Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Baritsu

Emelyne Godfrey. History Today. Volume 59, Issue 5. May 2009.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birth. One of the many events to celebrate the author and his creations is Guy Ritchie’s martial arts-based film, Sherlock Holmes, due for release this autumn. Conan Doyle’s sleuth was an excellent amateur singlestick player, swordsman and boxer. However, his special skill was in the Japanese system of wrestling called ‘baritsu’, which he used to hurl his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, down into the swirling waters of the Reichenbach Falls. But what is this baritsu to which Conan Doyle refers?

Baritsu is actually a misspelling of ‘bartitsu’, a martial art created by a British engineer, Edward-William Barton Wright (1860-1951). This misspelling is most likely derived from an article in The Times of 1901 mentioning demonstrations given by Barton-Wright on ‘the “baritsu” system of self-defence’. Two years later Conan Doyle published ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ in which, by public demand, he resurrected the great detective in the collection of short stories, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, equipping him with a ‘knowledge of baritsu’ to use against Moriarty.

Barton-Wright created bartitsu, a blend of the ancient Japanese martial art of jujitsu and English and French boxing, while visiting Japan on business in the 1880s. One of his teachers was Professor Jigoro Kano, who also developed judo in the same decade. Despite the growing interest in Japanese culture in Britain few people had heard of judo or jujitsu. So, eager to spread the word and capitalise on his new-found skills, Barton-Wright returned to London in 1898 and set up the Bartitsu Club at 67b Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

The public was first introduced to Barton-Wright in 1899 through the pages of the popular periodical, Pearson’s Magazine. Conan Doyle, an avid amateur boxer, would undoubtedly have been aware of the interest surrounding Barton-Wright.

Bartitsu was intended as a minimally aggressive form of self-defence and an alternative to firearms. It was heavily influenced by the principles of jujitsu, in which the adversary is defeated through his own weight and strength being outbalanced by his opponent. Bartitsu could be employed against any form of attack from one or more assailants. This new art made a timely appearance, given the spates of armed robberies and burglaries in Victorian England, followed by the Whitechapel Murders and the new hooligan scares of the 1890s. And it was becoming increasingly unacceptable to use offensive weapons, in particular pistols, for self-defence.

Barton-Wright taught his readers everyday skills, showing them how to defend themselves using only an overcoat, or how to eject an unwelcome intruder. His exotic yet practical brand of self-defence based on minimum aggression, certainly filled a gap in the market.

Barton-Wright’s large, electrically lit club attracted international experts, including the Japanese jujitsuka, Sadakazu Uyenishi, as well as the Swiss wrestler Armand Cherpillod and the exquisitely named Egerton Castle, who taught London’s acting elite the art of stage fencing. One famous guest was the dashing Swiss maître d’armes, Pierre Vigny, who walked the city streets of Europe in search of dangerous criminals against whom he could test his skills. Vigny developed a system of self-defence with the walkingstick, named la canne, which Barton-Wright incorporated into his own bartitsu repertoire and promoted in national newspapers.

If the reintroduction of Holmes’s adventures offered a morale boost during the grim days of the Boer War, then Barton-Wright’s initiatives demonstrated that London was the world centre of health, strength and manly vitality. As well as attracting considerable press interest, Barton-Wright also caught the attention of the Prince of Wales, who requested a demonstration. It was an invitation Barton-Wright had to decline, however, having allegedly injured himself in a fight with two street ruffians.

Unfortunately, Barton-Wright’s success was not sustained. Despite being an influential teacher, he had little head for business and by the time ‘baritsu’ made an appearance in Conan Doyle’s adventure in 1903, Barton-Wright’s academy had already closed, partly due to the expensive enrolment fees. Barton-Wright then turned his hand to electrotherapy, although his dubious methods of treatment resulted in his having to defend expensive law suits. Once the subject of public and royal attention, he had now fallen on hard times. In 1950, the respected judo expert, Gunji Koizumi (1885-1965), encountered the remarkably sprightly 90-year-old Barton-Wright, who still took a pride in bartitsu, but this chance meeting did not renew his fame. Barton-Wright died the following year and was buried in a pauper’s grave at Kingston-upon-Thames.

Although Barton-Wright died in obscurity, he is undoubtedly a key figure in martial arts history. Indeed, his unusual blending of defensive arts predated Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do by 70 years. Barton-Wright’s pupils became successful jujitsuka, writers and celebrities in their own right. In particular, his assistant Uyenishi instructed Emily Watts, the first woman to teach and write a book about Japanese martial arts in 1906. These initiatives influenced the jujitsuka Edith Garrud (1872-1971), whose London school became a refuge for ‘jujitsu suffragettes’. Barton-Wright raised the public profile of eastern martial arts and, in 1918, Koizumi opened the London Budokwai, the oldest judo school in Europe. It still enjoys success today.

Interest in Barton-Wright is now growing. The Royal Armouries in Leeds have recently included bartitsu in public performances while the renowned theatrical fight director, martial arts historian and bartitsuka, Tony Wolf, regularly gives lessons in the art across the globe. The renewed fascination in Conan Doyle will also underline the significance of the Richard Bowen Collection, a resource recently bequeathed by the late martial arts historian and vice-president of the Budokwai at the University of Bath. Bowen was responsible for identifying bartitsu and his extensive collection of sources contains valuable information on Victorian and 20th-century methods of self-defence. Bartitsu is becoming more popular as people are interested not only in reading about Sherlock Holmes, but in understanding the ‘baritsu’ referred to in the adventures. One could say that this is truly an example of hands-on history.