Kicking Butt the Victorian Way

The Defense Demos group took the stage in the Westin’s Augusta 1 and 2 on Saturday at 11:30AM to present “Bartitsu: Victorian Era Self Defense.” The program opened with a skit presented in costume. Carrying signs advocating women’s suffrage and chanting that women should vote, Cassie Boggs, Olivia Lovice, and Lisa Shelton marched into the room and onto the stage. They immediately encountered a police officer, portrayed by Jerald Parker, who thought women should get off the streets and stop wanting the vote.

Joel Dunham, Michael McKenzie, and Mike Shearin, as street toughs unsympathetic to women’s suffrage, then confronted the group. The police officer declined to help them, but a concerned citizen (George Parlavantzas) intervened and put the toughs down. He then offered to teach the women how to do the same thing.

Using step-by-step narration and wry humor, Parlavantzas, Dunham, McKenzie, and Shearin demonstrated various self-defense techniques. Boggs, Lovice, and Shelton then also performed each maneuver. The group incorporated a curved-handle cane, a fashion accessory common in Victorian London, in the presentation.

After the demonstrations, Paul Gay, Jessica Parker, and Joanna Bayles joined the group onstage for a discussion of Bartitsu techniques. Many of the flips taken by the “assailants” wouldn’t ordinarily result from these maneuvers but were incorporated to help the participants avoid serious injury. Many of the moves in the program require some physical strength to perform successfully. The women indicated that the men working with them were physically performing much of the action and that a “nonathlete” probably could not perform the more complex moves.

The presenters emphasized that most of them had been training in martial arts for several years and that attempting the same maneuvers at home could result in injuries. “We’re not responsible for your medical bills,” Gay said, smiling.

Parlavantzas and Gay discussed the history of Bartitsu, a creation of Edward Barton Wright, who opened a school for cane-operated self-defense in England in 1900. That year was “the high point” for cane use, coming between the era of swords and that of firearms. The cane, the panelists noted, was an urban weapon, with a staff being more functional in rural environments.

Pierre Vigny of Switzerland also taught cane techniques, using more wrist in his methods than the French school, which emphasized arm use more. There were different schools of self-defense in different areas. Wales, for example, had three different styles of wrestling while Scotland and Ireland also had distinct fighting styles. Barton Wright’s Bartitsu, which is mostly jujitsu and cane techniques, survives because it was mentioned in Sherlock Holmes. Gay added that while jujitsu now has an exact meaning, at the turn of the last century, it incorporated very different styles, much in the way Coca-Cola has different flavors that are all still Coke.

An audience member asked whether the demonstrated techniques could be applied aggressively, perhaps in defense of a companion who was attacked. The answer was that they could and that a cane particularly adds reach, force, and momentum.

The audience included Megan S. from Florida, a student of Bartitsu. After 11 years of studying martial arts and stage combat, she had looked up information about Bartitsu and when her group brought in someone to teach it she, “jumped at the chance” to study it.

After the panel, audience members clustered around the presenters to ask more questions and discuss the program until the call came to clear the room.

More information about the Defense Demos is available on their Facebook page.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.