Bartitsu: The gentlemen’s art of self-defense


«Alas! Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?» Charles Lamb

During the last decades of XIX century, we assisted in England to a gradual refuse of the use of firearms for self-defense. Interpersonal violence was more and more condemned: It resulted in a new idea of gentleman, which is well represented by the figure of the Bartitsukaa man able to overcome his opposing employing things of everyday use, and praising smartness instead of force.

The London garotting panics and the issue of self-defense

London, mid-Victorian Age. In 1862, the crime rate for robbery in metropolitan police district stood at 2.2 cases per 100’000 of population, compared to 174 in 1982 (Sindall, 1987: 351), and the reported cases of violence and theft, most notably homicide, were significantly decreasing (Godfrey, 2010:6). However, the expansion of the City, (at the turn of the century, over one million pedestrians entered in London on daily basis), as well as the increase in reports of street violence in metropolitan press, provoked concern, and a growing interests in personal protection.

Australia’s refusal to take British criminals, and the consequent release on parole with a ticket-of-leave of a high number of convicts, wasconsidered the leadingcause of the increasing number of garottings, andathreat to public safety. The term garotting came from the hispanic instrument of execution garotta, and it referred to a specialized form of street violence, but it soon became synonymous of mugging and violent robbery (Sindall, 1987:352). In 1856, a first short-term garotting panic broke out among the middle-class. As reported in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine «It was generally understood that a ticket-of-leave would be interpreted by the public to be a licence to garotte with impunity» (Sindall, 1987:353). However, the Penal Servitude Act of 1857 preserved this practice.

second wave of garotting panic occurred between 1862 and 1863. On the morning of 17 July 1862, Pilkington, the MP for Blackburn, was attacked and robbed (Sindall, 1987:354). The case was followed by a high press coverage for robberies reports, in contrast with the downward trend in the level of criminal activity in general. North-West London was the main theatre of garotting, while the panic that mainly affected the middle-class had distinct metropolitan bias. On 5 November 1862, The time opened its campaign against the system of secondary punishment with the warning that: «Now the long nights are coming we shall have to buy revolvers and carry them» (Sindall, 1987:356).

While the press attention gradually shift to the revolution in Greece and the distress in Lancashire, the panic de-flow.  Nevertheless, the high- and middle-class was now pervaded by a militarized conception of everyday experience. During the two following decades, firearms became fashion accessories. January 1885: According to The Times, «a revolver [became] as necessary a companion as an umbrella» (Godfrey, 2010:8), and by the second half of Victorian Era guns were reasonably accessible to everybody.

«The nineteenth century ended with firearms plentifully available while rates of armed crime had been declining and were to reach a record low» (Malcom 2002:130). However, at the end of Nineteenth century pro-guns stances began to be countered, and displays of masculine violence were increasingly condemned. Newspapers and politicians pointed out the numerous risks of the firearms-fashion: The Times wrote about an epidemic of revolvers (26 January 1885) and several members of the Parliament publicly underlined the risks of injury for children and for the owners themselves. Lobbies to restrict the purchase of cheap pistols led to 1895 Pistols Bill that imposed a license fee on guns.

The image of masculinity itself was at stake. Libertinism, pugilism and violence were condemned, in favor of a neo-chivalric ideal. A new model of manliness that resulted from the tension between the ethos of the civilizing offensive (Godfrey 2010:7) and the re-interpretation of traditional forms of gallantry prevailed in the imagery of British middle-upper class.

The new art of self-defense

The growing disapproval of the use of interpersonal violence significantly influenced the concept of self-defense. The refusal of use of weapons in self-defense at the very end of 1890s was not a complete novelty: during London Monster panic in the 1790s, the press urged women to wear copper bottoms as a form of defense, and, in the first half of Nineteenth century, Pierce Egan wrote extensively on street combat (Godfrey 2010:13). The main difference that distinguishes the 1890s interest in self-defense was the increased availability of British and foreign methods of responding to interpersonal violence using the minimum of force.

The term Bartitsu appeared for the first time in 1899, in an article written by its founder, Barton-Wright, and published in Pearson’s Magazine. The article, whose titled The new art of self-defence: How a man may defend himself against every form of attack, was followed by several others that reached a public located on both sides of Atlantic.

Barton-Wright’s aim, as reported in Pall Mall Gazette (23 October 1900), was «to provide a means whereby the higher classes of society may protect themselves from the attacks of Hooligans and their like all over the world»Bartitsu combined Japanese and European formof hand to hand combat, including jujitsu and boxing, with accessories of gentlemen’s everyday life, i.e. walking sticks, coats, umbrellas… Therefore, Bartitsu was presented as the gentleman’s solution against street thugs.


Bartitsu’s core principles, as presented by Barton-Wright, were three: to disturb the equilibrium of the assailant, to surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength and, if necessary, to subject the joints of any parts of his body to strains that they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

It is worth consider the “few introductory remarks” with whom Barton-Wrights open his first article (Barton-Wright 1899a:36):

«In foreign countries people never fight for amusement or diversion, as is often the case in England and the United States. Bearing this fact in mind, it will be more easy to understand that when foreigners fall out and fight, they recognise one goal only, and that is to overcome and defeat their adversaries, and any means is considered justifiable and is resorted to, to attain this end.»

and «In this country we are brought up with the idea that there is no more honorable way of settling a dispute than resorting to Nature’s weapons, the fists, and to scorn taking advantage of a man when he is down.»

Basing on his words, we can gather two interesting points. Firstly, the depiction of fight as a form of amusement and diversionThe general public was starting to consider fencing, boxing, and other martial arts not only as a form of attack or of self-defense, but also as a leisure activity. Since the first modern edition, in 1896, sabre appeared as Olympic discipline, and its development into sport has even older roots. Secondly, the indirect blame on unregulated use of violence shows a gradual development of an“honor system” of fighters, linked to the opposition between the civilized England and United States, and a barbaric Rest.


Was Sherlock Holmes a Bartitsuka?

This shift from firearms to self-defense using body and everyday objects is evident in Conan Doyle’s narrative. In 1905, Arthur Conan Doyle published The return of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories. In this work, the use of pistols and other weapons by the main character and his opponents was lower than in Doyle’s previous narratives.

In The Adventure of the Empty House (first published in 1903, then became part of The return of Sherlock Holmes cycle), we assist to a curious opposition between Doyle’s portrayal of London as a «dark jungle of criminals» (Doyle 1981:488) and Sherlock’s fight against his enemy, Moriartry. In fact, if the image of jungle imply the representation of predators, prey, hunters, and, therefore, firearms, the two opponents battle with no weapon at all.

«He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me» (Doyle 1981:486)

The growing interest of the English society towards a weapon-less and an “honorable” form of self-defense permeated several aspects of British culture, as attested in The Adventure of the Empty House. In fact, despite the different spelling, it is easy to connect Doyle’s Baritsu with Barton-Wright Bartitsu.

However, the history of Bartitsu did not last long: By the time The Adventure of the Empty House first appeared, the only Bartitsu club in London had already closed. The increasing number of martial arts school that offered alternative activities to Bartitsu almost condemned it to disappearance. Nevertheless, martial art historians are currently studying Bartitsu as a genuine product of Victorian Era and of its new cultural values.


  • Barton-Wright, E.W., 1899a, The new art of self-defence: How a man may defend himself against every form of attack, in Pearson’s Magazine, volume 7, pp. 268-275.
  • Barton-Wright, E.W.,1899b, The new art of self-defence, in Pearson’s Magazine, volume 7, pp. 402-410.
  • Barton-Wright, E.W. 1901 (January), Self-defence with a walking stick,part 1, in Pearson’s Magazine, volume 11, pp. 11-20, available athttp://ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_barton-wright_0200.htm.
  • Barton-Wright, E.W. 1901 (February), Self-defence with a walking stick,part 2, inPearson’s Magazine, volume 11, pp. 130-139, available athttp://ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_barton-wright_0400.htm.
  • Doyle, A.C., 1981, The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes,London, Penguin.
  • Emsley, C., 2005,Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, published by Longman/Pearson, (rev. edn).
  • Godfrey, E., 2009, Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Baritsu, in History Today, volume 59, issue 5, pp. 4-5.
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  • Godfrey, E., 2012,Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and society, From Dagger-Fans to Suffragettes, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Malcolm, J. L., 2002, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, published by Harvard University Press.
  • Noble, G., 1999, An Introduction to E. W. Barton-Wright (1860-1951) and the Eclectic Art of Bartitsu, in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, volume 8, issue 2, pp. 50-61.
  • Palmer, K. 1988, Japanese ju-jutsu comes to Britain: A glimpse back to a bygone era, in Fighting Arts International, volume 47, pp. 28-35.
  • Sindall, R., 1987, The London garotting panics of 1856 and 1862, in Social History, volume 12, issue 3, pp. 351-359.
  • Wiener, M., 2004, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England,published by Cambridge University Press.
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