Bartitsu: 19th-Century Art of Gentlemanly Self-Defense

The founder of Bartitsu, Edward William Wright, was born on November 8th, 1860 in Bangalore, India. His mother, Janet, was of Scottish descent and his Northumbrian father, William, was a prominent railway engineer. As Edward Wright grew up he traveled to many different countries, receiving both a traditional education and a chance to explore various martial arts. In his early 30's he legally changed his name to Edward William Barton-Wright.

As he was to explain to Budokwai founder Gunji Koizumi:

I have always been interested in the arts of self-defence (sic) and I learned various methods including boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate and the use of the stiletto under recognised (sic) masters, and by engaging toughs I trained myself until I was satisfied in practical application.

While following in his father's footsteps and working as a railroad engineer in Japan, Barton-Wright had studied two different jiujitsu ryu: the Shinden-Fudo Ryu under sensei Terajima Kuniichiro in Kobe and Kodokan Jiujitsu, possibly with Kano Jigoro, in Tokyo.

Cultural Origins of Bartitsu

Bartitsu’s cultural origins can be traced to three primary popular trends of the 1890s. These include the media-fed panic concerning street violence, both “at home” and abroad; the public fascination with Asian (especially Japanese) culture, and the fad of Physical Culture and a means of developing both moral and physical fitness.

Lurid articles detailed the latest atrocities of the Apaches, the feared street-fighters of the notorious Montmartre district in Paris, as well as the exploits of Hooligans, Cornermen, Scuttlers, and other gangsters prowling the streets of London, Dublin, Liverpool and Manchester. Even further afield, Larrikins prowled the back alleys of Sydney and Auckland, and the ethnic gang warfare of New York City was the stuff of legend.

A Gentlemanly Art

Riding the crest of this wave, Barton-Wright promoted Bartitsu as an alternative to living in fear, both at home and while traveling abroad. It was specifically designed as a gentlemanly art of self-defense. Historian Emelyne Godfrey notes:

Bartitsu was self-defence (sic) for the connoisseur, enabling the gentleman to reassert his physical presence on the street in a manner that was not only artful but aesthetically appealing. Barton-Wright’s martial art invited the gentleman to test his physical and mental skills, rather than simply purchasing one of the many weapons available.

The second influence was the newly-found interest in all things Oriental. By Royal edict of the shoguns of the Tokugawa period (1603–1867) all trade with foreign countries was prohibited; only a Dutch trading post at Nagasaki was permitted.

Western attempts to renew trading relations failed until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay. Trade with the West was forced upon Japan under terms less than favorable to the Japanese. Strife caused by these actions brought down the feudal world of the shoguns. In 1868, the emperor Meiji came to the throne, and the shogun system was abolished. This was when trade with England, among others, was newly re-instituted and brought about the high level of interest.

The Rise of Physical Culture

The third major influence upon Bartitsu was the increasing European enthusiasm for what had become known as “Physical Culture”. One social consequence of the Industrial Revolution had been the perception of a steady decline in the physical condition of Britain’s increasingly sedentary middle and upper classes. This coincided with an emerging re-definition of “sport” as a wholesome athletic activity that could be pursued by amateurs, as opposed to the gambling culture of prize-fighting, horse-racing and womanizing.

Scientific boxing, along with quarterstaff play and the arts of single-stick, saber, foil and bayonet fencing were all enthusiastically embraced by students at the salles d’armes and gymnasiums that flourished in major English cities towards the end of the 1800s.

In 1899, Barton wrote an article in the London based publication, Pearson’s Magazine, entitled “A New Art of Self Defense.” In it he set out his system of self-defense that he called “Bartitsu,” an obvious combination of his name and jujitsu. While Bartitsu was based mainly on jujitsu, Barton explained in his article that the system included boxing, kickboxing, and stick fighting.

In promoting Bartitsu, Barton-Wright often noted the physical benefits to be accrued by regular practice of the art:

Besides being a most useful and practical accomplishment, this new art of self-defence (sic) with a walking-stick is to be recommended as a most exhilarating and graceful exercise. (“Self-defence (sic) with a Walking-stick (Part 2)” E.W. Barton-Wright, Pearson’s Magazine, 11, February 1901, 195-204.)

Bartitsu also comprises a system of physical culture which is as complete and thorough as the art of self defence. (sic) (“The Latest Fashionable Pastime: The Bartitsu Club”. Black and White Budget magazine, 29-12-1900)

The popularity of Bartitsu in England was widespread. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even had Sherlock Holmes practicing “baritsu” (a misspelling of Bartitsu) in The Adventure of the Empty House. Because Conan Doyle misspelled Bartitsu, scholars of Sherlock Holmes were confused for years by the reference.

Bartitsu declined in popularity as rapidly as it had ascended. By 1903, the Bartitsu Club closed and most of its instructors established their own self-defense schools in London. Barton continued to develop and teach Bartitsu until the 1920s. Because of the lack of interest in his martial art (mainly due to the high prices he charged for instruction), Barton spent the rest of his career as a physical therapist. He died in 1951 at the age of 90 and was buried in a pauper's grave, a sad ending for a man who followed a dream that turned out to be of interest to so few.

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