The Missing Link Between Vigny and Lang Finally Revealed!

  • Originally published on the site on Saturday, 2nd December 2017

Indian Police Superintendant Herbert Gordon Lang’s book The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence (1923) is one of the seminal documents of the modern Vigny/Bartitsu stick fighting revival.  Lang credited Pierre Vigny – albeit via a misspelling – and offered a few more hints as to the origins of his method in introducing the book:

The System has been carefully built up after several years’ thought and demonstration, and combines a method devised by a Frenchman, Vigui (sic), of which, little is now heard, together with the stick play of tribes of negroes on certain of the West India Islands, called “Bois.”

Additions and ameliorations have been made as the result of experience and close practice under varying circumstances.

H.G. Lang was born in Grenada, West Indies, on December 3, 1887 and it’s likely that he learned the basics of the bois system there as a youth.  There are, however, no known records of Lang having studied at the Bartitsu Club, nor at Pierre Vigny’s own London self-defence school, so the questions of exactly when, where and how he learned the Vigny style have been long-standing mysteries of Bartitsu research.

(As an aside, it’s pertinent to distinguish between H.G. Lang of the Indian police and Captain F.C. Laing of the British Army. Although both were Englishmen serving in a uniformed capacity in India during the early 20th century, and both were proponents of the Vigny style of stick fighting, they seem to have had no connection beyond the similarities of their surnames and circumstances.)

Via recent correspondence with the Lang family, we have now discovered the missing link between Vigny and H.G. Lang, and thus between the stick fighting style taught at the Bartitsu Club circa 1901 and the method presented in Lang’s book in 1923.

Lang’s personal papers reveal that, while on leave from India between May 1920 – April 1921, he had travelled to a gymnasium in the East Sussex town of Hove, in order to study boxing and jiujitsu.  In conversation with the proprietor, Percy Rolt, Lang demonstrated some of the art of bois, and Rolt remarked that he had learned a similar style, as taught by Pierre Vigny.

The Missing Link

Above: Pierre Vigny (left) demonstrates his style at a Bartitsu Club exhibition. It’s possible that Percy Rolt was his demo partner …

Percy Stuart Rolt was born into a family of physical culture enthusiasts.  Circa 1900 he joined the London Bartitsu Club and seems to have been a keen member, cross-training between jiujitsu, stick fighting and historical fencing.  Rolt participated in several Bartitsu demonstrations alongside Pierre Vigny and exhibited the fence of rapiers and two-handed swords with Captain Alfred Hutton for charity events.

In March of 1904, Rolt lost a Graeco-Roman style wrestling match against the champion  Jack Carkeek at the Brighton Alhambra.  Then, in 1905 he assisted former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu “Raku” Uyenishi in a well-received display of jiujitsu:

The Japanese athlete was assisted in giving the first series of demonstration by Mr. Percy S. Rolt (of Moss’s Gymnasium) who is the English ju-jitsu champion. Rolt is about 5ft. 9in. in height, and is strongly built.

In ju-jitsu the object seems to be to throw the opponent before he has gripped you round the body. No sooner had Rolt seized Raku by the tunic than he was suddenly thrown to the ground. This operation was repeated time after time by means of various jerks, “locks” and “trips.” As Rolt went down his head and body struck the floor in a manner that seemed positively startling. Nevertheless, he appeared to suffer no damage; and it is stated that the body receives no shock from the fall, because the hands touch the ground first. What is called the collar-lock (a grip round the throat) reduces a man to a state of insensibility in five seconds.

Raku Uyenishi is a master of various “trips”, and he showed how an attack from a boxer may be dealt with. The professor of ju-jitsu suddenly winds his feet round the legs of his assailant and throws him to the ground with the quickness of lightning. Mr. Rolt and Mr. William Williams (a Londoner 5ft. 6in. and 10st. in weight) also engaged in contests; and the final exhibition between the Japanese and Mr. Rolt was most exciting. – Eastbourne Gazette, 28 June 1905

Percy’s brother, police captain Frank Leslie Rolt, was also trained in the Vigny style.  According to an article in the London Evening News of Wednesday, March 6, 1912, Captain Rolt of the Hove police had been teaching the the Vigny method of walking stick defence – “devised for the special discomfiture of the Paris Apache” – to the new London volunteer constabulary.

Above: the exterior of the Holland Road gym in Hove.
Above: a girls’ physical culture class inside the Holland Road gym.

The Holland Road gym in Hove was an impressive institute,  which had been managed by the strapping Staff Sergeant Alfred Moss since 1883.  Percy Rolt seems to have taken over the operation of the gym at some point between 1900-1910, and he and his family quickly became established as local authorities on physical culture and antagonistics.

We have no records as to whether the Rolt brothers taught public classes in the Vigny style at their gym and it may be that H.G. Lang’s status as a visiting fellow police officer afforded him unusual access to the style.  In a letter to the publisher of The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence, Lang mused that he should have given Percy Rolt credit for his instruction, which would certainly have saved modern researchers a good deal of wondering.

(UPDATE: see here for a newspaper report confirming that the Vigny style was being taught at the Holland Road gym circa 1912).

In any case, it’s clear that Rolt perpetuated the jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting aspects of his Bartitsu Club training at his own gym in Hove, and thus served as the link between Vigny and Lang.

The Walking Stick Method of Self-Defence

Lang’s manuscript was, in fact, rejected by a number of publishers on the grounds that such self-defence books were not (then) popular enough to justify the expense of publishing a book containing so many photographs.  Lang had, incidentally, taken all of the photos himself, using his police trainees as models.   Fortunately for both Lang and posterity, Athletic Publications eventually agreed to print The Walking Stick Method and it was published, complete with 60 illustrations, in 1923.

Re. the misspelling of Pierre Vigny’s surname as “Vigui” in the introduction, it’s worth noting that it is very difficult to distinguish between the letters “n” and “u” in Lang’s handwriting.  Therefore, it’s highly probable that he had actually written “Vigni” – suggesting that he’d heard the name spoken by Percy Rolt, but had not seen it in print – and that a typist then made a transcription error in working from his handwritten draft.

Correspondence between Lang and his publisher also reveals that the attribution of authorship of The “Walking Stick” Method to an anonymous “Officer of the Indian Police” was due to Lang’s belief that this title would carry more authority and therefore sell more books.

H.G. Lang found himself in some hot water soon after his book appeared on the market, due to its inclusion of a number of letters of endorsement from various notables.  Apparently these letters had been added to the manuscript by the publisher without Lang’s knowledge, and without the various authors’ consent.  Lang then wrote a suitably contrite letter to the Inspector General of Police in Poona, which was graciously accepted.

In 1926 there was some correspondence between Lang and third parties towards producing a newsreel film on the method.  Lang even mentioned the idea of having Percy Rolt demonstrate the art for the film project, but unfortunately it was never produced – robbing us of the possibility of watching the Vigny style in action as performed by a first generation student.

The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defence was only a modest success when it was first published, despite Lang’s highly enthusiastic promotions, which included sending unsolicited copies to various parties and the idea of presenting the book as a prize during awards ceremonies at boys’ schools. He was also very keen to see the method adopted by the Boy Scouts.

Above: H.G, Lang (second from left) explains his walking stick method of self defence. The occasion is believed to have been a “Police Week: display at the Police Training School in Nasik, circa 1935.

While H.G. Lang’s book never became a best-seller, for many years thereafter it remained, effectively, the only comprehensive written work on the subject of stick fighting available in the English language.  Significantly, this meant that the Vigny system could be transmitted beyond Lang’s own students in India.

Above: future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) trains in stick fighting (photo courtesy of Noah Gross).

During the early years of the Second World War, his book was translated into Hebrew and became the basis for the stick fighting training of the Haganah paramilitary organisation in Palestine.  It’s estimated that many thousands of students learned Lang’s method, which was was widely assumed to be of Indian origin and was referred to within the Haganah as the “long stick” style.

Also in the early 1940s, the “Walking Stick” Method was adopted by Charles Yerkow as the basis of the stick fighting instruction in his own book, Modern Judo: The Complete Ju-Jutsu Library (Volume 2).

Today, H.G. Lang’s book forms part of the foundation of the Bartitsu and Vigny stick fighting revivals, offering a systematic set of lessons to supplement the scenario-based set-plays in E.W. Barton-Wright’s  Pearson’s Magazine articles. After many years of speculation, it’s good to know that we have Percy Rolt to thank, in part, for that resource.

With special thanks to the Lang family for generously sharing H.G.’s files and photographs.

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