates many Eastern forms of combat (its origins are several centuries older than aikido, judo, tae kwon do and karate, to name a few), was of great interest to Conan Doyle. He praised the old prize-ring bare-knuckle style of boxing as well as the newer style and thought “better that our sports should be a little too rough than that we should run a risk of effeminacy.”

Boxing during the era of the London Prize Ring (the ruleset utilised before that of modern boxing, which is based on rules known as the Marquess of Queensbury rules) was practised mostly by the lower classes, and pugilists would often be hoping to fight their way out of poverty, just as they would later during the Great Depression. The sport attracted many rich and powerful fans, known as “The Fancy”, who might become the patron of a particular boxer, thus giving him the chance to earn a decent living.

A depiction of one of bare-knuckle champion Daniel Mendoza’s fights, from the 1934 movie The Scarlet Pimpernel.

As social attitudes changed towards the end of the 1800s, however, boxing was modified to make it less bloody and barbaric. Gloves became mandatory, throwing was banned, and the number and duration of rounds was limited. This new, more palatable, form of the sport caused a new amateur or “scientific” boxing scene to spring up that became very much in vogue among the gentlemanly classes, and it was this kind of boxing, as typified by the Oxford and Cambridge Varsity fisticuffs, that would have been studied by Conan Doyle and Holmes.

Holmes was an accomplished amateur boxer, and it is suggested by a former opponent of his that, had he chosen, he could have taken it to a professional level and really “been a contendah”:

“I don’t think you can have forgotten me. Don’t you remember the amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?”

“Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

-from “The Sign of the Four”

The other significant reference to boxing can be found in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”. Holmes related the bar-room brawl thus:

“He had a fine flow of language, and his adjectives were very vigorous. He ended a string of abuse by a vicious backhander, which I failed to entirely avoid. The next few minutes were delicious. It was a straight left against a slogging ruffian. I emerged as you see me. Mr. Woodley went home in a cart.”

Holmes is characteristically terse in describing this encounter, so let’s watch Jeremy Brett go through the pugilistic motions:

The oft-lampooned circular movement of the arms, known as milling, was in fact a real tactic which was used to keep your opponent guessing as to where the next blow would come from. The guard is lower and extended further from the head than in modern boxing. This is a holdover from the old bareknuckle days when it was much more important to keep your opponent at a distance, both because the sport used to incorporate standup grappling and throws and also because un-gloved punches are more apt to seriously damage the face.

Illustration from period amateur boxing manual showing the typical guard position

Skipping a ‘T’ – The Mystery of Baritsu

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 baritsu, or 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.

– Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Empty House

The most intriguing of all the references to Holmes’ combative skills is also perhaps the most throwaway, serving as little more than a deus ex machina. By 1893 Conan Doyle felt that his true calling as an author was to pen historical novels, and in order to fully dedicate himself to this new literary pursuit he decided that it was time for his creation to retire. The Adventure of the Final Problem ended with Watson discovering that Holmes had plunged to his death down the Reichenbach Falls, taking his arch-nemesis Moriarty with him. Conan Doyle’s hero had, with his final act, done the world a great favour and concluded his career in the most fitting way possible.

Sydney Paget’s famous illustration of the struggle at Reichenbach Falls

But the fans couldn’t let a sleeping detective lie, and public clamour for more Holmes was such that a decade later, death became a revolving door. In 1903 The Adventure of the Empty House was serialised in The Strand magazine, revealing that Holmes had survived his showdown atop the waterfall. Conan Doyle ascribed Holmes’ miraculous survival to the martial art of baritsu, also described as a system of Japanese wrestling.

For much of the next century Holmes aficionados speculated upon exactly what this previously-unknown art was. Was it an on-the-spot fabrication by Conan Doyle? Was it a lost samurai combat art? Was it perhaps a synonym for judo, jiujitsu or sumo? To further compound the mystery, American publishers of Holmes’ adventures replaced “baritsu” with “jiujitsu”, deeming the original too obscure.

The answer lay in the pages of Pearson’s Magazine, a publication for which Conan Doyle was writing at the turn of the century. At this time, a vogue for publications on civilian self-defense had come about, fuelled by increasing panic over violent gang activity in the major cities of Europe. Several such articles had appeared in Pearson’s, authored by a man named Edward William Barton-Wright. He claimed to have created a “New Art of Self-Defense”, and his articles were adorned with pictures of the impressively-moustached Barton-Wright engaging in various methods of self-protection with a partner dressed in traditional Japanese martial arts uniform. The name of his method – a portmanteau of his own name and the recently popularised martial art of jiujitsu – Bartitsu.

A sequence from Barton-Wright’s first article in Pearson’s Magazine

When these articles were unearthed again by Holmes fans and martial arts historians many decades later, the connection became clear. In choosing a fighting art and miracle plot device for Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, for one reason or another, misplaced a “t”.[3]

Some Knowledge of Bartitsu

“…I have introduced a new style of self-defence, which can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent.
– E.W. Barton-Wright

Although the actual connection is small, Bartitsu is nevertheless a significant part of the Holmes canon, and if one is “playing the Great Game” as fans do, it can be assumed that the style was a major part of Holmes’ fighting repertoire. Bartitsu’s history is also an interesting and important part of both Eastern and Western martial arts history in general, and for these reasons it is worth providing a brief account.

Edward William Barton-Wright was a British civil engineer and surveyor who lived and worked in Japan for three years during the 1890s. A self-professed lifelong enthusiast of the arts of self-defense, he took the opportunity during his stay there to study judo and jiujitsu. Upon his return, he set about developing a well-rounded system of personal defense that would cover all the major ranges of combat. To the forms of Japanese martial arts he would add British boxing, French savate kickboxing, European wrestling, and a form of fighting with a walking stick developed by a Swiss master of arms [4]. Bartitsu also incorporated some less formal “hooligan” street methods as well as a physical training system.

Probably the first man to teach Japanese martial arts in the West, Edward William Barton-Wright was a great unsung pioneer in the field. His eclectic art, the first known to combine Asian and European fighting styles, was an excellent fit for the character and the existing physical skill-set of Sherlock Holmes. Were it not for the mention in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, the art would most likely still be unknown, or seen as a relic of Edwardian-era eccentricity. Who knows, perhaps if Conan Doyle had utilised the correct spelling and given greater mention to Bartitsu, the publicity might have been enough to keep it alive.[5]


[1] And why should he not be? One would expect that a man who specialises in applying himself fully to the mastery of his choice areas of study ought to be able to pick up a thing or two about fighting. Just as with another great fictional detective who wears a cape and cowl instead of a deerstalker hat!

[2] It is likely that Holmes would have fought more than a handful of times during the four decades over which the canon takes place, or else he would be out of practice!

[3] One newspaper account also misspelled “Bartitsu” as “Baritsu”, which may account for Conan Doyle’s error. Other theories includes worries over copyright infringement, or that Conan Doyle did not wish to write out something that had the word “tit” in it!

[4] This method would later be incorporated into the combat syllabus of the Jewish paramilitary group in Palestine that later became the Israel Defense Forces.

[5] “Baritsu” occasionally popped up in popular culture – the Shadow and Doc Savage were two other fictional characters who were revealed to have learned it, and in Detective Comics #572 the aged Sherlock Holmes himself employed the art in assisting Batman.

On to Part Two of “The Fighting Arts of Sherlock Holmes”.

This entry was posted in Antagonistics, Baritsu, Boxing, Canonical Bartitsu, E. W. Barton-Wright, Jiujitsu, Pop-culture, Sherlock Holmes, Video. Bookmark the permalink.