About Martial Arts,
E. W. Barton-Wright,
and Yukio Tani

By Marcus L. Rowland

Copyright © 1998, portions Copyright © 1996

Barton-Wright (right) and Japanese martial artistThere is a widespread belief that martial arts were unknown in Europe before the 1960s. This belief is mistaken; anyone with the desire and money to pay for basic martial arts training could probably find it in Britain by 1900. This is especially true of Ju Jitsu and a peculiar offshoot, the "New Art of Self-Defence" known as Bartitsu.

At the end of the nineteenth century Japan went through a period of rapid modernisation and industrialisation which required the services of hundreds of Western engineers, many of them from Britain. At the same time Japanese arts and crafts were extremely fashionable in Britain, and there was great curiosity about all aspects of Japanese culture, including martial arts.

By 1890 Yokohama had a British population that was large enough to support an English-language newspaper; one of its journalists was E.J. Harrison, who may have been the first Briton ever awarded the grade of Shodan ('Black Belt'). Harrison trained at the dojo of the Tenjin Shinyo Ryu, which seems to have welcomed foreign students. Another student was E.W. Barton-Wright, a civil engineer and "inventor" of Bartitsu.

Barton-Wright worked in Japan from 1891 to 1899, and towards the end of this period he trained under the sensei Yukio Tani, then aged nineteen. When he returned to Britain, he persuaded Tani and his older brother to accompany him, with the aim of setting up a martial arts school in London. Why they agreed is unclear; while Tani was obviously very talented, he was also very young to be a sensei, and it seems possible that there were simply few opportunities for him in Japan. The picture shows Barton-Wright with a bearded Japanese martial artist, possibly Tani or his older brother.

Once in Britain, Barton-Wright set up a dojo at 67B Shaftesbury Avenue, London, and began to publicise "his" martial art with articles in various magazines, most notably Pearson's Magazine. It seems likely that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read them, and remembered Bartitsu (but got the name slightly wrong) when he wrote The Empty House in 1903, immortalising it as "Baritsu".

By 1901 Barton-Wright had also apparently incorporated a form of single-stick fighting using walking sticks, originally developed by a Swiss professor of arms, M. Vigny.

Bartitsu was never very popular, possibly because Barton-Wright's changes deterred sportsmen with an interest in authentic Ju Jitsu and its associated ceremonies, and the dojo closed within a few months. He next tried to make money by putting on Ju Jitsu displays on the music hall stage; Tani's brother promptly denounced this abuse of the art and returned to Japan.

Tani agreed to take part in the show, and stayed on in Britain. He became friendly with another performer, William Bankier. Bankier was a noted Physical Culturist, interested in muscle building, and knew many wrestlers. He became fascinated with Ju Jitsu, and in 1903 persuaded Tani to leave Barton-Wright, and work with him instead. In 1904 they set up the British Society for Ju Jitsu.

Barton-Wright dropped out of the British Ju Jitsu scene shortly after his split with Tani. Many years later he claimed that Tani had challenged him to a fight after demanding more money, and lost; no one who knew Tani's abilities was prepared to believe him.

Tani remained in Britain for the rest of his life, dying in 1950 in St Charles' Hospital, Ladbroke Grove, London. Aged 69, he was revered as the founder of martial arts in Britain.

The Articles

I'm aware of three articles by Barton-Wright, published in a total of five issues of Pearson's Magazine. All are on this CD-Rom:

How To Pose as a Strong Man (January 1899) shows some simple tricks based largely on martial arts concepts of leverage. It was not written to publicise Bartitsu, but does illustrate Barton-Wright's opportunistic approach; it seems unlikely that a more dedicated student would have written it.

The New Art of Self-Defence (March and April 1899) was subtitled "How a Man may Defend Himself against every Form of Attack". The two-part article describes the unarmed aspects of Bartistu. The moves depicted include a "come-along" hold based on leverage, various throws and immobilising holds, and the use of a coat to entangle an opponent. Most of the throws are illustrated by pictures of Barton-Wright with a Japanese partner, probably Tani or his brother.

Self-Defence with a Walking Stick (January and February 1901) shows techniques that seem to be largely based on sword-play and single-stick fighting, but emphasises deflection of blows away from the hands that hold the stick, since walking sticks have no hilts. The techniques were not developed by Barton-Wright.


Most of the historical and martial arts background to this article was unearthed by Alex Stewart, who is familiar with this field; I am not, and any errors are undoubtedly the result of my own lack of expertise.

A version of this article appeared in Valkyrie magazine issue 12, 1996