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Bartitsu: the steampunk martial art of Sherlock Holmes

Steampunk applies post-modern artistic imagination to 19th century culture and technology, and vice-versa. There is an undeniable affinity between Steampunk and neo-Bartitsu, a martial art which is likewise inspired by (and experiments with) Victorian-era aesthetics and resources; both can be appreciated as aspects of the neo-Victorian movement.

Neo-Bartitsu describes the contemporary revival of a self defence system first promoted by its founder, a stalwart son of the British Empire named Edward William Barton-Wright, at the end of the 19th century.


Born in Bangalore, India in the year 1860, E.W. Barton-Wright was the third son in a large, moderately prosperous family. Following the middle-class fashion of the day, he matriculated in France and Germany and then set out to make his mark. His first attempt at a start-up business in the antimony smelting industry failed, and so he hit the road:

As a mining engineer in all parts of the world, I have often had to deal with very unscrupulous fighters, and, being a light man, I had to protect myself with something else than my fists.

Bartitsu: Its Exponent Interviewed (Pall Mall Gazette, September 5, 1901)

Barton-Wright said that he had studied “boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate (French kickboxing) and the use of the stiletto, under recognised masters”, further noting that he had refined his skills by “engaging ‘toughs’ until (he) was satisfied in their application”. Circa 1894, the evidently pugnacious Britisher steamshipped his way to Kobe, Japan, where he became among the very first Europeans to learn traditional Japanese martial arts – specifically, the Shinden Fudo Ryu (“School of the Immovable Heart”) method of jujutsu, under the venerable sensei Terajima Kuniichiro.

Returning to London in 1898, Barton-Wright found a city in the grip of three enthusiasms that played directly into his toughened hands. First was the trend towards “physical culture”, as post-Industrial Revolution Londoners found themselves willing and able to pay for the sort of bodily exercise that farm and village life had offered gratis to previous generations. Second was the fashionable interest in all things “Oriental”, especially Japanese, in origin, and third was the newspaper-fed moral panic surrounding the upsurge of “hooliganism”. Scarcely a day passed without the papers reporting some new street outrage perpetrated upon innocent members of the new London bourgeoisie.

Into this triple breach rode E.W. Barton-Wright upon his “New Art of Self Defence”, which he had named Bartitsu. He later defined the neologism as meaning “self defence in all its forms”; it was, in fact, an Anglo-Japanese portmanteau of his surname and the word “jujitsu”. Not satisfied with merely importing Asian martial arts to Europe, Barton-Wright conceived Bartitsu as what we today would think of as a mixed martial art; an experimental cross-training conglomerate of several different styles.


For its time, this was a truly radical innovation. The general rule in the West was towards an increasing specialisation of combat sports into facets; good old fisticuffs, numerous regional wrestling styles, various forms of fencing. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu deftly jabbed, flung and twisted them all together, with the aim of transforming those who could afford to pay into proper c1900 fighting machines.

He established the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture – prosaically, the Bartitsu Club – in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, and did a decent job of promoting his “New Art” via lectures, demonstrations and magazine articles. Members of the public attracted by Barton-Wright’s charisma and/or the sheer novelty of Bartitsu first had to submit their names for approval by a stern Committee of Gentlemen including Colonel G. Malcolm Fox and Captain Alfred Hutton. This vetting system served to weed out “undesirables” and may well have rather doomed the enterprise, as Barton-Wright appears to have overestimated the number of “desirable” Londoners who shared his passion for exotic arts of self defence.



Still, for a few years at the turn of the 20th century, the Bartitsu Club was a place to see and be seen. Members and supporters included politicians, soldiers, athletes, actors and aristocrats, both men and women, who were trained by a gallery of instructors from different points of the map. The young Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi, newly arrived from Japan, trained their well-heeled clients in the mysterious skills of Japanese unarmed combat. Armand Cherpillod, a powerful wrestler from the Swiss village of St. Croix, taught grappling and exercise classes. Professor Pierre Vigny, formerly a soldier with the Second Regiment of French Artillery, offered training in savate and his own, unique method of self defence with a gentlemanly walking cane or ladylike parasol. Reporter Mary Nugent once described Barton-Wright’s instructors, or “champions”, illuminated by electric lights as they prowled tiger-like through the Club’s cavernous, white-tile-walled interior.


Bartitsu self defence with a walking stick (1901)

Cherpillod, Tani and Uyenishi were also put to work in music-hall challenge matches against local wrestling champions. All three enjoyed remarkable and consistent success, although Barton-Wright rather stacked the deck by requiring that the locals took on the Japanese fighters under jujitsu rules. Their bouts were always fought to the point of submission via joint-lock or strangle-hold, techniques that were old news to the jujitsuka but almost entirely novel to their opponents.


Then, in early 1902, it all fell apart. Exactly why is the most enduring of the Bartitsu mysteries, but it probably comes down to the dichotomy between attaining massive popular recognition versus appealing to a tiny demographic of rich martial arts connoisseurs in the strictly class-conscious society of pre-WW1 London. The Club disbanded and the instructors went their own ways, some going on to train notables such as Edith Garrud, the self defence instructor for the Suffragette Bodyguard team.

E.W. Barton-Wright spent the remainder of his long life as a physical therapist and occasional investor in failed inventions. His therapeutic gadgets included electric light baths, heat rays, massage machines and the truly sinister-sounding “Nagelschmidt Apparatus”; he was occasionally sued and went bankrupt more than once.



Barton-Wright demonstrates his "blue light ray machine", circa 1905.

E.W. Barton-Wright died in almost complete obscurity, at the age of 90, in 1951.

Bartitsu might well have been completely forgotten thereafter – a minor casualty of the cultural chaos engendered by the First World War – if not for a cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Empty House, revealing that Holmes had defeated his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, through the use of “baritsu”. It’s likely that the popular author, in searching for a deus ex machina device to bring Holmes back from the brink of the Reichenbach Falls, where Doyle left his readers hanging some nine years earlier, had simply copied the misspelling directly from a London Times article on Bartitsu.


In any case, by the time of Barton-Wright’s death almost no-one remembered what he had been up to at the turn of the century, which, of course, left generations of Sherlock Holmes aficionados wondering what on Earth Doyle had meant. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the very few scholars whose specialties combined Sherlock Holmes studies with martial arts history began to piece the story back together. At that stage, with the benefit of a hindsight encompassing Bruce Lee’s almost heretical blending of multiple fighting systems during the ’70s (Jeet Kune Do) and the modern phenomenon that is mixed martial arts, it became apparent that Barton-Wright’s experiments had simply been decades ahead of their time.

Neo-Bartitsu is an unusual case even in the fabulously obscure world of martial arts revivalism. Barton-Wright’s system was probably only ever half-baked; a flash in the pan idea, abandoned as a work in progress in 1902. So why attempt to reconstruct it? What’s the motivation, other than a sort of anachronistic nostalgia?


I think that the neo-Bartitsu revival is inspired by the same combination of curiosity and creativity that fuels the Steampunk movement. There are historical motifs that must be honoured as well as a liberal encouragement to fill in the blanks according to one’s own intuition. There is a also a common sense of picking up a baton set down over a hundred years ago; of continuing a work-in-progress, without, necessarily, any definite goal of completing that work.

As Nick Mamatas wrote in his essay for Clarkesworld Magazine, Bartitsu: The Martial Art for the Steampunk Set:

Certainly, you have your hat and coat. A wolfshead walking stick or a fan in the Japonisme style. The corset, and the goggles. Absolutely a crazy mustache or muttonchops for the males, and a silly feather-laden chapeau of some sort for the ladies. Totally inappropriate boots, yes. Perhaps even a steam-powered zapgun of some sort, all brass and Tesla coils, just for show. But you're not truly ready for the thrilling future of the Victorian past without knowledge of antagonistics, the very techniques of fighting. So if you're into steampunk, you may well need to learn the art of gentlemen (and also of suffragettes!), Bartitsu! It ain't pulp fiction, baby.


Over the past several years there have been numerous Bartitsu classes and demonstrations at science fiction/Steampunk gatherings including V-Con, AnomalyCon, TeslaCon, SteamCon III, the World Steam Expo, StarFest, the Steam Century Mystery weekend and the San Francisco Edwardian Ball. The CombatCon event in Las Vegas features the interplay between 19th century “antagonistics” and Steampunk fiction as one of its major themes.

Here's author Gail Carrington, creator of the popular Parasol Protectorate series, engaging in a bit of Bartitsu-inspired jackanapery with instructor and fellow steampunk author Terry Kroenung:


... Adrienne Kress, actress and author of the steampunk/girl power adventure novel The Friday Society, getting her Bartitsu on in Toronto (you can also watch her in action inthis video item by the Canadian InnerSPACE channel):


... and here's Neal Stephenson assisting in a Bartitsu demo. in Wisconsin:

John Reppion’s article, Baritsu, Bartitsu and the Jujitsuffragettes was featured in issue #6 of Steampunk Magazine.


In addition to providing music for the documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes, top Steampunk band Abney Park has produced the song Victorian Vigilante, whose protagonist “brings his baritsu” to the task of taking down his nemesis.

Finally, the Steam Fu discussion forum at Steampunk Empire frequently cites Bartitsu, and likewise, Steampunk (as it is related to martial arts) is a recurring topic on the venerableBartitsu Forum, which is the primary venue for Bartitsu discussion online.

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