The Gentlemanly Art of Self-Defense

There is something about the martial arts that makes it so kickass (pun intended!). Most of us grew up watching Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee use their fists of fury, nerves of steel and toes of destruction to save the dragon warrior/princess/scrolls (anything dragon, really).

Now try to imagine a time where the empires were collapsing (Spanish, Chinese, Mughal, French). Advances in the sciences (especially, the medicines) led to rapid population growth. Slavery was dying and the railroads were born. This was the 19th century. At this time, Japan went through a period of rapid modernization/industrialization which required the services of hundreds of Western engineers. Around the same time, Britain got the Kung Fu fever. The martial arts were becoming increasingly popular and this led to the creation of the ever-awesome Bartitsu.

Edward William Barton Wright was one of the aforementioned engineers who lived in Japan from 1891 to 1899.He trained under Sensei Yukio Tani who taught him Ju Jitsu .When he left for England, he convinced Yukio and his older brother to accompany him to Britain so he could set up his own Dojo (professional wrestling school) in England. Once in Britain, Barton-Wright set up a Dojo at Shaftesbury Avenue, London and began to publicize “his” martial art with articles in various magazines. This is how a certain Mr. Conan-Doyle (yes, of the Sherlock Holmes fame) used Bartitsu to explain his miraculous survival after the showdown with his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. However, Conan-Doyle misspelled Bartitsu as Baristu.

Bartitsu is probably the earliest example of mixed martial arts. Combining various techniques and fighting styles such as the Japanese Judo and Jujitsu, old-style English boxing, Savate from the French (a form of kickboxing) and Vigny Stick Fighting (also known as La Canne, Canne de Combat) which uses umbrellas and walking sticks as a weapons of self-defense. Bartitsu is designed to be used in closed quarters with one or multiple assailants where weight and strength of the individual did not matter, only skill and improvisation. At a time when middle and upper class Londoners feared for their safety in rapidly growing industrialized society, Bartitsu was perfect to survive the mean streets of Edwardian England.

It declined almost as quickly as it ascended, with most of the Barton-Wright’s trainers breaking off and establishing their own schools. Barton continued teaching as well as developing Bartitsu till the 1920’s and died at the ripe age of 90.

Edward Barton Wright was not only one of the first Europeans to teach martial arts in England but also a pioneer in the field of hybrid martial arts. He was the first to combine European methods of fighting using oriental theories of martial arts. Neo-Bartitsu is a recent phenomenon and this is portrayed in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes where fight choreographer Richard Ryan combined Chinese Boxing, Brazilian Jujitsu and French stick-fighting. The iconic fight scene between Holmes (Downey Jr) and random guy at the Punch Bowl can single handedly be credited to E.W Barton Wright.

Whether it was to combat elusive Proffesor Moriarity or the cruel Nazis, Sherlock Holmes would be just another gun. Here’s the link to the fight scene:

There’s also a funny fight scene:

Do note how Jude Law uses his overcoat and the hat to distract his opponents and Downey Jr. uses his riding crop to strike the Dredger. Classic Bartitsu all the way.