It’s sundown at a small park in Burbank and I’m dressed in head-to-toe black, carrying a big stick and ready to street fight, Sherlock Holmes style.
I’m not exactly a ninja—the closest I’ve been to hand-to-hand combat was fighting over the last cupcake at Thanksgiving. But even so, I have signed up to learn bartitsu, the esoteric and gentlemanly Victorian art of self defense.
Before I chicken out I spot my instructor, Matt Franta, a dapper gentleman in a three-piece suit. Franta’s bio describes him as an actor, fight choreographer, and stunt performer with black belts in tae kwon do and hapkido as well as experience in karate, judo, fencing, and kickboxing. He’s also a member of the International Knife Throwers Association.
Bartitsu was developed by Edward Barton-Wright, a British engineer who moved to Japan in 1895. After returning to London, just before the turn of the century, he created a mixed martial art hybrid, combining elements of judo, jujitsu, British boxing, and fighting with a walking stick.
The style was promoted to the middle and upper classes during a time when they were becoming increasingly worried about the street gangs and crime publicized by the tabloid newspapers.
“In this country we are brought up with the idea that there is no more honourable way of settling a dispute than resorting to Nature's weapons, the fists, and to scorn taking advantage of another man when he is down,” Barton-Wright wrote in an 1899 edition of Pearson’s magazine.
“A foreigner, however, will not hesitate to use a chair, or a beer bottle, or a knife, or anything that comes handy, and if no weapon is available the chances are he would employ what we should consider are underhanded means.”
Over the next two hours, Franta talks about the history of bartitsu while patiently teaching me the basics of how to throw an opponent off balance with a series of punches, grabs and evasive moves.
“It was the first fight style that combined Eastern and Western techniques, and at the time anything from the East was considered very exotic,” he explains.
Basically, it’s half historical recreation; half beating the crap out of someone with a cane.
I’m beginning to see how this style of fighting would appeal to the fictional detective. After all, observing and adapting the best techniques to his advantage was one of Holmes’s signature traits.
Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture was all the rage for fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the era. Franta explains how, behind club walls, they learned to battle “hooligans” from instructors like Professor Pierre Vigny, who honed his technique fighting thugs in shadowy corners.
Then, in 1902, the school closed its doors forever under mysterious circumstances. Several theories exist as to what happened: Some blamed Barton-Wright’s high fees; others believe that a badly-managed 1901 exhibition helped seal the club’s fate. The instructors moved on, and so did the general public—and bartitsu was in danger of disappearing forever.
It survived through a single passage in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1903 Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Adventure of the Empty House. Holmes claimed that he defeated his archnemesis Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Waterfall using “baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”
“No one knows whether he misspelled it on purpose for copyright reasons, or because a 1900 London Times he may have used for reference has the same typo,” Franta said.
Tony Wolf, a fight choreographer, martial arts instructor, and self-described ‘walking bartitsu encyclopedia’, serves as editor of EJMAS: Journal of Manly Arts, a scholarly online journal focusing on the martial arts and combat sports of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
As a founding member of The Bartitsu Society, Wolf explains how he and other members spent years researching and compiling archival material of the era in order to “bring bartitsu back to life” and move it online.