- Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Wednesday, 25th May 2016
The Bagri Foundation in London hosted this recent lecture by Dr. Emelyne Godfrey, author of Masculinity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature and its companion volume Femininity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature and Society.
by Bartitsu Forum member Paul Wake.
Dr Godfrey’s lecture ‘The Rise of the Jujitsu Suffragettes’ was an illuminating and entertaining account that took a packed audience on a fascinating journey from India in the early 1800s to the violent struggles of the Suffragettes in the early 1900s.
The talk began with an account of the origin of the Garotters of London which in turn gave rise to the self defence culture into which Barton-Wright launched Bartitsu.
Dr Godfrey opened with a fascinating piece of etymological study explaining how lurid accounts of the Spanish execution device called the garrotta – which consisted of a throttling mechanism attached to a heavy chair that was used to slowly strangle victims – led to criminal gangs in London being called Garotters.
Their name might have come from this infamous machine but their techniques, however, seemed inspired by India’s Thuggee cult. Dr Godfrey provided some extremely vivid and graphic explanations of their methods and one of the many highlights of the lecture was her photographs of a collection of miniature Thuggee figures from the early 1800s that had at one time been on display in the British Library public space but which were removed for fear that they might inspire copycat criminal behaviour and stoke up the garrotting panics that were sweeping through London.
The figures (about 6 inches high) effectively make a series of diorama scenes showing a band of Thuggees stalking their victims and then attacking them before burying and disposing of the bodies while sharing out the loot. They are incredible in their detail and graphically show the whole method of operation of the Thugees including a three man attack involving two ‘assistants’ holding the victim while a third strangled him from behind with his rumal (garroting scarf). Apparently these are in store somewhere, which is a huge pity because they would make a fascinating exhibit and definitely deserve to be seen.
Dr Godfrey pointed out a number of very interesting literary mentions of both the Thuggees themselves and their copycats, the London Garotters. In particular, Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor which was made into a film called The Deceivers starring Pierce Brosnan; Wanderings in India by John Lang as re-published by Charles DIckens in his Household Words magazine circa 1859 and the mugging of Mr Kennedy in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn.
The panics about street attacks in London, Paris and elsewhere led directly to a culture of self-defence and the publication of illustrated books such as Émile André’s 100 Façons de se Defendre dans la Rue. All of which paved the way for Barton-Wright to step in with Bartitsu.
In addition to books, specialist weapons were developed and Dr Godfrey showed pictures of the Belt Buckle Pistol which allowed you to shoot someone grabbing you from behind. Basically the gun was a short barrel and firing mechanism mounted on a brass plate looped through a belt so that it sat in the small of your back. If someone grabbed you from behind there was a cord looped around to the front that you could pull to discharge the weapon and shoot the attacker in the stomach. Obviously if you were on a night out you’d want to make sure it didn’t go off accidentally while you were sitting in the theatre and kill the person sitting behind you. Unless, of course, they were fiddling with their iPhone …
Dr Godfrey paid excellent tribute to the contribution of Barton-Wright before moving on to talk about Edith Garrud and the general environment of intimidation by men in general and the police in particular towards women in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Especially interesting was the account of the arrest and trial of Elizabeth Cass in 1887 who went out one evening to window shop for gloves on Regent Street and ended up being arrested, roughed up and hauled in front of a magistrate for soliciting and prostitution.
It was eye-opening to find out about the astonishing level of harassment that women were subjected to on the street in Victorian London. It certainly reinforces how far we have come since then and how precious the freedoms are that we have today. Interestingly though, in the Q&A after the talk, it was pointed out that even today the right of women to walk about freely on the street is threatened by people who’s behaviour is remarkably similar to that on show in the 19th century. The men harassing women in the Walking in New York video and the sleazy street pick up artists promoting the Game could easily have been time travellers from 1899.
In response to this harassment 19th century women equipped themselves with various weapons including life preservers and perhaps most deadly of all – the long hat pin. An authentic example was passed around and I’m pretty sure that any would-be sleazeball would get a hell of a shock to have one of those stuck in them where the sun don’t shine.
Dr Godfrey eloquently explained how this societal treatment of women formed a backdrop to the struggle of the Suffragettes for the right to vote and helps to explain the startling levels of violence that were used to suppress them. Anyone not already familiar with the history of the Suffragettes would have been shocked by Dr Godfrey’s description of Black Friday on 18th November 1910, when hardened police officers from the East End were drafted in to deal with the 300 Suffragettes led by Mrs Pankhurst to Parliament Square to protest about the suppression of the Conciliation Bill which would have extended the right to vote to property-owning women. Anyone interested might pick up on the point made that Winston Churchill was Home Secretary at the time and responsible for the handling of the riot. It didn’t turn out to be his finest hour.
Against all this going on in the background Edith Garrud had appeared on the scene and learned her jujitsu from Sadakazu Uyenishi at his Golden Square school which was later taken over by her husband William Garrud. Dr Godfrey gave vivid accounts of Garrud’s involvement in teaching jujitsu to suffragettes as well as the part the Golden Square dojo and her own gymnasium in Argyll Place played as safe havens for Suffragettes during the window smashing campaign on Oxford Street. Apparently women would return to the gym from a session of smashing windows and if the police followed them and tried to gain entry to arrest them Edith Garrud would confront them and demand that they leave because “ladies were exercising and gentlemen shouldn’t be present”. A clever use of the rules of the time to protect those campaigning to change them!
Dr Godfrey left the audience in no doubt that even at 4’11” Edith Garrud was a formidable woman and deserves her reputation as a redoubtable figure in the Suffragette movement and a pioneer of jujitsu and women’s self defence in the UK.
The following Q&A was lively and included some agreeable speculation on the mystery identity of Vigny’s ‘wife’ and assistant Miss Sanderson and whether she might have been involved in teaching la canne to the Suffragettes. No conclusions reached for lack of sources. Also noted was the rise of the Hugger Muggers of modern London whose choreographed techniques are reminiscent of the Hooligans and Apaches, although less violent.
All in all a very enjoyable and enlightening talk. Dr Godfrey is a superb speaker and has a wealth of deeply researched anecdotes and information about the Bartitsu era and I recommend looking out for future public lectures. A definite must-see for any Bartitsu enthusiast.