“… an athletic class for people of good standing …”

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Saturday, 4th December 2010

By mid-1899, E.W. Barton-Wright was busy attracting support for his novel venture; a Club dedicated to the instruction of physical culture and self defence. Late-Victorian London was already home to several athletic clubs, including the Inns of Court School of Arms and the German Gymnasium, in which gymnasts rubbed shoulders with fencers, boxers and wrestlers. Barton-Wright’s plan, however, was to focus the activities of his Club squarely on his “new art of self defence”, Bartitsu.

According to the custom of the day, he set about attracting influential “names”; people whose reputations and social standing would help to guarantee his Club’s propriety in the highly class-conscious London of the late 19th century.

“Fencing and Bartitsu at the Bath Club” in 1899. Captain Alfred Hutton and W.H. Grenfell demonstrate rapier and dagger fencing, while E.W. Barton-Wright displays Japanese unarmed combat.

During a series of popular demonstrations in which Barton-Wright’s “new art” was exhibited alongside Captain Alfred Hutton’s revival of historical fencing, the founder of Bartitsu became acquainted with both Hutton and the latter’s colleague, William Henry Grenfell, the 1st Baron Desborough. Both men were quickly drafted into helping to promote Barton-Wright’s Club. Hutton joined the venture both as a Committeeman, responsible for “vetting” the names of people applying to join the Club, and as an instructor, teaching his rejuvenated methods of antique fencing to members of London’s theatrical elite for use in stage combat.

Grenfell accepted the position of Bartitsu Club President, and enthusiastically described Barton-Wright’s vision for reporters. His comments are revealing, not only with regards the conception of Bartitsu as a martial art, but also of the differences between Victorian and contemporary ideas of what a “martial arts club” actually was:

“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.”

“But does not the noble art of self-defence do that – the art of using the fists?”

”No. In the first place the violent ruffian is likely to be fairly proficient in the use of the fists, and in the second place the stronger and heavier man has an overwhelming advantage in fist fighting. The great thing is to show people every possible form of attack to which they may be subjected, and to teach them how, by the application of scientific principles, every attack may be successfully met. Bartitsu teaches you how to overcome an opponent of superior weight by using his weight against himself, of throwing him by yielding instead of resisting, and of gripping him in various ways so as to put such a strain on his joints that however strong he may be he will be completely at your mercy. Then it teaches you how to fall so that the fact of being thrown will give you an advantage over the man who throws you.”

“It is a sort of physical counterpart, then, of the great financial art of making a fortune out of bankruptcy.”

”Then there are other means of self-defence which are useful. A lady I had the other day was, while riding her bicycle, attacked by a tramp. She was helpless against his superior strength. But there are ways of using a bending cane by which a lady might, if she has been taught the art, keep a molesting tramp at arm’s length. This will be taught as well as several other systems, all of which are not only useful but interesting to learn.”

June of 1899 appears to have been a formative period in the development of Bartitsu. Some elements were already in place and some were still fluid. It’s clear from Grenfell’s comments that jiujitsu was intended to play a key role, that novelty and diversity were considered to be “selling points” and that Barton-Wright was already considering the use of the walking stick as a means of self defence, though he may not have settled on Pierre Vigny’s method at that stage.

Ironically, as it was to transpire, the aura of middle-upper class exclusivity the Club’s promoters were aiming for may ultimately have helped to doom the enterprise. Despite “Health and Strength” journalist Mary Nugent’s description of the Bartitsu Club as “a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light” (1901), pictures taken inside the Club suggest a rather utilitarian basement space that might not have appealed to their “desirable” clientele:

It’s also not unlikely that the promoters had simply over-estimated the number of wealthy, respectable Londoners who shared their zeal for exotic self defence systems. Still, for a few years around the turn of the 20th century, Barton-Wright’s Club was the headquarters of a groundbreaking experiment that anticipated many modern trends in the martial arts.

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