The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes -- Bartitsu

It turns out that a group of people, intrigued by what Sir Conan Doyle wrote in his Sherlock Holmes stories, decided to do the historical research into the Victorian martial art of Bartitsu. A few of those historians were also practicing martial artists, and they gathered up all the materials and have started a school of neo-Bartitsu, what the art would have become if it were being practiced today...

Last Saturday I attended a local "seminar" by Australian Tony Wolf, on the art and found that it was more of an all-day workout in the art itself. Tony is based in Chicago and is flying around the country promoting the art and his two volume compodium of all the historical kata of the art. He also has done a documentary titled Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.

It was an art created by one Edward William Barton-Wright, after he'd gone on a visit to Japan and learned about Jujitsu. He actually imported several Jujitsu experts, only the teenagers stayed with him, and then did a sort of cross-training school with Jujitsu, bareknuckle boxing (quite different from present day boxing), French savate (kickboxing), and fighting with a walking stick, cane, or lady's parasol. Tony was very frank at the very beginning that this is a recreational martial art, NOT a practical method of self-defense. It's also very pretty theatrically, but baroque and silly enough not to be quite as useful in a real street fight anymore.

The interesting thing, for me at least, was that the art as taught by Tony is almost the direct opposite of what is depicted in the Holmes movies, where Robert Downey Jr. runs through all the moves he's about to make through his head, and then perfectly executes the plan. Some of the motions and particular hits are the same, but the attitude of "make a plan and execute it to order" is nearly the opposite of Tony's "start with nothing in mind and just react to what happens."

Though that's not exactly fair, either, but let me start at the beginning, first.

They started with some very basic horse stance against horse stance "try to knock your partner off balance" stuff. Just touch both palms to each others palms and try and push the other person off balance. It's easy to keep your balance if you're able to just relax against a push, but hard to keep it if you stiffen or tense up. It's nearly stage one stuff for one-on-one taichi workouts. Tai chi is an utterly "soft" art, where everything is a give and you just let your attacker's energy work against you.

So it was pretty straightforward. There were a number of exercises that then had to do with getting your opponent off-balance and with reacting to exactly what they were doing. One would follow the other, and tradeoff at various signs. One of the good ones was that one would try to grip the other, on the wrist, hand, arm, or even upper arm, and the one getting grabbed would break the hold and take a hold on the other person. Then you'd trade off again.

Another had to do with one person just taking a stance, and the other person trying multiple ways to knock them off balance, just get them to take a step in any direction. We had to try pushing at something from the knees down, then at the hips, then at the shoulders or arms, and finally at the head. I am not used to hand to head shots. It's illegal territory for most of the arts I've been involved in, and it was really really quick as to why that was so.

Tony then introduced some of the sequence work, simple unarmed kata, and with it was the concept that in bartitsu, the idea was to take a person off balance, physically, and THEN try to surprise them, disconcert them with either a stunning blow or a thing that would take them off their game (usually a head shot of some kind). Finally, was the 'take advantage of the opening' and take them down to where they were out of the fight entirely. This is in the opposite order of most martial arts, where the idea is to take a person mentally off-balance first and then go for the physical upset.

The intriguing thing was that after we got the kata down a few times, we went into a sort of 'martial arts improv', where we knew where the kata was supposed to go, but then he'd tell the 'attacker' to throw a monkey wrench into the mix and the 'defender' would have to figure out a way to counteract it and still disable the attacker. And the whole idea was to NOT stop and analyze what was going on, make a plan, and then excute it. The idea was to just flow with the situation and take it by force.

No arguing with yourself, no berating yourself for getting it 'wrong' somehow, no stopping and going, "damn that didn't work, so now what?"... just stay in contact with your opponent and feel your way into the thing that's going to take them down.

With the kata we started taking each other all the way down to the ground. Hitting the mat and falling solidly. I hadn't ever really done that before. I wasn't exactly sure how to fall, but I learned quickly. *laughs* It helped that we were on wrestling mats, good thick ones, but it was still exhausting work in many ways. I'm at least as big as most of the men, and so I could use straight weight and strength in certain situations that I know that someone smaller than I would have had trouble with, still it was all in good fun, and everyone was good and slow and careful with the whole set of exchanges.

By noon, though, most people were pretty tired, and they wanted to slow down so that we could have enough energy for the afternoon, so we got to sit down and listen to a little of the history, and how Welsh shin-kicking was related to French savate. *laughs* Of course, in the midst of that, we got up and had a go at each others shins.

They made lunch, and we sat in the high school theater classroom and ate and drank and watched the documentary for a while. Then we went back at it, this time with the crooked canes that we'd all brought. There were a number of set kata with walking sticks, parasol, and cane! So that was kind of cool to think of a whole set of set moves that could be done with a hooked cane. The intriguing part for me was that the positions had more to do with sabre tactics than any of the other sword forms I knew, with a back high guard being the most popular starting point if the bartitsu practitioner felt confident about their chances. A high foreguard was for use if you weren't sure, and just a straight out attack was for positions of lesser chance (like a parasol against a longer stick weapon).

One kata started with a lovely feint, a hook set behind the neck of the assailant, and then just yank them down to an upcoming knee. Pretty straightforward, but the really amazing part of it came with the improvisations, and between my partner and I, we came up with dozens of ways it could go at many points along the sequence, and it was truly amazing to find that I could just flow into counters that would still put him on the ground! It was really hard to turn my head off, and just go with the flow, but when I did it was amazingly rewarding and felt right in so many ways.

The two volume book set has all the set moves, but when asked the teacher said that you really can't learn this on your own. It really takes a sparring partner who is willing to go through it all with you, because it's really about training your reflexes and instincts. It's really about responding to the situation as it unfolds, and you can't do that just on a planned set of motions. It gives you a place to start but the real art is in the reactions, and having a number of them that are mixed up between arts. Where you can respond as quickly with a kick as you can with a strike as you can with a swing from a stick or a wrestling move that puts your opponent off-balance.

I ended up the day really sore. *laughs* I've been recovering for the week since, but it was well worth the bruises. I haven't done body-to-body work that's been that close for most of my life, and it was amazing how much confidence I got from it. It was nice to rediscover that side of me again. I needed it.

At the end he went over some of the history he's learned about how all this relates to the French Apache street gangs, how one of the ladies that came from this school started to teach Suffragettes how to fight the police and bodyguard their leaders, and how this art was used with Indian clubs for some really deadly fights. That was really intriguing.

It turns out that there might be a club or school starting in Boulder, and I'm connected now with the people that might be helping get it organized. I think I'd like to continue with it, especially since I now have the cane. *laughs*
  • Current Mood: busy busy
This is fascinating. I especially love the idea of martial arts using a parasol.
While it wasn't actually designed for use with a parasol, I remember in several Once Upon A Time In China movies they have Huang Fei Hong fighting using an umbrella. Though I suspect that in those cases he was replicating sword moves rather than doing anything designed to use an umbrella.
Yes! I loved those sequences! And they were very much tai chi sword moves... Wow....
Yes! The Barton-Wright school originally designed the kata to be used with either a gentleman's walking stick or a lady's parasol, because a person of breeding couldn't go out of the house without one or the other. It was fascinating to see the adjustments that "should" be made for a parasol's shorter length in conjunction with the usually shorter height of the person using it. *grins*

I loved that the women had their own classes in both the Bartitsu school and in the Jujitsu school after, because men weren't allowed to view women during exercise or in exertion... it was one of the ways the Jujitsu school hid suffragettes, by putting them in a women's classroom and objecting when male policemen tried to see them... using Victorian mores to an advantage.
putting them in a women's classroom and objecting when male policemen tried to see them

How very innovative, and ahead of their time. Though- would these women would have been doing baritsu in corsets? Or did one remove them for exercise? There's photos in the UofT's Starbucks of women ice hockey players from-- the early 1900s, going by the Gibson girl hairstyles-- and they look rather svelte in spite of the coats and all.
I actually don't know about the corsets! They used their bustles to conceal Indian Clubs, but it would definitely seem counter-productive to be laced into corsets while fighting! Agh...

Oh, very cool about the women ice hockey players!
Indian clubs in one's bustle! But not so easy for grabbing at need, I'd have thought.

Yes, ice hockey in full tweed skirts. Impressive.
I've done stunt fencing of my parasol against a gentleman's cane, and the techniques work remarkably well. (You can also use the fabric of the parasol as a snaring device, if you do it right. But you need to be careful about inadvertent use.)
Oh, what fun! I like imagining all the things you can do with a hooked cane.