Bartitsu: The Martial Art of Gentlemen

In the nineteenth century, a gentleman’s martial art was developed by an English army officer in London. It owed its name to the capes and long coats that were worn during this time period. Bartitsu is rarely seen these days, but it remains a fascinating look at how people used violence in society back when it wasn’t frowned upon so much.

Bartitsu is a martial art that was developed by Edward Barton-Wright in the late 1800s. It was designed to be a gentleman’s sport and focused on self-defense, not fighting. Read more in detail here: english martial arts.

Edward William Barton-Wright and bartitsu existed before Randy Couture and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bartitsu was most likely the forerunner of what is now known as mixed martial arts. In order to build a self-defense method that could be employed by discriminating gentlemen on the rough streets of Edwardian London, Mr. Barton incorporated aspects of boxing, jujitsu, cane fighting, and french kick boxing. It became so famous that it was even used by Sherlock Holmes in his strange adventures.

E.W. Barton left a legacy in the realm of martial arts, even though bartitsu died in the early twentieth century. The following is a short history of bartitsu as well as a beginner’s introduction to the gentlemen’s martial art.

The Origins of Bartitsu

William Barton portrait.

William Barton-Wright used his mustache as a weapon when he wasn’t armed.

William Barton-Wright, an English railroad engineer, invented Bartitsu. Barton’s engineering career sent him to Japan for three years, where he learned jujitsu. Jigoro Kano’s school was where he studied art. Barton had to be ecstatic about what he’d discovered. When he returned to England, he left his engineering job and began teaching jujitsu at a martial arts school.

In 1899, Barton published an essay titled “A New Art of Self Defense” in Pearson’s Magazine, a London-based journal. In it, he outlined his self-defense method, which he dubbed “bartitsu,” a play on his name and jujitsu. While bartitsu was primarily based on jujitsu, according to Barton’s article, the system also featured boxing, kickboxing, and stick fighting.

Barton founded the Bartitsu Club, a martial arts school. To teach at his new school, he brought in some of the top martial arts instructors from across the globe. K. Tani, S. Yamamoto, and Yukio Tani, as well as Pierre Vigny and Armand Cherpillod, were among the Japanese professors. “…a large basement hall, all sparkling, white-tiled walls, and electric light, with ‘champions’ stalking about it like tigers,” said one journalist of the Bartitsu Club.

The popularity of bartitsu was prevalent in England. In The Adventure of the Empty House, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even had Sherlock Holmes practice “baritsu” (a typo of bartitsu). For years, students of Sherlock Holmes were perplexed by Conan Doyle’s misspelling of bartitsu. (It’s worth noting that Robert Downey, Jr. will be demonstrating his bartitsu skills in a forthcoming Sherlock Holmes film.)

Bartitsu’s popularity waned as quickly as it had risen. The Bartitsu Club disbanded in 1903, and the majority of its teachers opened their own self-defense schools in London. Until the 1920s, Barton continued to create and teach bartitsu. Barton spent the remainder of his career as a physical therapist due to a loss of interest in his martial art. At the age of 90, he died in 1951.

A Bartitsu Mini-Documentary:

In Action: Bartitsu

Additional Reading

  • Pearson’s Magazine, 1899, E.W Barton’s The New Art of Self Defense I (In this piece, Barton introduces bartitsu to the general public.)
  • E.W Barton’s The New Art of Self-Defense II, published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1899 (the second half of Barton’s essay)
  • He Called It a System The Journal of Manly Arts’ Bartitsu
  • (Bartitsu.org) is a website devoted to the preservation and education of bartitsu. There is a lot of useful information here. Subscribe to their RSS feed.)
  • Volume I of the Bartitsu Compendium: History and Canonical Syllabus The authors of these two books are from bartitsu.org. I would strongly advise purchasing these if you want to learn more about bartitsu.
  • Volume II of the Bartitsu Compendium: Antagonistics

Bartitsu is a Japanese martial art.

Bartitsu was a fusion of many martial arts. Here are a few of them, as well as a list of resources from Barton’s time for people who want to learn more about them.

 

Boxing

Vintage bartitsu boxing illustration.

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Barton’s boxing approach was similar to those of the Golden Age fisticuffers of the period. Unlike today’s boxers, boxers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a rigid and erect posture. The lead hand was usually extended, with the back forearm “barring the mark” or covering their breast.

Additional Reading

  • John Boyle O’Reilly’s Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport was published in 1888.
  • R.G. Allanson-boxing Winn’s was published in 1897.

Jujitsu

Vintage Jujitsu and Bartitsu fighting in suits.

It’s evident that bartitsu got its name from jujitsu, a Japanese combat method. Jujitsu had become a popular sport among Westerners by the late nineteenth century. President Teddy Roosevelt, in fact, was a student of the martial art. K. Tani, S. Yamamonto, and Yukio Tani, prominent Japanese jujitsu teachers or jujtsukas, were brought in by Barton. Barton explained jujitsu in three concepts in an edition of Pearson’s Magazine published in March 1899:

1. To throw your assailant’s balance off. 2. To catch him off guard before he can restore his balance and unleash his might. 3. If required, subject the joints of any area of his body, including the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, and other joints, to stresses that they are anatomically and mechanically incapable of resisting.

Additional Reading

Capt. Harry H. Skinner wrote Jiu-jitsu: A Comprehensive and Copiously Illustrated Treatise in 1904.

La Savate

Vintage men fighting in boxing match illustration.

La savate (pronounced savat) is a 19th-century French kickboxing method that evolved from street fighting sailors in Marseilles’ port. Sailors in Marseilles had to devise a method of combat that did not include clenched fists, which were considered lethal weapons with legal ramifications if utilized. As a result, savate included a variety of kicks, open-handed slaps, and grappling.

Additional Reading

  • R.G. Allanson-boxing, Winn’s page 346, published 1897
  • Page 119 of a New Book of Sports, published in 1885, including Savate, Boxe, and Canne.
  • Robert Barr’s Fighting With Four Fists, from McClure’s Magazine, 1894

Fighting with a stick

Vintage men stick fighting illustration.

Stick fighting, often known as “la canne,” was another French martial art. Pierre Vigny, a Swiss master-at-arms, was brought in by Barton to teach stick combat. Because many upper-class Englishmen used canes and umbrellas, Vigny adapted the traditional method of stick combat to include these tools more effectively. His approach was simple and effective, and it was well suited to self-defense in a street brawl. To neutralize the danger of an attacker, strikes to the face, head, neck, wrists, knees, and shins were utilized.

Additional Reading

  • Vigny’s Canne
  • A.C. Cunningham’s 1912 book The Cane as Weapon (Awesome how-to manual with some great pics.)

improvised combat

Bartitsu using coat as weapon for fighting illustration.

Barton also included several innovative and successful self-defense tactics that made use of improvised weapons and unexpected situations. For example, Barton mentioned utilizing one’s coat or cap to distract an adversary in his article in Pearson’s Magazine.

Bartitsu Defensive Techniques

Defending oneself with a cloak or overcoat

Even when an assailant is holding a knife, using your cloak or overcoat as a protective tactic is useful. Wear your overcoat draped over your shoulders without sliding your arms through the sleeves when going along the street. When your adversary advances, grab the left collar of your coat with your right hand and cloak your opponent’s head with the coat in one sweeping move. Your assailant will be taken aback and temporarily blind, giving you plenty of opportunity to punch him in the belly or kiss him on the head.

 

Vintage Bartitsu using coat as weapon illustration.

You may also opt to sneak up behind your opponent with the coat over his head, grasp his ankle with your left hand, and push him backwards so he falls flat on his face. You may now place your opponent in a proper jujitsu grip until the cops arrive.

bartitsu taking down opponent with coat late 1800s

Defending oneself with a hat. A hat may also be used to momentarily blind or distract an assailant. When an enemy approaches, remove your hat and bury your opponent’s face into it with a sweeping motion. Either strike him in the stomach or drag him to the ground and place him in a submission hold.

A hat may also be used as a shield to guard against punches or knife strikes. Hold the hat with your left hand by the brim and pull it away from your body to the side. If an assailant thrusts a knife at you, catch the blow with your hat and strike the offender in the face with your free hand.

Vintage Bartitsu using hat to defend oneself.

Bartitsu Techniques That Are Offensive

Bartitsu, as previously said, is a fusion of numerous martial systems. The following is a quick rundown of some of the most useful movements from different martial arts.

Techniques for Fighting with a Cane

The slash. Either the tip or the butt of the cane can be used to accomplish the jab. It is more effective to utilize the point, and it will inflict more agony. The jab is executed by swiftly stabbing your opponent and immediately retreating your hand. The jab’s rapidity makes it a tough maneuver to counter.

Vintage Bartitsu moves using cane.

The main point. In that you utilize a stabbing action, the thrust is comparable to the jab. It varies from a jab in that it is delivered across a greater distance and requires complete arm extension. Quickly lunge forward and extend the point of the cane towards your assailant while standing in an attack posture. Put as much of your body weight as possible behind the push for extra power.

Cuts. Cuts may be made high or low, and in any direction (up, down, right, or left). A chopping action is used to make a cut. Downward cuts are perhaps the most powerful and toughest to defend movement.

Vintage Bartitsu using cane for fighting.

Savate Techniques for Beginners

Crossie Chasse raises it up a notch.

Vintage men performing chase lateral kick illustration.

Crossing the back foot behind the lead and elevating the knee of the kicking foot towards the opposite shoulder is how a chase lateral kick is done. Before you hit, add a hop. You may then hit with your foot, aiming for an opponent’s head, body, or thighs.

Low-key coup de pied

Vintage mnn sweeping kick aimed at the lower legs of an opponent.

This is a sweeping kick targeted towards an opponent’s lower legs. The kicking foot pivots from the hip to produce the kick. Your leg is completely extended at all times. To inflict harm, you may either attempt to sweep an opponent off their feet or just aim for their knees or ankles.

 

 

The “vigny cane fighting” is a martial art that was developed by George S. Ledyard in 1883. The art focuses on defending oneself with a cane and using it to attack an opponent.

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