Bartitsu: The Martial Art of Gentlemen

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 5, 2009 · 33 comments

in Health & Sports

bartitsu

Image from The Journal of Manly Arts

Before Randy Couture and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, there was Edward William Barton-Wright and bartitsu. Bartitsu was probably the first instance of what we know today as mixed martial arts. Mr. Barton combined elements of boxing, jujitsu, cane fighting, and french kick boxing in order to create a self defense system that could be used by discerning gentlemen on the mean streets of Edwardian London. It grew to such popularity that even Sherlock Holmes was practicing bartitsu in his mysterious adventures.

While bartitsu died in the early 20th Century, E.W. Barton left a legacy in the field of martial arts. What follows is a brief history of bartitsu as well as a guide to get you started on learning the martial art of gentlemen.

The History of Bartitsu

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When unarmed, William Barton-Wright would use his mustache as a weapon.

Bartitsu was created by William Barton-Wright, an English railroad engineer. Barton’s work as an engineer took him to Japan for three years where he was introduced to jujitsu. He studied the art at the school of Jigoro Kano. Barton must have been excited about what he learned. When he returned to England, he quit his career in engineering and opened up a martial arts school where he taught jujitsu.

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 melding 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.

Barton opened a school called the Bartitsu Club. He brought in some of the best martial arts teachers from around the world to teach at his new school. Among these were Japanese instructors K. Tani, S. Yamamoto, and Yukio Tani as well as Pierre Vigny and Armand Cherpillod. One journalist described the Bartitsu Club as “… a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light, with ‘champions’ prowling around it like tigers.”

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. (Note: Robert Downey, Jr. will be showing off his bartitsu chops in an upcoming Sherlock Holmes film. )

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, Barton spent the rest of his career as a physical therapist. He died in 1951 at the age of 90.

A Mini Documentary on Bartitsu

Bartitsu in Action

Further Reading

The Martial Arts of Bartitsu

Bartitsu was a mix of several marital arts. Here are several of them, along with a list of resources from Barton’s time for those gents who wish to delve deeper into each.

Boxing

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Image source

The boxing style implemented by Barton was the style used by Golden Age fisticuffers of the time. Unlike the modern style, boxers during the 19th and early 20th century maintained a stiff and upright stance. Usually the lead hand was extended, with the rear forearm “barring the mark” or covering their chest area.

Further Reading

Jujitsu

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It’s obvious bartitsu borrowed its name from the Japanese fighting style of jujitsu. During the late 19th century, jujitsu had become a popular sport among Westerners. In fact, President Teddy Roosevelt was a practitioner of the martial art. Barton brought in famous Japanese jujitsu instructors or jujtsukas K. Tani, S. Yamamonto, and Yukio Tani. In an March 1899 issue of Pearson’s Magazine, Barton summarized jujitsu in three principles:

1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. If necessary to subject the joints of any parts of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strains that they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

Further Reading

Jiu-jitsu: A Comprehensive and Copiously Illustrated Treatise by Capt. Harry H. Skinner, published 1904

La Savate

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Image source (In French. Bust out your Google Translate. However, it butchers the article.)

La savate (pronounced savat) is a French kickboxing system developed from street fighting sailors in the port of Marseilles during the 19th century. Sailors in Marseilles had to develop a way to fight that didn’t involve closed fists because they were considered deadly weapons and carried legal penalties if used. Thus, savate consisted of different kicks, open handed slaps, and grappling.

Further Reading

Stick Fighting

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Image Source

Also known as “la canne,” stick fighting was another French martial art. Barton brought in Pierre Vigny, a Swiss master-at-arms, to teach stick fighting. Because many upper class Englishman carried canes and umbrellas, Vigny modified the traditional form of stick fighting to better implement these instruments. His system was simple and efficient, and it lent itself to defending oneself in an altercation in the streets. Strikes to the face, head, neck, wrists, knees, and shins were used to eliminate the threat of an attacker.

Further Reading

Improvised fighting

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Barton also included some creative and effective self defense techniques that used improvised weapons and surprises. For example, in his article in Pearson’s Magazine, Barton described using one’s coat or hat as way to distract an assailant.

Defensive Bartitsu Moves

Using a cloak or overcoat to defend yourself

Using your cloak or overcoat is an effective defensive tool, even when an attacker is brandishing a knife. While walking in the street, wear your overcoat draped over your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves. In your assailant attacks, take your right hand and grab the left collar of your coat and, in one sweeping motion, shroud your opponents head with the coat. Your attacker will be surprised and momentarily blind, which gives you plenty of time to punch him in the gut or give him several licks to the head.

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You can also choose to slip behind your opponent while you have the coat over his head, grab his ankle with your left hand, and simultaneously push his back so that he falls forward on his face. From here you can put your opponent in an appropriate jujitsu hold until the police come.

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Using a hat to defend yourself. A hat can also be used to distract or temporarily blind an attacker. When an attacker gets near you, take off your hat with a sweeping motion, and burrow your opponents face into it. Either make a blow to his stomach or take him down to the ground to put him in a submission hold.

A hat can also be used as a shield to defend yourself from punches or attacks from knives. Holding the hat firmly by the brim in your left hand, hold the hat away from your body to the side. If an attacker makes a thrust at you with a knife, catch the blow with your hat and make a blow to the attackers face with your free hand.

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Offensive Bartitsu Moves

As mentioned, Bartitsu is a mix of several martial arts. What follows is a brief explanation on how to perform a few useful moves from these martial arts.

Basic Cane Fighting Techniques

The jab. The jab can be performed with either the point or the butt of the cane. Using the point is more effective and will cause greater amounts of pain. Perform the jab by quickly stabbing your opponent and retracting your hand quickly. The quickness of the jab makes it a difficult move to defend.

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The thrust. The thrust is similar to the jab in that you use a stabbing motion. It differs from the jab because it’s delivered over a longer distance and requires full extension of the arm. Standing in an attack position, quickly lunge forward, and extend the tip of the cane towards your attacker. For added oomph, put as much of your body weight behind the thrust as you can.

Cuts. Cuts can be performed either high or low, in up, down, right, or left directions. A cut is performed with a chopping motion. Downward cuts are probably the strongest motion and are also the most difficult to defend.

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Basic Savate Techniques

Chasse Crossie kicks

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A chase lateral kick is performed crossing the rear foot behind the lead and then lifting the knee of the kicking foot towards the opposite shoulder. Add a hop before you strike. You can then strike with your foot aiming for the head, torso, or thighs of an opponent.

Coup de pied bas

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This is a sweeping kick aimed at the lower legs of an opponent. The kick is performed by pivoting the kicking foot from the hip. Your leg remains fully extended. You can either try to sweep an opponent off their feet or simply aim for their knees or ankles to inflict some pain.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lico January 5, 2009 at 12:23 am

Ah Baritsu! I heard of this gentleman’s martial art. Thank you for such an interesting article.

2 Tony January 5, 2009 at 1:50 am

Hey,

nice write-up!

I edited the two volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium (referenced above) and produced the mini-documentary on Bartitsu. Interest in Barton-Wright’s martial art is ramping up, including references in popular novels as well as on the Web, and of course we’re all looking forward to seeing Guy Ritchie’s take on “baritsu” in the new Sherlock Holmes movie next year.

3 j January 5, 2009 at 7:09 am

aww, no locks?

But seriously, don’t try any of these techniques against a skilled opponent unless you have done a boatload of training. Heck, I don’t consider myself skilled at all, but I have done a bit of jujitsu and I can think of (and have used) quite simple defenses for all of these techniques. I know this article was meant to be informative and light hearted, which it was, but the best self defense technique is usually the simplest; run like crazy!

Also: Tony, those books look damn interesting. I might have to pick one or both of them up!

4 Justin January 5, 2009 at 7:34 am

Danzan Ryu Jujitsu exemplifies true manliness, for those looking for a system to study in this day and age.

5 Tony January 5, 2009 at 12:03 pm

J, people practice (and/or research) Bartitsu today with a range of motivations, from light-hearted historical curiosity to actual self defence/competition.

The modern self defence and sporting applications are often referred to as “neo-Bartitsu”, meaning that the training draws from Edwardian era judo and jujitsu, boxing, savate and stick fighting, but is not strictly limited to the material Barton-Wright published as “Bartitsu”. In that sense, it’s comparable to MMA, to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do approach and to reality-based self defence training. Neo-Bartitsu is very individualistic and really has no argument with any other style. I agree that the best defence is to escape without fighting, if possible.

Bartitsu as a whole tends to appeal to people who are interested in gentlemanly manners, martial arts/physical training and Victorian/Edwardian social history.

I hope you enjoy the books.

6 doug January 5, 2009 at 2:56 pm

great old films. i teach a very similar style of jiu jitsu. look at my site http://www.mukashi.org
if in new york come in for a visit. my contact info is on website. doug

7 doug January 5, 2009 at 2:57 pm

great old films. i teach a very similar style of jiu jitsu. look at my site
if in new york come in for a visit. my contact info is on website. doug

8 Daniel January 6, 2009 at 5:25 am

Good post. Of course, one should not read these things and go looking for a fight (which is hardly manly) but even knowing basic theory comes in handy. I carry can for medical reasons, I very rarely need it but I would rather have it than not. Out of historical curiosity I read those cane fighting guides some time ago. I was glad I did when three youths (I am onl 23 myself) attacked my mother and I on an evening walk in our neighbourhood. I saw them off with a few judious jabs and thrust with my cane, I hate to think what would have happened had I not had the cane.
I do not advocate violence at all, I want to make that clear.

9 Greg Throne January 6, 2009 at 6:36 am

Amusing article. The only problem is that the “thuggery” have become far more sophisticated than the “villians” shown in the illustrations. I reminded me of a later self defense book that alleged one could disarm a firearm wielding evil doer. Unfortunately, that only worked if said evil doer: a) forgot to cock his revolver, b) held and attempted to use a pistol at close quarters, and c) used a dueling or classical one-handed competitive target shooting stance.

10 j January 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Greg,

There are more up to date firearm techniques that do work but none of them are perfect and they require a lot of training. Unfortunately when a firearm is involved it is simply too easy for someone to get hurt.

There are techniques that can reduce the chance of getting hurt though: if the person wants your wallet/keys, just give it to them. Your life is worth more than any car. If they are at a reasonable distance, place the items on the ground and back away when the attacker moves to collect them. If the attacker is a mugger or junkie, chances are they don’t want to use the weapon and will just take your money and leave. I’ll also reiterate what I said before: if you see the opportunity, run like crazy! You can’t get hurt if you are not there.

If the person is interested in you and not your money, well, that is a whole other set of problems. Chances are that they have real firearm training and know what they are doing. There is no easy way out of a situation like that.

11 Verneri January 7, 2009 at 3:57 am

Speaking of basic moves, i wouldn’t consider chasse marché-croisé one. It is one of the first kicks to learn, but one should probably first try to learn at least the same kick without stepping (chasse lateral). This seems to point to the direction already mentioned, that the article was meant mainly to be entertaining.

If you are interested in a no nonsense basic guide to self-defence i’d suggest reading “Dead or alive” by Geoff Thompson.

12 David valenta January 8, 2009 at 7:39 am

Much of this was covered by Fiori in the 14th century.

The cane work is the same used with single handed sword by Silver in the 16th century based on even earlier knowledge. The wrestling moves you’ve identified as jujitsu look like Fiore’s liguratura. There is so much of the Western marshal Arts we are just discovering.

13 Verneri January 8, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Although i do not know Silvers work i do know that the cane work indeed has similarities with fencing manuals as it is based on western fencing. I would have suspected that La Canne has more in common with French fencers like Angelo, but as i do not know Angelos or Silvers work can’t really say if this is so. Fiore actually does offer some insights into the World of savate. As human body just moves in certain ways even Japanese ju-jutsu included moves which are like Fiores abrazzare. Anyhow I would call similarities in the wrestling pictures superficial. Barton-Wright did select Japanese ju-jutsu as basis of his art because he found it more suiting to a gentleman than the more strength based western wrestling.

And even if Fiore dei Liberi does offer insights to Savate, “Fior di Battaglia” is a book centered on armed and deadly combat. As far as i know this is true for Angelo. Even as Silver does write about self defense even his work is centered on swords and i see that in lesser extent the same holds true for him too. This is in many parts different from modern day self defense. I see Savate as one of the many forms of WMA. A bit more modern one and a bit better suited for modern days needs.

I do agree on the fact that there is much to be discovered in WMA and the european way to fight.

14 Arnold Kelly January 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I enjoyed the article. I had forgotten about Bartitsu and this article helped me get re-aquainted with it and introduced me to Tony and The Bartitsu Society. I’m looking forward to working with the material in the books and hopefully meeting Tony one day. :)

15 Baniz January 12, 2009 at 4:47 pm

This is good topic and i like the old films. Cane fighting should be teache now-a-days not so much for defense but for style. I noticed that using a cane can be quite benefiticial with a sharp end.

16 Chris | Martial Development January 21, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Readers interested in the predecessors of MMA may wish to look up pankration.

It has long been said that any complete Chinese martial art contains striking, grappling and throwing techniques. Most good instructors can demonstrate all of these, though they will favor one over another.

17 mchang January 21, 2009 at 5:01 pm

bartitsu looks like a portion of what I teach, old style Japanese jujitsu. http://www.mukashi.org great stuff. I love the historic look at martial arts

18 whispy February 3, 2009 at 12:18 pm

i think your site is the bomb.
im such a man now after learning ‘the art of manliness’
:D

19 MMA Bart February 13, 2009 at 9:33 am

Yeah, it’s totally sweet – esp since my name is Bart. It’s like my own personal martial art. Anyway, I think Tony’s comment above sums it up nicely.

20 Stanly February 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

Hello,

I am looking for old style foto’s en material from the Shinden Fudo Ryu, is there anybody out there that can help me.

Thanks, from Holland

Stanly

21 Stanly February 14, 2009 at 10:19 am

It doesn’t matter what kind of material you have, please send it to me!

I am grateful for every bit of information of the Shinden Fudo Ryu (old style).

Please, send it to info@komopvoorjezelf.nl

Greetings en thank you in advance,

Stanly

22 Josh Artigue April 7, 2009 at 5:14 am

One small detail Jigaro Kano taught Judo not jujitsu. Its a common misconception that it was jujitsu but Kano Sensei began calling it Judo in 1886 and taught it out of the Kodokan. Kano Sensei sent many ambassadors of Judo around the world to teach Judo. Roosevelt was also taught Judo and received a brown belt in the art.

23 Tony Wolf June 16, 2009 at 10:50 am

@ Josh Artigue: Barton-Wright’s primary training in Japan was actually at the Shinden Fudo Ryu jujitsu dojo of Terajima Kuniichiro, in Kobe. We believe that he studied there for three years. He *also* said that he had trained with Jigoro Kano, presumably in judo, sometime between 1895-1898.

24 Joel December 30, 2009 at 3:45 pm

I believe I saw a little Bartitsu in the latest Sherlock Holmes movie. I was impressed, but my companions had no idea what I was talking about. I’ll definitely be sharing this article with them.

25 John Harris January 2, 2010 at 1:33 am

Great article guys. I am in Shaolin Kung Fu myself and Bartitsu seems amazing. I would really love to learn it.

26 guy January 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I like the idea of more men behaving like men. I do not think running away is acting in a manner that becomes a man. Stand your ground, do not run! Teach the punk a lesson. When you run away you lost the fight. A fight opportunity dose not come around very often. It my be the only chance to test your skills. Be brave.

27 jeff January 10, 2010 at 10:01 am

I too like the idea of men behaving like men, and being brave is the heart of the warrior culture regardless ot it being oriental or occidental. while i had heard of bartitsu in the past, i had no referance point, this is way cool from a historic point. it almost appears that Barton- Wright with his mma point of veiw paved the way for Bruce Lee and his JKD. Now i will go see Sherlock Holmes. Gentlemen, (and Ladies) have a good day, be Blessed.

28 sam lederman February 24, 2010 at 10:23 am

i’m interested in classes.
are you still located in n.y.c.?
where?
phone number

29 Bruce Allan West November 29, 2012 at 10:30 pm

This is exciting! Please, please, someone come forward and admit that you teach bartitsu in southwest Missouri!

30 Sys December 4, 2012 at 5:51 am

> I like the idea of more men behaving like men. I do not think running away is acting in a manner that becomes a man. Stand your ground, do not run! Teach the punk a lesson.
The Union of Thieves disagrees with you. Please surrender and give up. This way we will maintain “stealing” as a lucrative activity. Keep on financing us. Pay us and then run. This way we’ll have more money to go after another family. Thanks for collaborating.

:-(

31 Dennise May 8, 2013 at 6:36 am
32 Billie Neenan December 8, 2013 at 1:45 am

Thanks Mark, glad you discovered it useful. :)

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