The Mystery of the “Japanised Englishman”

  • Originally published on the site on Friday, 13th August 2010

Pieter M.C. Toepoel was, in a sense, the E.W. Barton-Wright of the Netherlands. A boxing and physical culture teacher and something of a free-thinker, attracted to novelties, Toepoel was the first man to teach Japanese martial arts in Holland. He eventually developed a Bartitsu-like method combining boxing, jiujitsu and even self defence with a walking stick.

In his 1910 book Het origineele jujutsu, Toepoel recalled that:

…in 1899 I read in an English Magazine about an international system of self defence which had used amongst others a couple of pins from jiujitsu.

This is obviously a reference to E.W. Barton-Wright’s Pearsons Magazine articles on Bartitsu. Thus inspired, Toepoel made his way to London and possibly Paris and seems to have picked up an eclectic jiujitsu education. His book name-drops former Bartitsu Club instructors Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani as well as Koyama, Miyami, Re-nie (Ernest Regnier, who pioneered jiujitsu in Paris), Okashi, Saito and Apollo (strongman William Bankier, who became Tani’s manager after the Bartitsu Club era), but does not identify Toepoel’s (main?) instructor in the art.

Most puzzlingly, Toepoel refers to learning jiujitsu upon the thin carpet of a shabby old London boxing club, and described his teacher – introduced to him by some boxing acquaintances – as a “Japanised Englishman” who had trained daily for seven years with Taro Miyake. Toepoel further notes that they would stop practicing when others entered the club, implying that this was a security precaution so that others would not “steal” their techniques; he was also apparently made to promise that he would never teach jiujitsu himself in the UK.

This is all very curious; who was the “Japanised Englishman”, and why all the secrecy?

Toepoel refers to both Tani’s Oxford Street school and to Uyenishi’s Golden Square dojo, which would seem to date his training in London to the period of roughly 1904-1909. By that time, there were several books and numerous articles available on jiujitsu, not to mention two full-time schools and several rather marginal ones. Although Japanese wrestling was hardly being taught on every street corner, it was quite widely available and it’s odd that a jiujitsu teacher at that time would have been quite so secretive.

Taro Miyake arrived in London in 1905, so it would seem to be impossible that any English jiujitsuka could have trained with him for seven years prior to 1910, unless that person had begun studying with Miyake in Japan.

On the face of it, and assuming that Pieter Toepoel was above adding in a bit of spurious detail for the sake of drama, there were only a few jiujitsu practitioners in London at that time who could conceivably have been described as “Japanised Englishmen”. Our candidates include:

E.W. Barton-Wright, who does not seem to have impressed anyone else as being “Japanised”, but who had spent three years in Japan and apparently spoke Japanese tolerably well.

William Garrud, who was teaching his own classes (in person and by correspondence) by 1905, but Garrud was possibly even less “Japanised” than was Barton-Wright.

“Professor Vernon-Smith”, who advertised jiujitsu classes at his Anglo-Japanese Institute of Self Defence (3 Vernon Place, Bloomsbury Square). The latter school seems to have employed Sadakazu Uyenishi as well as “a staff of expert instructors teaching gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, fencing, la savate etc.”; very little else is known about it, or about Vernon-Smith.

William E. Steers, a passionate Japanophile who travelled to Japan in 1903, studied jiujitsu there with fellow expatriate Englishman E.J. Harrison and returned to London in 1904, where he began training at Sadakazu Uyenishi’s school. Later, circa May 1912, Steers went back to Japan and studied judo with founder Jigoro Kano, who described him as being “the most earnest foreign student I have ever had”.

On the face of it, W.E. Steers seems to be the best candidate. The dates roughly match up and Steers’ huge enthusiasm for all things Japanese might well have led to his being characterised as a “Japanised Englishman”. The detail of Toepoel’s instructor training for seven years with Taro Miyake is still puzzling, in that Miyake was affiliated with Tani’s Oxford Street school, while Steers was enrolled at Uyenishi’s dojo at Golden Square. However, it is reported that Steers did study judo with the famous Mitsuyo Maeda from the year 1907, when the latter first arrived in London.

Shifting into pure speculation; assuming that W.E. Steers was Pieter Toepoel’s jiujitsu teacher, why would there have been such secrecy surrounding their lessons? Perhaps Steers felt that he was not really qualified to teach the art; I have found no other records of him as an instructor, though he was active and influential at the administrative level during the early years of the London Budokwai. As he was not a teacher in any official sense, though, Steers would presumably not have been concerned about Toepoel as a potential commercial rival, so why would he have required that the latter promise never to teach jiujitsu in the UK?

Also, Steers was evidently quite a wealthy man, so a shabby, thinly-carpeted boxing school seems an odd choice for a training venue, unless, again, Toepoel’s lessons were being “hidden” for some reason.

Research is ongoing …

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