Most people today credit Bruce Lee with creating the concept of mixed martial arts - combining two or more martial art forms into one new form that uses the best of each. But that isn't quite so. Sixty years before Bruce Lee created Jeet Kune Do, an Englishman created the first mixed martial arts school; an art that was virtually lost until modern times.
In 1898, Edward William Barton-Wright, a British engineer and world traveler who had spent the previous three years living in Japan, returned to England, and seeing Victorian society with it's gentlemen with walking sticks - as well as its well-publicized escalation of street violence - he announced the formation of a "New Art of Self Defence".
Barton-Wright had studied jujutsu in Japan and brought back several jujutsu masters to teach in his new school. Along with judo and jujutsu, which Barton-Wright noted "were not designed as primary means of attack and defence ... but were only to be used after coming to close quarters", Barton-Write added boxing, savate, or French kickboxing, and a Swiss style of the French canefighting art "la canne" created by canefighting expert Pierre Vigny, whom he also brought to teach at his school. He called the new art "Bartitsu", a portmanteau of his last name and the Japanese word "jutsu" (or "jitsu") meaning "art" or "technique".
This was the first time a codified system of civilian self defence had been offered in such a manner, and the first time a blend of Eastern and Western martial arts were taught. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as "Victorian Jeet Kune Do," as it would not be until Bruce Lee that similar concepts would be put forward. Unlike modern mixed martial arts, however, Bartitsu was not a competitive sport, but focused solely on self-defense in actual street fighting situations. Similarly to Krav Maga, Bartitsu relied on adaptability and improvisation and as such, had no set "kata" or choreographed stances common to other martial arts.
Unfortunately, Barton-Wright's school, while popular at first, did not last long, and closed in 1902. Bartitsu became a "lost" martial art, and would probably have been entirely forgotten if not for Sherlock Holmes. In 1901, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle revived his famous character, who had "died" in the previous book, for a further story, "The Adventure of the Empty House," in which Holmes explained his victory over Professor Moriarty in their struggle at Reichenbach Falls by the use of "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me".
When historians and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts in later years began puzzling out what martial art Holmes could have possibly been referring to, they discovered Bartitsu and concluded that "baritsu" was undoubtedly either a corruption or a typographical error and that Doyle likely had meant to refer to this (even though Holmes supposedly used the art form several years before it was actually invented).
Since 2001, thanks to Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, retrofuturists and steampunks, Bartitsu has experienced a modern revival. There is a Bartitsu Society now in London, which teaches both historical and modern or "neo-" Bartitsu. (Since Bartitsu was always adding the best of new martial arts forms, this is considered to be continuing with the tradition, and the art form is considered "open source.")
Bartitsu also has made its way into popular culture. Fictional comic book heroes including Doc Savage and The Shadow have supposedly been trained in it. The fight choreography in the 2009 film "Sherlock Holmes" closely resembles historical Bartitsu (the choreographer even called the movie form "neo-Bartitsu", adding Wing Chun boxing, Brazilian jiujutsu and swordfighting), and the choreography in the 2011 film, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows", even more closely resembles the historical art.
E.W. Barton-Wright was one of the first Europeans to study Japanese martial arts and the first to teach them in the West. He was the first to introduce the concept of mixed martial arts, and a pioneering promoter of mixed martial arts contests (and his judo master, Tani, was undefeated!). His school was also among the first schools of its type in Europe to offer specialized classes in women's self defense.
Like other Victorian-age visionaries that steampunk draws its inspiration from, in many ways Edward William Barton-Wright was a man ahead of his time.