Bartitsu The Forgotten Martial Art of Self-Defense

man in formal suit jacket holding his necktie

Bartitsu: The Victorian Martial Art Embracing Innovation and Self-Defense

man wearing polo shirt and hat in grayscale photo
Photo by Jimmy Chan on

In the late 19th century, in the bustling streets of London, a unique martial art was born, one that would combine various combat disciplines into a single, unified system. Bartitsu, as it was called, was the brainchild of Edward William Barton-Wright, a man who had a deep fascination with the arts of self-defense from an early age. This article delves into the fascinating history and principles of Bartitsu, shedding light on its cultural origins and its significance as a martial art tailored for the urban, industrialized society of the time.

The Origins of Bartitsu


Edward William Barton-Wright, the founder of Bartitsu, was born on November 8th, 1860, in Bangalore, India, to a Scottish mother and a Northumbrian father who was a prominent railway engineer. As Barton-Wright grew up, he had the opportunity to travel to various countries, receiving a traditional education while also exploring different martial arts. In his early thirties, he legally changed his name to Edward William Barton-Wright.

His passion for self-defense arts led him to study under recognized masters, learning boxing, wrestling, fencing, savate (a French martial art emphasizing footwork and kicks), and the use of the stiletto. Barton-Wright even engaged in practical training by confronting tough opponents. His commitment to mastering these combat techniques paved the way for the creation of Bartitsu.

The Vision of Bartitsu

man kicking heavy bag
Photo by Pixabay on

Upon returning to England from Japan in 1898, Barton-Wright was a man of the world, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit to make his mark in the martial arts world. Initially, he focused on jiujitsu, which had been demonstrated but never taught in England before. However, Barton-Wright’s vision was more extensive than any single martial art. He aimed to create a holistic system for self-defense, one that would equip individuals with the skills to protect themselves effectively.

He described Bartitsu as a martial art designed to teach “peacefully disposed men the science of defending themselves against ruffians or bullies.” This comprehensive system encompassed not only boxing but also stick-fighting, footwork techniques, and a clever form of Japanese wrestling that emphasized skill over raw strength.


Cultural Origins of Bartitsu

Bartitsu’s cultural origins can be traced to three primary trends of the 1890s. Firstly, there was growing concern in society about street violence, both domestically and abroad, fueled by sensational media coverage. Gangs with intimidating names like the Apaches in Paris, Hooligans in London, Larrikins in Sydney, and ethnic gang warfare in New York City all contributed to this atmosphere of fear.

Barton-Wright seized the opportunity to promote Bartitsu as a solution to the rising fear of street violence. He presented it as a gentlemanly art of self-defense, allowing men of the middle and upper classes to feel safe in their urban environments.

The Gentlemanly Art of Self-Defense


Bartitsu was specifically tailored to address the challenges of self-defense in an urban, industrialized society. It was marketed to a demographic increasingly concerned about personal safety. At a time when newspapers reported sensational stories of street violence, Barton-Wright’s martial art offered a sense of empowerment to those who practiced it.

Emelyne Godfrey, a historian, noted that Bartitsu was “self-defense for the connoisseur.” It allowed gentlemen to assert themselves physically in a manner that was both artful and aesthetically appealing, promoting the development of physical and mental skills over the mere purchase of weapons.

Orientalism and Bartitsu

During the late 19th century, Japan’s culture became increasingly accessible to the Western world, following Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan in 1854. This period saw a surge in public interest and enthusiasm for all things Japanese. Barton-Wright’s introduction of Bartitsu coincided with this fascination for Japanese culture.

One significant presentation of Bartitsu was made to the Japan Society of London, a group dedicated to fostering Japanese studies and cultural exchange. This demonstrates how Bartitsu was introduced at a time when Westerners were eager to embrace all things Japanese. The Chairman of the Japan Society praised the art for its potential to defend the weak against the strong.


Physical Culture and Bartitsu

The third major influence on Bartitsu was the growing European enthusiasm for “Physical Culture.” The Industrial Revolution had led to a decline in the physical condition of the middle and upper classes, prompting a redefinition of sport as a wholesome activity for amateurs.

Gymnasia were established to counteract the effects of sedentary lifestyles, offering various exercise systems. Scientific boxing, quarterstaff play, and fencing were embraced by students at these gymnasia, and many exercises found their way into the curricula of martial arts and combat sports academies.

Barton-Wright highlighted the physical benefits of Bartitsu, describing it as both a useful self-defense art and an exhilarating and graceful form of exercise.

The Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture

The physical center of Barton-Wright’s vision was the Bartitsu Club, also known as the Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture. Located in London’s Soho district, this establishment was perhaps the first modern commercial martial arts school in the Western world.


The Bartitsu Club was well-appointed, described by journalist Mary Nugent as “a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light.” The club boasted a roster of self-defense specialists from around the world, offering instruction in various martial arts.

Prominent members included Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, an Olympic fencer who survived the Titanic sinking, and William Henry Grenfell, the First Baron Desborough, who was an athlete, politician, and president of the Bartitsu Club.

Military men, including Captain F.C. Laing of the 12th Bengal Lancers, also frequented the club. It became a hub for learning and exchanging martial arts knowledge.

The Martial Arts of Bartitsu


Bartitsu was conceived as a versatile martial art, designed to equip practitioners with a range of skills to adapt to different combat scenarios. It was divided into four major ranges: stick, foot, fist, and close-combat. Practitioners were encouraged to become proficient in each of these ranges, allowing them to seamlessly transition between styles and techniques as needed.

  1. Vigny Stick Fighting: One of the core components of Bartitsu was Pierre Vigny’s stick fighting system. Vigny’s art was optimized for self-defense walking sticks, which were made of polished malacca cane and featured a silver ball handle. Unlike traditional canne fencing, Vigny’s style focused on protecting the weapon-wielding hand and included a wide array of strikes, thrusts, disarming techniques, throws, and even bayonet-like attacks.
  2. Boxing and Savate: Recognizing the importance of reach and the likelihood of entering grappling range in a real fight, Barton-Wright incorporated elements of boxing and savate into Bartitsu. These striking arts were modified for street combat, emphasizing practicality and effectiveness over formality.
  3. Jiujitsu and Judo: Barton-Wright’s jiujitsu training primarily included kata-based ko-ryu forms. He studied at the Shinden-Fudo Ryu in Kobe and may have trained with Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo. Jiujitsu and judo techniques were integrated into Bartitsu, providing practitioners with powerful grappling and joint-locking skills.

Exhibitions and Challenges

Edward Barton-Wright promoted Bartitsu through exhibitions and challenge matches, often referred to as “Assaults at Arms.” These events combined pre-arranged self-defense demonstrations with live sparring in different martial arts styles. While these exhibitions intrigued audiences, they sometimes faced disruptions and skepticism.


Critics questioned the effectiveness of Bartitsu, especially when pitted against traditional Western boxing and wrestling. However, supporters believed in the scientific principles behind the art, highlighting its ability to control opponents through balance disruption and joint manipulation.

Barton-Wright’s own challenge, where he claimed to have overcome seven opponents in three minutes, garnered significant attention and even received a Royal Command from King Edward VII. However, he couldn’t demonstrate his art to the King due to an injury sustained during a separate altercation.

Bartitsu, born out of Edward Barton-Wright’s fascination with self-defense and his vision of a comprehensive martial art, left an indelible mark on the history of combat systems. It was a product of its time, emerging in response to societal concerns about street violence, fascination with Japanese culture, and the burgeoning physical culture movement.

Today, Bartitsu stands as a unique and fascinating chapter in martial arts history, representing the fusion of diverse combat disciplines into a unified system. While it may not be as widely practiced as other martial arts, its legacy endures as a testament to innovation and adaptability in the realm of self-defense.