The Formidable W.H. Grenfell; 1st Baron Desborough and President of the Bartitsu Club

A short video demonstrating the athletic, historical and cultural significance of William Henry Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough, who is soon to be commemorated with a Sporting Legacy exhibition staged at his former home, Taplow Court, in Buckinghamshire, England.

The 6’5″ sportsman, aristocrat and parliamentarian was a larger than life figure in more ways than one.  The grounds of Taplow Court had yielded one of the most important Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds of the late 19th century, and the mansion itself was the salon of the clique of prominent politicians and intellectuals known at “The Souls“.

Among Grenfell’s many achievements as an Olympic athlete, adventurer and patron of numerous causes, he had been named as the President of the Bartitsu Club in Soho.  In fact, he provided one of the earliest references to that Club in an interview for the London Daily Mail during June of 1899:

“The idea,” said Mr. Grenfell, to a “Daily Mail” representative, “is to establish an athletic class for people of good standing, and it seemed to us best to establish it in the form of a club, so as to be able to exclude undesirable persons. So members will be able to come themselves, and to send their children and the ladies of their family for instruction with every assurance that they will be running no risk of objectionable associations.”

“Is Bartitsu, then, a sport for women and children?”

”Oh, we are not going to confine ourselves to Japanese wrestling. Athletic exercises of many kinds and physical culture will be taught, but with this difference, that physical culture will be taught in a new form, which will make it interesting.”

“And this new art of self-defence?”

”Bartitsu; that will be taught as part of the general scheme of physical culture. And you know it is very desirable to teach people how to protect themselves against violence.”

It is highly likely that Grenfell, along with his colleague Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, first became aware of E.W. Barton-Wright’s “New Art of Self Defence” when Barton-Wright performed an exhibition at the famous Bath Club.  Grenfell was, at that time, the President of the latter Club as well – in fact, he held presidencies in numerous social and sporting institutions.  His enthusiastic patronage must have been a great boon to Barton-Wright, who always intended the Bartitsu Club to appeal to a wealthy clientele.  In the highly class-conscious London of 1900, the backing of a man like Grenfell was a prerequisite to respectability; however, it was not enough to sustain such a novel venture as the Bartitsu Club, which closed in early 1902.

William Grenfell was also instrumental in staging the 1908 London Olympiad, serving as the President of the Olympic Association and guiding the nascent Games through both triumph and tragedy.

The great tragedy of Grenfell’s private life, though, was that all three of his sons died young; Julian and Gerald were killed mere months apart in the chaos of the First World War, and Ivo died in a car accident in 1926.  Thus, when William himself died in 1945, the Barony of Desborough became extinct.

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