A Comparison of Some Methods of Self-Defence

Journal of Manly Arts
Dec 2001

By W.T.A. Beare

(Originally published in Sandow's Magazine, Vol.6, January 1901)

It is very unfortunate, in my view, that difficulties arose in connection with the promised display of Japanese wrestling at the Alhambra, and that no public performance ever took place; for it is always interesting to observe the methods of personal defence and attack in general use by other nationalities and compare them with our own. It has frequently happened within the last few years that exponents of systems strange to us have come forward and made pretensions to superiority which we have by no means been inclined to concede, whilst, perhaps, no suitable opportunity has presented itself to us to successfully combat the assertions made.

The latest novelty in "antagonistics", to use a coinage of the gymnasium, is, as I have suggested, an importation from Japan, and it was to have been exhibited on the stage of the Alhambra by experts and champions of that distant but delightful isle. There appears, however, to have been a misunderstanding of some kind between the Japanese athletes and Mr. Barton-Wright, who had been instrumental in bringing them to this country and inducing Mr. Dundas Slater to give them a provisional engagement. They say that they are members of a religious sect and that it is against their principles to give displays in a hall where an admission fee is charged and drinks are on sale; moreover, the general character of performances in a London music-hall, so far as they had been able to discover, was scarcely in accordance with their ideas of the fitness of things. (EN1)

Such is the explanation given on their behalf of their non-appearance at the Alhambra for the purposes of public display; but it is to be hoped that the difficulty will not prove permanently insuperable. There was a private display one afternoon, a month or so ago, at which I, with many other journalists, was present, and I am bound to say that I was greatly impressed by what I saw. I had already, a year earlier, seen a display, at the St. James's Hall, by Mr. Barton-Wright, the herald here of the Japanese style of wrestling. He called his system "Bartitsu," whilst that shown at the Alhambra was described as "Jujitsu," or a fight to the last; but so far as I am able to judge there is no substantial difference between the two methods (EN2).

Barton-Wright demonstrates an elbow lock

The revival of interest in different national forms of contest brought about by the descriptions given of the Japanese system has suggested to me that it would be worthwhile at this moment to examine, with the object of how far the claims advanced on their behalf are or are not well-grounded, some few of the methods of contest between man and man of a somewhat novel kind which have come prominently to the attention of the public in recent times, each of which has been represented as more effective than any other for the purpose of coping either with a sudden attack by some predatory scoundrel in slum or quiet suburban road, or with the onslaught of an honourable opponent in a set contest under proper supervision and conditions.

Even if not always openly expressed, there has generally been the inference conveyed by the promoters of these new methods that they are superior to our good old English system of fisticuffs; and such expertness and agility have been displayed by the demonstrators that there is little occasion for surprise if many people have arrived at the conclusion that here was something entirely new, something which would nonplus our professors of the "noble art," and which, to be fully equipped for attack or defence, we should immediately proceed to at least assimilate and superimpose upon our ancient methods, even if we should not abandon these latter altogether.

I would beg to reassure our timorous friends. Our old ways, not alone of boxing, but of wrestling and single-stick play, are excellent yet, and there is no need to discard them as no longer useful. Single-sticks I have mentioned but for one object. It is not my intention to enter in any detail upon the subject of fencing, which is outside the scope I had laid down for myself. But M. Georges D'Armoric introduced into a display of Les Boxeurs at the Alhambra last year a form of cane-play which compelled comparison with the way in which we use single-sticks (EN3), and, so as to dispose of this matter at once, I will deal with it first.

La Canne de Combat

Now in La Canne the whole play, so far as I could discover, consists of cuts and parries, and these were executed with such smartness by the French professors that it was quite clear that the light cane might be made a weapon of great service, either in a hand-to-hand conflict between two persons, or as a means of defence were one beset by a gang of ruffians. Yet this conviction was forced upon me as I watched them: whilst their movements were all executed with great rapidity and a great deal of force was put into their blows, they were altogether too slow in making the actual stroke to be in the least dangerous against an expert with foils or single-sticks. The style was too florid, there was too much of ornamentation and posing about it all. Prior to the making of a cut the cane was twirled rapidly around the head or in some other fashion, and then brought down with, I will admit, stinging force; but of what use the extra impetus to the blow if so much time is afforded the opponent to see the intent? But this is a slight matter and I pass from it. (EN4)

Recurring now to the Japanese system of wrestling, I prefer to deal with it purely as displayed by Mr. Baron-Wright, who is still with us and able to reply to any remarks of mine which may seem to him to call for it. As I have already said, I could perceive no radical difference between his methods and those of the native exponents on the Alhambra stage.

As all who witnessed Mr. Barton-Wright's exhibition must have been, I was greatly impressed by his agility and the effectiveness of his methods when employed upon a subject unfamiliar with them. Some of his catches and throws, for example, are particularly valuable for use when attacked in the streets, and are calculated to upset the burliest of ruffians. The way, too, in which he apparently gives the fall to his opponent, but finishes up "top dog" with the other at his mercy, is really quite wonderful, and one would be glad to become an expert in such a method. It could not fail to be useful in cases of emergency.

But I cannot accept Mr. Barton-Wright's system, valuable as it may be, as a royal road to invulnerability, nor can I imagine that he is himself invincible.

It is difficult to suggest a basis for a meeting of exponents of two totally dis-similar forms of contest, but I should very much like to see a bout in real earnest between Mr. Barton-Wright and some light-weight expert in boxing and wrestling, English style. I am not too strongly inclined to think that the English style would prevail right away; indeed, I doubt that it would. There is so large an element of trickiness about the Japanese method that the English expert might well be caught unawares.

But what I do contend is, that a really clever man would not be at a loss for long. There is one main underlying principle throughout Mr. Barton-Wright's system, and that is, broadly stated, application of unnatural strains to the limbs. My presumed clever performer would quickly become alive to this - not necessarily, as I have suggested, at the first meeting - and would refrain from affording his opponent facilities for his peculiar holds, which are only easily possible so long as they are unexpected. (EN5)

There is another point about Mr. Barton-Wright's form of wrestling to which I would allude. It is, if one may say so, an "all in" method, nothing barred. Regarded purely as a method of self-defence in the case of a ruffianly attack nothing can be said against it. But I would like to ask him whether he has ever considered the point, when urging the superiority of his style to any of the better-known systems, whether all of his tricks would be accepted as perfectly fair, whether, indeed, some of them are not absolute fouls? And would he be prepared to meet an expert in the Graeco-Roman or Cumberland and Westmoreland styles and allow the latter absolutely the same free hand that he claims for himself? I shall be interested to know this.

Another system of self-defence of which we heard much a while ago is the French La Boxe, which is a combination of English boxing and La Savate or La Chausson. I have been told that the men who gave exhibitions at the Alhambra, although undoubtedly clever, were not really the best exponents of La Boxe. Since, however, their standing in the art in Paris was admitted to be high, we must accept them as fairly representing the merits of the system (EN6).

Well, so far as the boxing part of their programme is concerned, it may at once be said that they know precious little about it, and in that respect alone would not stand an atom of a chance with an average middle-weight performer in the English style. It remains to be seen how far their kicking is likely to prove effective. When once you have divested yourself of innate prejudice against it, if you had any, you are bound to admit that it is very clever and very pretty, whilst some forms of the attack, the chasse croise for example, may be particularly deadly. But, approaching this system, too, from the point of view of the English boxer and wrestler, do the exponents of La Boxe, or La Savate - for that is really what it comes to - suppose that a boxer would stand still to be kicked? If it were sprung upon him as a surprise, he might receive one hit - and it must be confessed that one might suffice to knock him out; but I do not think a fairly clever man, starting with the knowledge that his opponent would use his feet, would allow that opponent ever to become dangerous.

Driscoll vs. Charlemont
Driscoll vs. Charlemont, Oct. 28, 1899

I am writing with the full knowledge that a contest really did take place a few months ago between an English boxer, Jerry Driscoll, and a French professor of La Boxe, one Charlemont; but seeing the conditions under which the contest took place, the result, and the way it was arrived at, I prefer to disregard the whole affair rather than to express my opinions and my feelings concerning it. (EN7)

The essential difference between French and the English styles is that in the former the poise is entirely on one foot, whereas we preserve the balance by using both feet. The contention of supporters of the French system is that by it the approach, the attack, and the retreat may all be much more quickly executed. But that is a contention that English boxers will certainly not admit to be true.

My impression is that our man would keep well clear of the apparently telescopic legs of the agile Frenchman until he had noted the signs he desired to know, and would then seize the first opportunity to meet him with in-fighting, where kicking would get a very poor chance of doing mischief. There is one very tricky coup which might easily take a novice unawares. I am not cognisant of the technical name by which it is known, but it operates something like this. The Savate artist, in the face of an attack, turns his back to his opponent, throws himself on to his hands, and kicks up with one foot. The blow, perhaps, lands lightly on the chest, and the opponent seizes the foot; immediately, like a flash, up comes the other foot to administer the real business blow. But I fancy I know a stop for that second blow that would make the operator very chary of attempting it again.

 "A very tricky coup"

If, however, I do not admit the superior excellence of this system of fighting to our English system, I am prepared to concede its value in some respects. Its practice must tend to strengthen the legs and to give a man great command over the movements of his body in almost any position; it will render him more agile, and an acquaintance with its main features will prepare him to resist attack in that form.

It is a maxim with many English trainers and instructors, no matter what the game may be, that it is best to specialise and confine attention to the one thing in hand. The running man must not walk, nor vice versa, and if he be a sprinter he must never run distances. The cricketer must not dally with lawn tennis of golf. The Rugby footballer must never play the Association game, and so-on. So, in boxing and wrestling - but the one system must be practised, for indulgence in other forms will vitiate the style, and render the man slow and tame.

Now, with these propositions I do not at all agree. I do not believe in specialism in sport, and much more does the fairly capable all-round athlete command my admiration than the expert in one form of sport or exercise who is a rank duffer in most others.

It must, of course, be conceded that when a man has set himself to attempt some particular feat, or is matched against others in some special form of contest, he should pay, in the later stages of his preparation, exclusive attention to that one thing; but the true athlete should possess a ground-work of all-round excellence, and should not specialise until he has developed all the powers of his body.

In this particular connection I say that an acquaintance with the various different styles of self-defence is of distinct value to the man who would be a good boxer. He cannot know too much, and, though he may not require to use all his tricks in an actual contest, yet the knowledge that he has reserves to call upon at need in the case of an unexpected attack will lend him increased confidence; and he is much less likely to be taken by surprise if he is already well-acquainted with the tricks of other trades.


(EN1) Misfortune appears to have plagued many of Mr. Barton-Wright's efforts at public promotion of his art. For another account of the circumstances surrounding the Japanese wrestlers' non-appearance, please see this article.

(EN2) A more accurate translation of "Jujitsu" would be "the art of yielding". It is diverting to speculate as to the causes of this confusion of styles, names and definitions.

Mr. Barton-Wright's first article on the subject of self-defence was published in two instalments in the March and April 1899 issues of Pearson's Magazine. These illustrate a selection of techniques that are credited to the Japanese wrestling tradition, and also a manoeuvre with a cloak that may be of French origin. Significantly, the first essay makes no reference to either "Jujitsu" or "Bartitsu" by name; in a brief introduction to the second instalment, he writes of "my New Art of Self-Defence, to which I have given the name 'Bartitsu.'" It is possible that he had coined the word between submitting the first and second instalments of this article.

Barton-Wright may have conceived of a deliberately eclectic self-defence system during his Asian travels, decided upon Jujitsu as a suitable foundation art, but not actually set about formally developing or assembling the additional elements until he returned to England. As an enthusiastically eclectic martial artist, Barton-Wright may have simply decided to use "Bartitsu" as an umbrella term to define his own system, encompassing not only a modified Jujitsu but also several combative methods of French and English origin.

Evidently Barton-Wright wanted his readers to identify this "New Art" closely with himself, as the word "Bartitsu" does vaguely imply "the art of Bart(on-Wright)". It is possible that his knowledge of the Japanese language was not up to the job of accurately translating "Jujitsu", although he had been resident in Japan, working as an industrial engineer, for three years prior to his return to England in 1899. In any case, I have been unable to discover an accurate definition of the word Jujitsu in Barton-Wright's published work, nor in any writing by others who had interviewed him or witnessed one of his many public demonstrations. Mary Nugent, a reporter for Health and Strength magazine who interviewed Barton-Wright, wrote:

As is explained on the stage every night by (Bartitsu's) introducer, there is a secret method of wrestling known, and very covertly practised, in Japan, and that is called Jujitsu - the word "jitsu", freely translated, meaning "to a finish."

The "Bar" comes in - as part of the name of Mr. E. W. Barton-Wright, who has invented this scientific self-defence, adapting endless points from schools of wrestling in nearly every part of the world; adapting also the peculiar Japanese art which was permitted to be shown him, as the rarest favour, in Japan; plus a something - I am sorry not to be more definite, but it is so comprehensive and so complicated, that I am bound to call it a "something" - inherent to the mind and personality of Barton-Wright, the man himself.

To further complicate matters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had evidently either read about or heard of the "New Art" - he, too, was writing for Pearson's and similar journals during this period - and incorporated it into his Sherlock Holmes story, "the Adventure of the Empty House." In the process, Conan Doyle re-named the art "Baritsu," either by accident or by some obscure design.

(EN3) Clive Phillipps-Wolley's essay on single-stick fencing is available here.

(EN4) Pierre Vigny's system of cane-fighting is described here, and William Barton-Wright's adaptation is demonstrated in this article.

(EN5) Indeed, Barton-Wright's many demonstrations of his art appear to have been academic exhibitions rather than serious competitions. Colonel C.W. Fox, the Assistant Adjutant-General of the York District and ex-inspector of General of Army Gymnasia witnessed one of these demonstrations, and wrote:

I have no hesitation in pronouncing Mr. Barton-Wright's system as absolutely sound in theory, exceedingly practical and very scientific. I was much impressed with the extremely easy and graceful way in which he seemed to disturb the balance of his opponent and render him helpless. And although Mr. Barton-Wright repeatedly allowed his opponent to choose his own hold and take him at the greatest possible disadvantage, he never seemed to be at a loss what to do, and how to throw his opponent instantaneously.

(EN6) For a variety of Victorian-era essays and articles concerning the French arts of self-defence, please see the Australian Savate Articles page.

(EN7) This was Charles Charlemont (1862-1942), the son and successor of Joseph Pierre Charlemont (1830-1914), whose book La Boxe Francaise which was published in 1899. Jerry Driscoll was an ex-champion boxer in the English Navy. The mixed-styles contest took place in Paris on October 28th, 1899. It was apparently regarded by the English as a novelty event, and was taken rather more seriously by the French, ending in a controversy that did no lasting good to Anglo-French sporting relations.

In the first round Driscoll protested that Charlemont had bitten him. There was an immediate uproar and the match was halted for several minutes. When it re-started the fighters fell into a clinch and, for an unidentified reason, the match was interrupted again. The referee then refused to continue. When persuaded to proceed with his duties, he declared at the end of the first round that two rounds had in fact been fought.

The fight eventually ended in round eight, as Driscoll fell, clutching his groin. According to English boxing referee Bernard John Angle in his book My Sporting Memories (London, 1925,):

Driscoll did not know what he was taking on when he agreed to meet the Frenchman at his own game ...

Angle also commented that, "the contest ended in Jerry being counted out to a blow in the groin from the Frenchman's knee," and that "the timekeeper saved Charlemont several times." After the fight Driscoll bore no grudges, considering the blow to have been "an accident." The French press claimed victory to Charlemont by a round-kick (fouette median) to Driscoll's stomach.

Dec 2001