Sherlock Holmes used it to defeat Moriaty at the Reisenbach Falls, but what exactly is Bartitsu and is it still relevant today? We arm Michael Bailey with a cloak, umbrella and top hat and send him to find out…
After not contributing to Urban Travel Blog for some time I was a little worried I might have offended our editor: and when he told me that he’d signed me up for a martial arts course in London I wondered if it was essentially a ruse for me to get beaten up. Then I started reading about Bartitsu, “The Martial Art of the Victorian Lady or Gentleman” and I had to wonder how serious it could really be.
Most people, I’m sure, who are used to thinking of martial arts in terms of karate, judo and taekwondo, have a certain preconception of what a martial artist should appear like – and it certainly isn’t a well mannered Victorian gentleman with little to intimidate his opponent beyond an aggressive looking moustache. From diagrams on the Internet much of the art seemed to be about dealing with ruffians without disturbing the repose of one’s top hat. No small amount of the training seemed to involve defending oneself with whatever was at hand, which in the case of a Victorian gentleman would often mean a cloak or an umbrella (as opposed to say a four foot long katana forged by Hattori Hanzo).
One thing I couldn’t doubt was the credentials of James Garvey, the man taking the course. A black belt in Jujitsu, he has had a highly successful career both in competition and as an instructor. But was Bartitsu a martial art or a martial joke? I remained to be convinced.
Bartitsu was the brainchild of an English gentleman, Edward William Barton-Wright, during the last part of the 19th century. He conceived it as an amalgamation of various fighting styles he’d encountered in his travels, particularly in Japan. The name itself is a splicing of his own name with Jujitsu. For a while his Bartitsu club on Shaftesbury Avenue was at least moderately successful but by start of World War I the art had died out and would have remained dead if not for a reference by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A century or so later and a number of martial artist Sherlock Holmes fans decided to look at the writings of Barton-Wright and see how effective his techniques had been. A decade further on and I was to be witness to their conclusions.
The course had been organised by the Idler Academy, an establishment more used to running programmes on philosophy and ukulele than martial arts. It wasn’t hard though, speaking to the Academy’s Operations Manager beforehand, to understand what had attracted her to Bartitsu. “The Idler is about learning things because you want to,” she told me. And it seemed that people at the Idler Academy like anything old fashioned and little bit quirky, be that calligraphy or Latin grammar. Bartitsu certainly seemed to fit the mould.
The mood was light before the class, as one might expect of a group of people come to learn how to defend their pocket watches. There was a good mix of men and women and even a handful of children, no doubt keen on the idea of getting to attack each other with sticks. (They’d seen the umbrella pictures too). Then Garvey arrived with two assistants, all dressed in gis. I started to wonder whether I wasn’t about to be beaten up after all.
After a light warm-up we got down to serious business – “How to remove a troublesome man from the room.” Pretty soon people were slipping each other’s wrist holds and waltzing each other around in arm locks. Everybody seemed to be having a pretty good time – even the ones in arm locks.
It was easy to see that the techniques we were being shown were just as relevant now as they’d been on 19th century Baker Street. (OK, not the bit about the pocket watches, but everything else). Sure, my assailant would have to come at me with exactly the right motion and I’d have to ask him to pause while I tried to remember which hand went where. Still, the movements were simple, they worked well and all it would take is a lot of practice to get them to be instinctive. This was genuine self-defence.
Then came the sticks. Now I’d been thinking that an umbrella would actually make quite a flimsy weapon but Garvey was quick to admit its failings and quick to show how it could still be used to good effect. Some approached this section with caution, others with great enthusiasm. A few could have done with paying a bit more attention to who was behind them. Pretty soon though, the sound of clashing sticks filled the hall.
So far so good and so far, though I’d had my arm twisted a couple of times, I had avoided getting hit. But Garvey had one last element to through into the mix. Blocking a punch. Admittedly that only meant getting hit on the arm – assuming I was quick enough with my blocking. Some people were throwing pretty light punches. My opponent did not believe in holding back. Our editor had succeeded in his plan after all. After 20 blocks my forearms were in quite a bit of pain. After 50 I couldn’t feel them anymore. Some would no doubt argue that’s the whole idea.
I left the first session with numb arms and the conclusion that despite the quirky background Bartitsu was as genuine and as relevant a form of self-defence as any other. But why resurrect Bartitsu and what does Bartitsu have to offer that other self-defence classes do not? At a pub afterwards I asked Garvey those very questions.
For martial arts historians the attraction is obvious. For Garvey it’s more about the mechanics and he seems to see something of industrial revolution in Barton-Wright’s methods. “It’s like an engineering problem. How do I put a person on the ground?” That fascination with trying to understand why Barton-Wright “was doing it that way rather than another way” is what has kept Garvey studying Bartitsu. In the end he summed it up by saying, “It is kind of everybody’s. There’s no master who can tell you what to do.” I could see he had the same enthusiasm as he talked about it as I’d seen in the class itself.
So what about those of us who aren’t black belts in Jujitsu? If you’d like to try some self-defence, you like a nice work-out or even if you just what to try something different and have a bit of fun, I’d have no hesitation in recommending you sign up for the next course. Don’t forget your umbrella.
Michael took a class at the Idler Academy in London. Get in contact with them to see when they next offer classes.
Around the world various Bartitsu academies have sprung up, most noticeably in Chicago and New York. There’s also the Bartitsu society’s blog, for those who want to keep up with news around the world.
Feature photo taken from Facebook page of the NYC Bartitsu Club.