Baron Charles de Berenger’s “Defensive Gymnastics” (1838)

  • Originally published on the site on Wednesday, 12th May 2010

“To be courageous is enviable, whilst, on the other hand, to be able to conceal the absence of courage is useful” – Baron Charles de Berenger, 1835

Seven decades before E.W. Barton-Wright produced his articles on Bartitsu, there was Baron Charles de Berenger and his “Defensive Gymnastics”.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Random, Baron de Berenger, was a colourful character indeed. Virtually nothing is known of his early life, except that he was born with the humbler name of Charles Random sometime in the late 18th Century.

During the first decade of the 1800s he was reported to have been working as a colourer at Ackermann’s Printing Company in London and to have been serving as an Army volunteer. He was a notably good shot with both rifle and pistol. As a well-mannered young sportsman he enjoyed the patronage of a banker named Hammerley, and it was at Mr. Hammerley’s home that Random met and subsequently married a German widow, the Baroness de Berenger. He would probably have been aged in his late twenties at that time.

By virtue of having married a Baroness, it appears that Random then assumed the title of Baron and for the rest of his life announced himself as “Charles Random de Berenger de Beaufain” and claimed to be of noble Prussian heritage.

By all reports an effusively polite and remarkably inventive man, de Berenger was none-the-less prone to financial problems. While the Napoleonic Wars raged throughout the European mainland, de Berenger landed in a London debtor’s jail on at least one occasion. In 1814 he was implicated in an audacious and elaborate stock fraud that included temporarily convincing a large proportion of London society that Napoleon Bonaparte had been killed. De Berenger served a year in prison for his part in that infamous affair.

The Stadium

By 1830 de Berenger appears to have come into a very substantial sum of money, enough to purchase a large estate in the London suburb of Chelsea.

At the time de Berenger bought the property it was a fine estate including a large villa and some eleven acres of picturesque park-land bordering the river Thames. Perhaps in consequence of his interests in marksmanship and athletics, he immediately began work on converting the oak and elm-studded grounds of Cremorne House into an elaborate outdoor training facility for all manner of sports. He installed butts (targets) for archery, pistol and rifle shooting, set aside fields for equestrian training and planned a “floating school of Natation (swimming),” to be set upon pontoons and moored to his pier.

On May 28th, 1831 the Baron issued a prospectus for “THE STADIUM, Cremorne House, Chelsea, established for the tuition and practice of skilful and manly exercises generally.” The Stadium’s motto was “Volenti nihil difficile,” “Nothing is difficult for him who has the will.”

This prospectus and one subsequent were notable for including pictures by both de Berenger himself and his friend, the famous caricaturist and illustrator George Cruikshank.

“How to Protect Life and Property”

In 1835, de Berenger released his second book, “Helps and Hints: How to Protect Life and Property.” His format and style may have been modeled after that of Lord Chesterfield, whose correspondence with his son Philip (dating from 1730) had since been compiled into a popular and controversial volume. In any case, de Berenger chose to frame “How to Protect Life and Property” as a series of letters to his own son, Augustus, advising him on how to prevent or otherwise counter a myriad of potential threats.

Thus, de Berenger’s work may actually be considered as an early ancestor of the modern “self-protection handbook” genre. De Berenger did not simply present a system of, for example, fencing, nor boxing; rather, his lessons addressed self-defence in the broadest sense, including everything from escaping a burning house to numerous tricks of hand to hand combat; from dealing with wild animals to the avoiding the depredations of swindlers and pickpockets, with numerous digressions on the subjects of manly courage and morality.

The book was well-received by most contemporary reviewers, although it was dismissed out of hand by a much later (and deeply unsympathetic) writer as being a “claptrap book of gymnastics.” Several journals noted the Baron’s apparent obsession with moral conduct, which was cast in a rather ironic light by his involvement in the Stock Exchange scandal, but most seem to have taken his unusually florid prose style with amused good grace and to have been genuinely impressed with the scope and detail of his instruction and anecdotes.

In 2008, de Berenger’s writings on self-protection were re-published as “Defensive Gymnastics”, a compilation of the Baron’s advice on the different modes of “manly character”; the use of defensive gymnastics with fists, canes, whips, pistols and umbrellas to thwart pickpockets, street ruffians and con-artists; and how to escape from highwaymen, burning buildings, icy ponds and wild bulls.

The 2008 edition features over 50 new photographs and drawings, an introductory biography and a special feature on the Baron’s Stadium. Here is a short video preview:

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