“Skill Against Strength” (1899)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Wednesday, 2nd July 2014

This somewhat tongue-in-cheek review/essay, inspired by Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright’s first self defence articles for Pearson’s Magazine, was originally published in the Australian newspaper Table Talk on April 21, 1899.

Skill against strength

Very few people who, having read “Savior Resartus”, do not remember the purport of that passage describing how the philosopher, his meditations beneath the aurora borealis interrupted by a grisly interloper smelling of train oil, puts a stop to any predatory intention by presenting a sufficiently large horse pistol at the head of the intruder. Firearms, of course, are an excellent means for equalising the offensive and defensive strength of antagonists, but the average peaceable citizen has a very wholesome objection to carrying a “shooting iron” in his hip pocket, even if there was no municipal law prohibiting the practice.

Let alone the difficulty of shooting straight in a moment of excitement, the average citizen would rather risk the chance of being robbed than of killing his assailant. He recognises the principle of the law which has abolished hanging as a penalty for stealing. Still, there are few people who would not like to possess the art of defending themselves from assault by a physically more powerful man. Pugilism requires muscle, stamina and training quite beyond the reach of the average citizen who never had biceps worth developing, who was always a duffer in the playground when a schoolboy, and who cannot get up an appetite for his dinner without a tonic.

What is wanted is a power akin to that exercised by the little lady, known professionally as the “Georgia Magnet.” She could resist the efforts of strong men to make her budge, and yet could break down their strength when opposed to her inclination. Mr. Stuart Cumberland, whose feats in thought reading astonished Melbourne some ten years ago, demonstrated that the supposed “magnetic” power was simply a clever adaptation of well known but little heeded laws of balance. Here was the secret of the much desired power which would enable the man of intelligence to cope with the man of muscle, and get the better of him in the argumentum ad hominem, yet it is only within the last month or so that anyone has come forward with a system of tuition based on that principle. (1)

“How a man may defend himself against every form of attack,” is the title chosen by Mr. E. W. Barton-Wright for his very interesting article in the current number of Pearson’s Magazine. Mr. Barton sums up his system of defence and retaliation as follows:- (1.) to disturb the equilibrium of your assailant; (2.) to suprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength; (3.) if necessary, to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, or ankle, to strains which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

His practical demonstrations prove the irresistible force which a weak man, with a knowledge of leverage and balance, can use against a far stronger man than himself, who has not the same knowledge. Naturally, Mr. Barton-Wright has perfected his system in a professional way, and he has hundreds of devices by which he can extricate himself from the grip of professional wrestlers, or evade the attack or overcome the defence of expert pugilists and swordsmen. Colonel G. W. Fox, an ex-inspector-general of army gymnasia, certifies that Mr. Barton-Wright’s system is exceedingly practical and very scientific. That his system should be brought under the notice of the Chief Commissioner of Police was the immediate suggestion of the privileged few permitted to view his exhibition performances in England.

It seems that Mr. Barton-Wright intends publishing a book with illustrations, enabling the student to learn his methods; consequently he is not desirous of giving public performances. The examples he gives in the magazine articles are just sufficient to raise public interest, and inspire the reader with a burning desire to learn more. Quickness and confidence are the essentials of the new art, and Mr. Barton-Wright claims that “one of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent.” Yet it is a class of self -defence designed to meet every possible kind of attack, whether armed or otherwise.

The, first example given will recommend itself to everyone who read of the tragic death of the man Stevens, when the heroic Fredman was stabbed by Medor in the Eastern Market, Melbourne, in the attempt to rescue Stevens from the attack of the frenzied phrenologist (2). Mr. Barton-Wright’s method would have been to fling his coat at the head of Medor, then, in the momentary embarrassment, he would have darted up against the homicide and dealt him a “knock out blow in the pit of the stomach.”

With revolver and dagger to face, the probability is that it would be too risky to rush “square-on” to a man so armed. To meet such an emergency, Mr. Barton-Wright shows that the man should crouch down the instant he has flung his coat, and seize the armed man’s ankle with one hand, at the same time pushing him about the waist with the other. It takes but a small amount of force to throw a man thus unexpectedly assailed, and by retaining the hold on his ankle, and pressing his leg back on the knee joint, the fallen man can be kept still under penalty of his leg being broken if he struggles.

The “chucker-out” is a familiar institution in a certain class of hotel, and is often in much request at political meetings. However efficacious the result, his methods are usually crude and ungainly. Mr. Barton-Wright shows how the operation can be performed with neatness and dispatch by a man much the inferior in physical strength of the one “chucked.” He simply seizes the recalcitrant by the wrist with one hand, raising the other to guard off a blow.

Before there is time for the blow to be delivered, the “chucker” turns on his heels, still gripping the wrist of the “chuckee,” passes his disengaged aim over the arm of the “chuckee,” and locks it by gripping his own wrist with the hand of that arm; “By straightening both your arms you are able to exert such leverage, and to throw such a strain upon his elbow that you could break it if you wished.” The description reads a little complicated, but the feat is very simple and requires very little practice to perform effectively.

Other examples show how the mild, small man can ward off a straight “right” or “left” blow from an expert boxer, and lay him ignominiously on his back. This is a feat worth studying hard by sharp-tongued public men, and editors, who write up to John Knox’s memorable apostrophe. Every politician should also study the art of disengaging themselves from buttonholers. It requires some practice, but it is very efficacious.

Altogether, Mr. Barton-Wright’s forthcoming book promises to be as important in its way as Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. It “persuaded one generation and ruled the next.” The “New Art of Self-defence” will protect one generation and punish the next.

(1) Co-incidentally, Barton-Wright himself had recently written an expose explaining the “magnetic” feats of the young lady referred to here.

(2) This was a topical reference to a bizarre assault and homicide that took place in Melbourne’s Eastern Market.

This entry was posted in Canonical Bartitsu, E. W. Barton-Wright, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.