(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the
author of books including Backyard
Ballistics, and the recently-published Absinthe
and Flamethrowers. Follow him on Twitter: @wmgurst.)
[Moriarity and I] tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of Bartitsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went.
— Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House
Britain's most popular literary character of the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was well known for his towering intellect and need for constant mental stimulation. To satisfy his intellectual needs, he engaged in a number of trans-Golden Third activities including sword fighting, boxing, and stick fighting, as well as frequent recreational narcotic use.
Although better known for his reasoning ability than for his fighting skills, he was quite capable of defending himself when the chips were down. As the above quote suggests, the detective mastered a now little known but very effective fusion of British boxing techniques and Japanese martial arts called Bartitsu,. Bartitsu is a little known but ingenious self defense skill which I cover in my current book, Absinthe and Flamethrowers.
Bartitsu was invented by a British engineer named Edward Barton-Wright, who combined the martial arts skills he learned while building railways in Japan with the stick-and-sword fighting skills he mastered in Europe. Bartitsu drew heavily from French stick fighting techniques, English boxing, and Japanese jujitsu.) Upon his return to London from Japan in 1899, Barton-Wright set up a martial arts school to teach Bartitsu to Englishmen. Presumably that's how a Londoner such as Sherlock Holmes would have learned the technique. (FYI: There's a well done compilation of 1890s vintage Bartitsu instructions available on Amazon.)
Coming soon: a Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and (hopefully) Russell Crowe as Moriarty. From what I've heard, bartitsu fighting is featured.