- Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Sunday, 10th December 2017
Martial arts enthusiasts who find themselves in central London may wish to visit the site of the original Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture (a.k.a. the Bartitsu Club). The Club was the first commercial school in the Western world to teach Japanese martial arts and also the site of the first known experiment in deliberately blending Asian and European fighting styles, anticipating Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do by about seven decades and the modern MMA movement by about ninety years.
In addition, the Bartitsu Club was described by Captain Alfred Hutton as being “the headquarters of antique swordplay in England”, referring to his own classes there in the fence of Elizabethan-era weapons such as the two-handed sword and the rapier and dagger.
The Bartitsu Club operated from approximately April of 1900-January of 1902 and was originally located in the basement of #67b Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s Soho district.
#67 Shaftesbury very narrowly survived destruction during the London Blitz and today the exterior facade looks much like it did circa 1900, apart from the variety of modern shops at street level. It presently houses a large, modern Best Western hotel, which was known formerly as The Shaftesbury and currently as The Piccadilly (harkening back to the days of the Bartitsu School of Arms, when the building was called Piccadilly-Circus-Mansions). Note, however, that the basement which housed the Bartitsu Club gymnasium itself is off-limits to guests and visitors.
In September of 2005, Tony Wolf launched the publication of the Bartitsu Compendium, Volume 1 via a function in the Allen Room, an oak-panelled meeting room in the St. Anne’s Church complex adjacent to #67 Shaftesbury. The exterior of #67 was shown in the 2011 feature documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes and served as a rendezvous point for participants in the 2011 Bartitsu School of Arms symposium. The exterior and lobby were also featured in a 2014 mini-documentary on Bartitsu produced by the BBC:
Pilgrims to #67 should also take time to explore the Soho neighbourhood, which features many attractions including superb West End theatres, restaurants, Victorian-era pubs and shops. Of particular note are St. Anne’s Churchyard, a small park immediately behind #67 Shaftesbury, where informal classes in martial arts from Tai Chi Chuan to kickboxing frequently take place; and nearby Cecil Court, a collection of some of the world’s finest antiquarian and specialist bookstores. Be sure to check out Storey’s Ltd., whose extensive catalogues of antique prints have been known to include rare illustrations of both Bartitsu and Captain Hutton’s historical fencing.
Finally, no Bartitsu pilgrimage is complete without a visit to James Smith and Sons, an establishment which has been manufacturing and selling fine walking sticks and umbrellas since the year 1830. The shop is only a ten-minute walk from #67 Shaftesbury and it’s been speculated that Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny’s special self-defence walking sticks may have been produced by the James Smith company. Although they no longer produce items overtly intended as weapons, the ornate Victorian-era signage still advertises “malacca canes, dagger-canes, life-preservers and swordsticks”.