Mr Edward William Barton-Wright was an English railway engineer who travelled widely and formulated what today we call a mixed martial art. Barton-Wright combined elements of boxing, jujitsu, cane fighting (la cane), and French kick boxing (savat) in order to create a self defence system that could be used by gentlemen on the mean streets of Edwardian London or elsewhere in or beyond the British Empire. For a short time it was so popular that even Sherlock Holmes employed a form of it in his detective adventures; a down-and-dirty form was picked up in the Robert Downey Jnr / Guy Ritchie Holmes movies of a few years ago.
An educated, middle-class Englishman, Barton Wright’s work as an engineer took him all over Europe and to Japan for three years where he took up jujitsu at the school of Jigoro Kano. When he returned to England, he quit engineering in favour of the New Art of Self Defence, which, like any self-respecting Victorian entrepreneur, he branded Bartitsu, opening his own martial arts school teaching a system that included boxing, kickboxing, and stick fighting blended with jujitsu from the barely-known, mysterious culture of Japan.
In 1899, Barton-Wright wrote two articles in the London publication, Pearson’s Magazine, entitled “A New Art of Self Defense”, in which he teased some of the techniques of his new-fangled martial art taught at his subterranean, white-tiled Bartitsu Club.
Employing Japanese instructors K. Tani, S. Yamamoto, and Yukio Tani as well as Pierre Vigny and Armand Cherpillod, Bartitsu enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in England, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes practicing ‘baritsu’ – probably a deliberate misspelling of Bartitsu to avoid any copyright claims – in The Adventure of the Empty House.
The fad was short-lived, probably not helped by Barton-Wright’s personality, his business sense and the whimsical mash-up of techniques and applications lashed together under one banner. By 1903, the Bartitsu Club closed, with most of the instructors setting up their own self defense schools in London. Barton-Wright continued to develop and teach Bartitsu until the 1920’s alongside his main occupation as a physical therapist. He died in 1951 at the age of 90.
In the HEMA community, Bartitsu is enjoying a resurgence. The bar to entry is very low – from sticks to umbrellas – and there’s an entertainingly wide array of techniques, weapons and fighting styles wrapped within it. Bartitsu appeals to as many non-martial artists as students of the source disciplines. La cane is not so different from English singlestick and military sabre; there is a clear lineage through all the ‘forgotten’ European martial arts that preceded it.
Practitioners also take a delight in the eccentricity of Barton-Wright’s ideas and examples; if you’ve seen ‘how to defend yourself with a bicycle’, it’s a small step to improvise other weapons from everyday objects; and, with the young lady depicted in the bicycle defence illustrations, Bartitsu is held up as an early gender-inclusive method.