Bartitsu: history and revival


At the end of the Victorian era, E. W. Barton-Wright combined jiujitsu, wrestling, kickboxing and stick fighting into the “New Art of Self Defence” he dubbed Bartitsu.  Promoted via exhibitions, lectures, magazine articles and challenge contests, Barton-Wright’s New Art offered a means by which the ladies and gentlemen of London might beat street ruffians at their own game.

Thus, the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture became the headquarters of a radically innovative experiment in martial arts and fitness cross-training. It was also a place to see and be seen; famous actors and actresses, soldiers, policians, athletes and aristocrats eagerly enrolled to learn the secrets of Bartitsu.

In early 1902, for reasons that remain a historical mystery, the London Bartitsu Club closed down.  Barton-Wright’s art was almost forgotten thereafter, except for a single, cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty House, wherein it was revealed as the method by which Sherlock Holmes had defeated Professor Moriarty in their fateful battle at Reichenbach Falls.


While Barton-Wright’s martial art was all but forgotten, Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts continued to puzzle over the identity of Holmes’s mysterious fighting style.  It was not until the late 1990s that scholars whose interests combined Sherlock Holmes studies with martial arts history began to earnestly investigate the rise and fall of Bartitsu, realizing its significance as the first cross-training system between Asian and European combatives.

The Bartitsu Society was formed in 2002 as a venue for Bartitsu research, with members corresponding via the Bartitsu Forum, an email list established by mystery author Will Thomas. Circa 2005, members also began to offer experimental seminars at martial arts conferences.  The Society has subsequently developed into an informal, international network of historians, instructors, clubs, study groups and schools.  Milestones have included the publications of the Bartitsu Compendium, volumes One (2005) and Two (2008) and the release of the feature documentary Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes (2011).  2011 also saw the first international Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture conference, held in London.

The revival has recently experienced a powerful pop-culture “boost” via the success of the movies Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Games of Shadows (2011), which showcased Holmes and Watson as action heroes, as well as the continuing popularity of the steampunk and neo-Victorian genres.


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