For many today, the term “gentleman” is apt to conjure up the ridiculous image of an affected, overdressed fop 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 nineteenth-century males (and some females) made good on this by cross-training in various martial arts including boxing, fencing, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, French savate (kick-boxing), cane defense, parasol defense, and more. And, with good reason. Thugs and “ruffians” were a regular part of life during the Victorian era—or the Gilded Age, as it was known in America—in both the urban metropolis and the Wild West. Such “rowdies,” as they were often referred to, could be experienced in a wide variety of fighting styles, such as British “purring” (shin-kicking), Welsh jump-kicking, French kickboxing, American rough-and-tumble fighting, Spanish and Italian knife-fighting, and African-American head butting.
The noted fencing master and pugilist, Col. Thomas H. Monstery, himself a participant in more than fifty duels and countless street fights, describes many of these modes of fighting in his martial arts treatise, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies. According to Monstery:
“Every gentleman should be able to protect himself from insult and violence, with or without weapons.” (Chapter 2)
Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies is Monstery’s magnum opus, and a great source for Victorian-era combative techniques—a highly detailed dissertation on the art and science of defense. Filled with profound insight as well as practical advice based upon personal combative experience, it includes both unarmed and armed methods for use against a wide variety of fighting styles and weapons.
BOXING – THE BARE-KNUCKLE METHOD
The first half of Monstery’s work treats of methods of unarmed self-defense:
“This I repeat for all gentlemen. Boxing is the first necessity for a gentleman, unless he wishes to be imposed upon whenever he comes into the company of rough men, stronger than himself. It is necessary, if he wishes to be able to protect a lady from insult, a position in which a man often finds himself.” (Chapter 1)
Although Monstery refers to his system of unarmed self-defense as “boxing” or “sparring,” in his treatise he presents something far more comprehensive. In addition to striking with the fist (which method he partly bases on fencing theory), Monstery’s system involves kicking, grappling, defenses against head-butting, and a wide variety of other fighting styles. Also, Monstery’s system is notably intended for use without gloves. Although boxing had, in past centuries, originally developed as a bare-knuckle martial art, by the late nineteenth century, its focus and objective had largely shifted to winning at gloved competition—even though its techniques were still often taught under the pretext of “self-defense.” As one author of the period stated, modern boxing had become “the mere shadow and semblance of what it was formerly.” Or, as another boxing veteran of the period, William Madden, explained in 1893:
“You cannot compare the fighter of the past with those of today…Today glove-fighting is like sandbagging. You hit a man in the right place and he drops dizzy and unconscious…[in the past] it was the artist in those days that gave the straight punches, and it was the artist that won the fight.”
Monstery, however, clearly states in his treatise,
“I am not writing for or teaching prize-fighters. I am teaching gentlemen how to defend themselves if assaulted by ruffians…”
He also includes sections on grappling, trips, back-falls, headlocks, and unconventional techniques for use in “street encounters,” with the proviso:
“I teach the following tricks, not with any idea that they are to be used in friendly encounters with the gloves, but solely for the protection of gentlemen who may, at any time, against their will, be forced into an encounter with a street ruffian.” (Chapter 9)
KICKING AND HEAD-BUTTING
Perhaps the most startling section of Monstery’s treatise is his chapter on “Natural Weapons,” which includes the use of the foot and head. Monstery shows how to defend oneself against the kicks of French savateurs, practitioners of British “purring” (shin-kicking), Welsh jump-kickers, and American rough-and-tumble fighters (who also practiced techniques of biting, scratching, hair-pulling, and eye-gouging). Monstery also discusses how to defend against the head-butting techniques of Danes, Norwegians, and African Americans, who were proficient in the use of the skull as a weapon.
“The rowdy is a mere wild beast that has strength and practice in natural rough-and-tumble fights, and yet a gentleman, if he knows the way, has the advantage over such a ruffian. I say to all gentlemen that your advantages are three over the ruffian: First, you have a flexible body, not stiffened by labor, but capable of being trained to anything; second, you have an intellect that will make you the superior in a contest that requires subtlety; third, you have means to pay for the best teachers, while the rowdy must teach himself, and nature does not teach how to strike a straight blow. Many gentlemen have said to me that they are not strong enough to give them any chance in such a fight. I have told them that it is not a matter of strength, but address, and especially of knowing how to strike a blow. A rowdy may be able to strike you ten times in a fight, and yet not hurt you severely, if you know how to parry and dodge, while, if you can get in a single blow, you may be able to take all the fight out of him at once.” (Chapter 2)
Sometimes, however, Monstery acknowledges that such “natural weapons” were not enough. Thus, in the second half of this treatise, Monstery proceeds to instruct the reader in methods of armed combat.
WEAPONS: THE CANE AND STAFF
Monstery begins the armed section of his treatise with the cane, or hickory walking-stick, which he describes as “the proper companion of every gentleman”—good against knives, sword-canes, and even guns:
“Boxing will get a gentleman out of a great many scrapes into which he may fall, but in some parts of the Union he will come across men who habitually carry knives or pistols and in such a case a stout walking-stick, if he knows how to use it, may save his own life, and—what I consider more important—prevent the necessity of his taking the life of another. It may seem strange to some that I, who have passed my time in the profession of arms, and have lived so much in Spanish-America, where the use of weapons is universal and duels of everyday occurrence, should have a horror of taking life; and yet I can honestly say that I have always avoided it, except where there was an absolute certainty that the question lay between my own life and that of another who sought to kill me. For this reason I have always avoided the use of the pistol, except in battle. You cannot spare a man’s life with the pistol, and no generosity can be shown therewith. You must kill him or he kills you. With the cane it is different. Many are the pistols and knives that I have struck from the hands of men by a smart blow on the wrist with a cane, and many are the murderous brawls I have prevented in this way. As a queller of disturbances, I know of nothing better than a hickory or ash stick.” (Chapter 12)
Monstery describes his cane system as being based on the same fencing principles as the saber or broadsword, but with some important modifications to account for the lack of a guard to protect the hand. The parts of the body that he targets are also different than those targeted with the sword, due to the concussive (rather than cutting) nature of the cane. Monstery also notes:
“The hook is an important part of the cane. It doubles its usefulness, serves as a handle to rest on when it is used as a staff, prevents its slipping out of the hand when it is used as a weapon, and serves as a sling when you do not wish to handle the cane. With a hook to his cane, no man need ever abandon it, for he can always hang it over his left arm when not in use, so as to be ready to catch it instantly with the right.” (Chapter 12)
Monstery concludes his treatise with two chapters on the two-handed quarterstaff, which (according to Monstery) was still practiced during the nineteenth century as a living tradition in certain areas of Europe, and which he extols as a useful mode of defense when traveling in the country or mountains.
Monstery’s book remains an indispensable resource for the practitioner and enthusiast of nineteenth century self-defense techniques. We can do no better than to conclude with one of his maxims:
“Never consider yourself unarmed even if confronted by an armed man, for almost anything can be made into a weapon if properly used.” (Chapter 11)
Colonel Thomas H. Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in his treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.
Continue on to PART II of The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit, in which we discuss the use of Victorian-era street weapons…