Ben Miller

The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit

In Behavior and Etiquette, Dueling, Gender Roles, Martial Arts, Victorian Era on February 12, 2010 at 2:24 am

Pierre Vigny

For many today, the term “gentleman” is apt to conjure up the ridiculous image of an affected, overdressed fop, complete with a monocle, struggling to secure a place in high society. Yet, throughout past centuries, the character of the gentleman was regarded as synonymous with that of the true ideal man, embodying “heroic bodily strength and mental firmness” and including “whatever was valuable in the cavalier and the earlier knight,”—simply put, a man with the strength of manhood.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that numerous treatises on gentlemanly conduct published in the 19th century emphasized the importance of physical fitness and self-defense training. For instance, Our Deportment (1879) states that

“Physical education is indispensable to every well-bred man and woman. A gentleman should not only know how to fence, to box, to ride, to shoot and to swim, but he should also know how to carry himself gracefully, and how to dance, if he would enjoy life to the uttermost. A graceful carriage can best be attained by the aid of a drilling master, as dancing and boxing are taught. A man should be able to defend himself from ruffians, if attacked, and also to defend women from their insults.”

Likewise, Dunbar’s Complete Handbook of Etiquette (1884) declares that

“It is a matter of the first importance to the young aspirant that he attend to the training and deportment of his body, as well as that of his mind. Besides, his physical bearing has much to do with that command of address, which is so noted a characteristic of the thoroughbred gentleman. The body should be properly “set” by gymnastics, fencing, dancing, drill, or other physical exercises…”

Many Victorian males (and some females) made good on this by cross-training in various martial arts including boxing, wrestling, fencing, French savate (kick-boxing), and Japanese jiu-jitsu. Some also went further by adopting the habit of carrying special, concealed weapons which ladies and gentlemen could display without attracting attention. The author Rowland George Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron of Headley, describes these weapons in detail in his martial arts treatise, Broadsword and Singlestick. While his book mostly treats of fencing with the broadsword, singlestick, bayonet and quarterstaff, Allanson-Winn includes a special section in the back of the book covering Victorian “street weapons,” including the cudgel, shillelagh, walking stick, umbrella, sword-cane, umbrella-dagger, and others.

THE CUDGEL.

Allanson-Winn describes the cudgel as follows:

“Any thick stick under two feet long, such as a watchman’s staff or a policeman’s truncheon, may be fairly called a cudgel, and it is not so long ago that cudgel-play formed one of the chief attractions at country fairs in many parts of England… Considering the cudgel as a modern weapon, I am inclined to advocate its use for prodding an enemy in the pit of the stomach, for, with the extra eighteen inches or so of reach which your cudgel gives you, it is likely that you may get your thrust well home, at any rate before the opponent can hit you with his fist. Many of us know what a blow on the “mark” with the naked fist will do. Well, the area of the knuckles is very much greater than the area of the end of even a very stout stick, so that, if you can put anything like the same force into the thrust that you can into the blow, you will bring a smaller area to bear on a vital point, and consequently work on that point with greater effect.”

He proceeds to advocate a deadlier, modified version of the cudgel, for those nightmare-scenarios when a ruffian might steal into one’s house in the dead of night:

“A grievous crab-tree (or blackthorn) cudgel, with two or three ounces of lead let into one end, is a good thing to have under your pillow at night. Armed with this instrument, you can steal up behind your burglar whilst he is opening your wife’s jewel case or bagging your favourite gold snuff-box; but don’t get excited about it, and remember to hit his head rather on the sides than on the back or front.”

Very similar to this leaded cudgel is the so-called “life preserver”:

THE LIFE PRESERVER.

“The “life-preserver” consists of a stout piece of cane about a foot long, with a ball of five or six ounces of lead attached firmly to one end by catgut netting, whilst the other end is furnished with a strong leather or catgut loop to go round the wrist and prevent the weapon flying from or being snatched from the hand.

Of course this instrument may be very effective, very deadly, but what you have to consider is this: the serviceable portion is so small–no bigger than a hen’s egg–that unless you are almost an expert, or circumstances greatly favour you, there is more than a chance of altogether missing your mark. With the life-preserver you have, say, at most a couple of inches only of effective weapon to rely on, whereas with the cudgel at least a foot of hard and heavy wood may be depended upon for bowling over the adversary.”

Pierre Vigny

Professor Pierre Vigny (above) recommended a similar weapon in 1903, which he described as, “a silver-mounted Malacca cane,” noting that “everyone uses one…Everyone knows that in choosing a Malacca, it will not only serve the purpose of something to carry in one’s hand, but that this beautiful cane, the most up-to-date of all sticks, can render great service as a means of self-defence, for it can become a formidable weapon in the hands of those who have learnt how to use it. “

Allanson-Winn elucidates:

“A leaded rattan cane is a dangerous instrument in expert hands, but my objections to it are very similar to those advanced with regard to the shorter weapon. Leaded walking-sticks are not “handy,” for the presence of so much weight in the hitting portion makes them extremely bad for quick returns, recovery, and for guarding purposes.

To my mind the leaded rattan is to the well-chosen blackthorn what the life-preserver is to the cudgel–an inferior weapon.

One does not want to kill but to disable, even those who have taken the mean advantage of trying to catch one unprepared in the highways and byways. To take an ordinary common-sense view of the matter: it is surely better far to have a three to one chance in favour of disabling than an even chance of killing a fellow-creature? The disablement is all you want, and, having secured that, the best thing is to get out of the way as soon as possible, so as to avoid further complications.”

THE SHILLALAH [Shillelagh].

Shillelaghs

“The shillalah proper is about four feet long and is usually made of blackthorn, oak, ash, or hazel; and it is a great point to get it uniform in thickness and in weight throughout its entire length. It is held somewhere about eight inches or so from the centre, and my countrymen, who are always pretty active on their pins when fighting, use their left forearms to protect the left side of their heads.

The length of the shillalah gives it a great advantage over a shorter stick, for, when held about a third of its length from the end, the shorter portion serves to guard the right side of the head and the right forearm. Indeed, the definition of the quarter-staff, given at the commencement of Chapter II., seems to me to apply far better to the shillalah, which may in a sense be regarded as the link between the ordinary walking-stick and the mighty weapon which Robin Hood wielded so deftly in his combat with Little John.”

THE UMBRELLA.

Umbrella

“As a weapon of modern warfare this implement has not been given a fair place. It has, indeed, too often been spoken of with contempt and disdain, but there is no doubt that, even in the hands of a strong and angry old woman, a gamp of solid proportions may be the cause of much damage to an adversary…”

Here, the author offers a vivid anecdote which attests to the surprising deadly potential of the umbrella:

“It is, of course, an extremely risky operation prodding a fellow-creature in the eye with the point of an umbrella; and I once knew a man who, being attacked by many roughs, and in danger of losing his life through their brutality, in a despairing effort made a desperate thrust at the face of one of his assailants. The point entered the eye and the brain, and the man fell stone dead at his feet. I would therefore only advocate the thrusting when extreme danger threatens–as a dernier resort, in fact, and when it is a case of who shall be killed, you or your assailant.”

Allanson-Winn now proceeds to technique:

“There are two methods of using the umbrella, viz. holding it like a fencing foil–and for this reason umbrellas should always be chosen with strong straight handles–for long thrusts when at a distance, or grasping it firmly with both hands, as one grasps the military rifle when at bayonet-exercise. In the latter case one has a splendid weapon for use against several assailants at close quarters. Both the arms should be bent and held close to the body, which should be made to work freely from the hips, so as to put plenty of weight into the short sharp prods with which you can alternately visit your opponents’ faces and ribs. If you have the handle in your right hand, and the left hand grasps the silk (or alpaca), not more than a foot from the point, it will be found most effective to use the forward and upward strokes with the point for the faces, and the back-thrusts with the handle for the bodies. Whatever you do, let your strokes be made very quickly and forcibly, for when it comes to such close work as this your danger lies in being altogether overpowered, thrown down, and possibly kicked to death; and, as I have before hinted, when there is a choice of evils, choose the lesser, and don’t be the least squeamish about hurting those who will not hesitate to make a football of your devoted head should it unfortunately be laid low.

The author goes on to mention the following modified version, containing a concealed dagger:

“Sometimes umbrellas have been made even more effective weapons by what is called a spring dagger, which consists of a short, strong knife or dirk let into the handle, and is readily brought into play by a sudden jerk, or by touching a spring. This may be all very well for travellers in the out-of-the-way regions of Spain, Sicily, or Italy, but I don’t like these dangerous accessories for English use, as they may be unfortunately liable to abuse by excitable persons.”

I actually saw one of these up for auction on e-bay several years ago; alas, it sold for $110 dollars (out of my price range), and I haven’t seen one since.

THE SWORD CANE.

Sword canes

“The sword-stick is an instrument I thoroughly detest and abominate, and could not possibly advocate the use of in any circumstances whatever.

These wretched apologies for swords are to outward appearance ordinary straight canes–usually of Malacca cane. On pulling the handle of one of these weapons, however, a nasty piece of steel is revealed, and then you draw forth a blade something between a fencing-foil and a skewer.

They are poor things as regards length and strength, and “not in it” with a good solid stick. In the hands of a hasty, hot-tempered individual they may lead to the shedding of blood over some trivial, senseless squabble. The hollowing out of the cane, to make the scabbard, renders them almost useless for hitting purposes.

In the environs of our big cities there is always a chance of attack by some fellow who asks the time, wants a match to light his cigar, or asks the way to some place. When accosted never stop, never draw out watch or box of lights, and never know the way anywhere. Always make a good guess at the time, and swear you have no matches about you. It is wonderful to notice kind-hearted ladies stopping to give to stalwart beggars who are only waiting for an opportunity to snatch purses, and it would be interesting to know how many annually lose their purses and watches through this mistaken method of distributing largess.”

SwordCanesDuel

Several bloody affrays with sword-canes were fought in the late 1800s in both Europe and America. Typically these were not incidents wherein gentlemen defended themselves against ruffians, but rather, hot-headed brawls–perhaps attesting to Allanson-Winn’s reasons for loathing the weapon.

THE WALKING-STICK.

Walking Stick
Above: Image of E. W. Barton-Wright’s self-defense with the walking stick

This is the weapon which Allanson-Winn most heartily recommends for everyday self-defense purposes:

“The choice of this useful adjunct is by no means as easy as many people suppose, for it involves not only a knowledge of the prerequisities–in the matter of various kinds of woods, etc.–but also an acquaintance with the situations a man may find himself in, and the uses to which he may have to put his walking-stick.”

Here, Allanson-Winn goes on to discuss several types of inferior wood often used for walking sticks–oak (too stiff and apt to snap) hazel (too light), ash (too pliant), and rattan (too much bend to thrust with). He thus concludes:

“Where, then, shall we look for a stick which combines all the good qualities and is free from the drawbacks just enumerated? Without the slightest hesitation I refer you to the Irish blackthorn, which can be chosen of such convenient size and weight as not to be cumbersome, and which, if carefully selected, possesses all the strength of the oak, plus enormous toughness, and a pliability which makes it a truly charming weapon to work with.

It is a matter of some difficulty to obtain a real blackthorn in London or any big town. You go into a shop, and they show you a smart-looking stick which has been peeled and deprived of most of its knobs, dyed black, and varnished. That is not the genuine article, and, if you buy it, you will become the possessor of a stick as inferior to a blackthorn as a pewter skewer is inferior to a Damascus blade.

The best way is to send over to Kerry, Cork, or some other county in the Emerald Isle, and ask a friend to secure the proper thing as prepared by the inhabitants.

The sticks are cut out of the hedges at that time of year when the sap is not rising; they are then carefully prepared and dried in the peat smoke for some considerable time, the bark of course being left on and the knobs not cut off too close; and, when ready, they are hard, tough, and thoroughly reliable weapons.”

Here, it may be of interest to the modern enthusiast that the problem of obtaining true, reliably treated blackthorn is just as much a problem today as it was in the Victorian era (if not more so). Liam O Caidhla, one of the last traditional blackthorn stick-makers in Ireland, notes in the Sunday Mirror that “there are very few people making the authentic shillelagh these days – probably less than 30 people. Most of the shillelaghs sold in souvenir shops are made from hawthorn wood – not the traditional blackthorn wood. They are just made from roughly cut hawthorn and painted black.” Liam’s authentic blackthorns are available online here: http://misticshillelagh.tripod.com/id10.html

“The length of the blackthorn depends on the length of the man for whom it is intended, but always go in for a good long stick. Useful lengths range between 2 ft. 10 in. and 3 ft., and even 3 ft. 6 in. for a very tall man.

The blackthorn, being stiff and covered with sharp knots, is a first-rate weapon for defence at very close quarters. When, therefore, your efforts at distance-work have failed, and you begin to be “hemmed in,” seize the stick very firmly with both hands, and dash the point and hilt alternately into the faces and sides of your opponents.

Always have a good ferrule at the end of your stick. An inch and a half from an old gun barrel is the best; and do not fix it on by means of a rivet running through the stick. Let it be fixed in its place either by a deep dent in the side, or by cutting out two little notches and pressing the saw-like tooth into the wood. It is also a good plan to carry these saw-like teeth all round the ferrule and then press the points well into the wood; there is then no chance of the fastening-on causing a split or crack in the wood.”

Here Allanson-Winn recommends training in fencing as the best preparation for an armed encounter with the stick:

“I would always say, commence with the foils and work hard, under some good master, for a year or so without touching any other branch. Then go on to broad-sword, and keep to alternate days with foils. Later on take up the single-stick, and then go on to bayonet-exercise, quarter-staff, and anything else you please.

This extended range of work will give you a wonderful general capability for adapting yourself at a moment’s notice to any weapon chance may place in your hands: the leg of an old chair, the joint of a fishing rod, or the common or garden spade; any of these may be used with great effect by an accomplished all-round swordsman.”

Allanson-Winn now offers an anecdote which attests to the extreme effectiveness of the walking stick:

“It once fell to my lot to be set upon by a couple of very disagreeable roughs in Dublin, one of whom did manage to get the first blow, but it was “all round” and did not do much harm. Before he could deliver a second hit I managed to lay him out with a very severe cut from my blackthorn, which came in contact with his head just between the rim of his hat and the collar of his coat. Now, had my knowledge of stick-play been insufficient to enable me to accurately direct this cut (cut 5) to its destination, I might not now be scribbling these pages. As it turned out, this poor injured rough was placed hors de combat, and was afterwards conveyed to the hospital, and I only had to tackle his friend, a stubborn varlet, who, after knocking me about a good deal and also receiving some rough treatment at my hands, ran away. He was “wanted” by the police for some time, but was never caught.

This little episode is only given to show that the proper delivery of one blow or hit is often enough to turn the tables, and how advisable it is to practise often, so as to keep the eye and hand both steady and quick.”

WHY A MAN’S GOTTA DO WHAT A MAN’S GOTTA DO

In conclusion, Allanson-Winn offers one of the most thoughtful and profound statements on the importance of martial training ever set down in print:

“I can almost hear people say, ‘Oh, this is all rubbish; I’m not going to be attacked; life would not be worth living if one had to be always ‘on guard’ in this way.’ Well, considering that this world, from the time we are born to the time we die, is made up of uncertainties, and that we are never really secure from attack at any moment of our lives, it does seem worth while to devote a little attention to the pursuit of a science, which is not only healthful and most fascinating, but which may, in a second of time, enable you to turn a defeat into a victory, and save yourself from being mauled and possibly killed in a fight which was none of your own making. Added to all this, science gives a consciousness of power and ability to assist the weak and defenceless, which ought to be most welcome to the mind of any man. Though always anxious to avoid anything like ‘a row,’ there are times when it may be necessary to interfere for the sake of humanity, and how much more easy is it to make that interference dignified and effective if you take your stand with a certainty that you can, if pushed to extreme measures, make matters very warm indeed for the aggressor? The consciousness of power gives you your real authority, and with it you are far more likely to be calm and to gain your point than you would be without the knowledge. Backed up by science, you can both talk and act in a way which is likely to lead to a peaceful solution of a difficulty, whereas, if the science is absent, you dare not, from very uncertainty, use those very words which you know ought to be used on the occasion.”

WHERE TO LEARN TODAY?

While fencing schools of the Victorian era commonly offered instruction in weapons such as rapier, broadsword, dagger, cudgel, walking stick, cane, and staff, it is now extremely difficult to find masters authentically teaching these martial arts.

Maestro Ramon Martinez

Currently the best source for instruction is Maestro Ramón Martínez, who runs a traditional Academy of Arms in New York City. Unlike most modern instructors of historical fencing, who reconstruct their techniques from books, Maestro Martinez is the inheritor of a living tradition which can be traced back directly to the nineteenth century. He was trained and certified as a master by Frederick Rohdes, a German fencing master born in Western Prussia in 1897. Rohdes, who taught fencing in New York until his death in 1984, learned a variety of historical fencing systems from his own master, Marcel Cabijos. A Frenchman born in 1893, Cabijos attained great renown in his day by defeating the saber and épée champion of the United States (Leo Nunes) with only a twelve-inch dagger, in a well-publicized contest held in New York City in 1926.

Marcel Cabijos
Maître d’Armes Marcel Cabijos (1893-1964)

Thankfully, these techniques were passed down intact from master to student, and are still taught today at the Martinez Academy of Arms. Instruction is available in rapier, military saber, dueling sword, sword & dagger, single dagger, cane, staff, bayonet, and numerous other styles. Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez (Ramon Martinez’s wife, and a fencing master as well) also teaches her own style of stick fighting, based on French fencing theory. It is in this salle d’armes, one of the last places of its kind in the world, where through martial, physical and mental discipline, one can attain the noted characteristics of the thoroughbred gentleman or gentlewoman.

For those not living in New York City, there are three other schools in the United States which are run by instructors trained by the Martinezes: Salle de St. George, Palm Beach Classical Fencing, and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms.

Rapier & Dagger fencing
Illustration of fencers with rapier, cloak and daggers. New York, 1891.

Sources and further reading:

Broad-Sword and Single-Stick With Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, Umbrella and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, by R. G. Allanson-Winn C. and Phillipps-Wolley. Pub. 1890.

All-round Fighting in Edwardian London: Pierre Vigny

La canne vigny: The Walking Stick Method of Self Defence Home Page

Self-defence with a Walking-stick: The Different Methods of Defending Oneself with a Walking-Stick or Umbrella when Attacked under Unequal Conditions (PartI)

Frequently Asked Questions: Classical Fencing and Historical Swordsmanship

  1. […] of in any circumstances whatever…” Read his further comments in this nice article from Out of This Century: The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit. It boild down to… Q: How do I fight with a sword-stick? A: […]

  2. Thank you so much for this article. All gentlemen need to dead this . I will pass it on .

  3. [...] Gentleman should learn self-defense, usually by way of a fencing school. Sword canes were ill-advised as a weapon, since young men would more likely draw it in hot-headed quarrels rather than to defend themselves against ruffians. Blackthorn cane (real, not the imitation that most city shops tried to sell) was better suited. [...]

  4. Hi, and thanks so much for your kind words about the article and the site…it’s most appreciated.

    I’ll be posting more info soon on this same theme, touching upon European & American martial arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Stay tuned, and hope you enjoy it.

    – Ben

  5. Finally, a problem that I’m passionate about. I have regarded for info of this caliber for the final several hours. Your web site is tremendously appreciated.

  6. Finally, a problem that I’m passionate about. I have regarded for info of this caliber for the final several hours. Your web site is tremendously appreciated.

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