Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Baritsu: Emelyne Godfrey Explains the Origins and Current Appeal of a Hybrid Martial Art That Flourished in Fin De Siecle London and Was Famously Used by Conan Doyle's Fictional Detective

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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 maitre 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 walking stick, named la canne, which Barton-Wright incorporated into his own bartitsu repertoire and promoted in national newspapers. …