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Santiago Genochio doffs his cap to the gentleman's martial art Bartitsu at The Idler


The responses to the standard ice-breaking question of “why are you here?” turned out to be anything but standard. Amongst the expected - to learn a new martial art; to practice self defence - were answers such as to learn more about Bartitsu’s role in the Suffragette movement and an attempt to answer the ultimate question of martial arts: how exactly does a gentleman defend himself whilst wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch?

James Garvey, who with over 20 years’ experience of martial arts was eminently suited to leading the class, leapt at the chance to place Bartitsu into historical context. Having, in 1898, returned from a three-year stint in Japan, Edward Barton-Wright set up the Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture Academy to teach a radically new form of self defence to Victorian gentlefolk.  In his academy the grappling of Jujitsu was taught alongside the punching of western pugilism and the kicks and cane work of French Savate, leading to a martial art that borrowed the most practical techniques from different disciplines to effectively deal with threats at various distances.  

At the time one of the prevailing arguments used against enfranchising women was that they were unable to fight for their country, and so some Suffragettes formed the Bodyguard - a contingent of ladies skilled in Bartitsu, who would protect protesters from the police or hecklers.

The class proper started with a variety of defences that gave an insight into the threats faced by London’s Victorian residents: how to free yourself when being shaken firmly by the lapels; how to foil an attempt to steal one’s pocket watch, and how to remove an unruly man from a room. Quaint nomenclature aside, the techniques are based on sound principles, easily executed, and rely not on brute strength but on grace and an understanding of movement.

Next up the class covered a a number of joint locks, culminating in possibly the best phrase one could hope to hear on a Wednesday evening: “and here’s a wrist lock that everyone really should have in their lives”.

In contrast to many dojos and gyms, there wasn’t a trace of the testosterone-fuelled machismo often associated with martial arts - in fact, the class was punctuated with bursts of friendly laughter thanks to James’ wonderfully approachable teaching style. Students were encouraged to try techniques on opponents of different heights and sizes, to understand how the techniques can be effective against a variety of opponents.

The Idler Academy’s Bartitsu class comes highly recommended - whether you fancy something a bit different to do on a weekday evening, or as an experienced martial artist you’re interested in the cross-training potential of a martial art with such a mixed background.  And if you happen to be a bit of an aficionado of Victoriana, rest assured: this is a martial arts class you can attend in a  waistcoat and pocket watch!

6th, 13th, 20th & 27th November
The Idler Academy
St Stephens Church Hall
81 Westbourne Park Road
W2 5QH
Park Royal
19.30 − 21.30
£25 per class or £95 for a four week course


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