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The Manly Art of Quarter-Staff
Origins of a Victorian Combat Sport
By Tony Wolf

A quarterstaff match in 1870

The late Victorian era was a time of exploration and innovation in many fields, including the arts of self defence. Wrestling in various regional styles and boxing according to the rules of the London Prize Ring (later the Marquis of Queensberry Rules) were immensely popular spectator sports. The merits of newly introduced methods such as French Savate and la Canne, Japanese Jiu-jitsu and the English adaptation, "Bartitsu", were enthusiastically debated in newspaper and magazine articles. British soldiers were still trained in combat with weapons such as the bayonet and cavalry sabre, and research into antique methods of swordplay was undertaken to improve their skills. In many ways, the period between 1870 - 1900 was a Golden Age of close-combat.

The Victorian English penchant for the "manly arts" also included quarterstaff fencing. In this sport, players wearing fencing uniforms and protective armour competed for points by sparring with lightweight staves, typically up to eight feet in length. Two manuals detailing the rules and techniques were produced; Sergeant Thomas McCarthy's "Quarter-Staff" in 1883, and a chapter of "Broadsword and Singlestick" by R.G. Allanson-Winn in 1898. In the early 1900s, quarterstaff fencing was taken up by members of the Boy Scout movement, who produced a simplified manual for training towards their "Master at Arms" badge.

This essay attempts to trace the origins and development of this uniquely English combat sport.

Silver's Ideal Weapon

In his "Paradoxes of Defence" (1599), the English Master-at-Arms George Silver wrote:

The Short Staffe is most commonly the best weapon of all other, although other weapons may be more offensive, and especially against many weapons together, by reason of his nimbleness and swift motions, and is not much inferior to the Forest Bille, although the Forest Bille be more offensive, the Short Staffe will prove the better weapon.

The quarterstaff was closely identified with sport and civilian self-defence, as a weapon of expedience used by travellers or in formal duels. By the early 1700s the weapon was commonly employed in public prize-fights, with the winner receiving both gate-money and the proceeds of wagering. The famed English stage gladiator James Figg promoted the art, along with backswording and pugilism, in bouts at Southwark Fair, and after his retirement from the stage in 1735 he taught it to young aristocrats at his own School of Arms in London's Oxford Street.

There do not appear to be any records of recreational quarterstaff-play between 1748 and 1870, probably because during this period armed prize-fighting was virtually replaced by the new sport of boxing. Quarterstaffing was militarily obsolete and does not appear to have been a popular rural pastime, so it is possible that the art effectively became extinct.

A Victorian Innovation

In this essay, I suggest that the sport of quarterstaff fencing as practised between 1870 and 1898 was not a direct, lineal continuation of the traditional art, but rather a Victorian innovation or reconstruction drawing upon three main influences. These included the widespread availability of bamboo, the boom in sporting equipment manufacture, and the popularity of the Robin Hood legends.

The traditional English staff was a sturdy weapon of oak or similar hardwood, difficult to manoeuvre with any regard for a sparring partner's safety. It's important to remember that Figg and his contemporaries were professional fighters, willing to risk injury in un-armoured, full-contact bouts with weapons (although it was suspected at the time that some professionals fixed their fights, in the manner of modern pro-wrestlers.) The danger of fencing with oak staves may have dissuaded amateurs from taking up the art recreationally, in contrast to the gladiators who fought to earn their living.

Bamboo was introduced into England around 1827. Bamboo poles were light enough that players could strike to the body at full speed and risk only a welt or bruise, and a slender eight-foot length was flexible enough to absorb impact without splitting. British cavalrymen employed bamboo training weapons in lance manoeuvres, following the example of Indian soldiers they encountered during the "Raj" period, beginning in 1858, and bamboo quarterstaves are recommended in all of the surviving Victorian-era manuals.

As Britain entered the Industrial Age, there arose a relatively affluent urban middle-class with time to pursue sports and other diversions. Supply meets demand, and the first sporting equipment companies were established, leading to a rapid evolution in sporting equipment design and manufacture.

McCarthy Guard Stance

Allanson-Winn Guard

Even armed with lightweight bamboo weapons, the knees and shins, groin, hands, temples, throat, and eyes were still vulnerable to serious, even if accidental, injury. By 1870, however, amateur quarterstaff fencers could choose from a diverse range of protective equipment designed for other sports.

Between 1820 - circa 1850, the mask used by fencers (more accurately, "foilists") had been a simple wire mesh screen across the face. In response to the demands of heavier weapons such as the singlestick and training bayonet, mask designs began to incorporate hardened leather panels to protect the top and sides of the head, or helmet attachments woven out of strong wicker. The facial mesh was strengthened and reinforced with an internal framework of heavy wire that reduced denting and the chances of penetration. By the 1880s the Army had commissioned the "military broadsword helmet" for use in training cavalry soldiers, with additional protection for the back of the head. This design is recommended in both the McCarthy and Allanson-Winn quarterstaff texts.

Broadsword (military sabre) fencers developed padded leather aprons in a variety of styles, providing some degree of protection to the groin area and effectively padding the thighs against cutting attacks. At about the same time, new knee and shin guards, constructed out of bamboo strips backed with padding, were invented for the sport of cricket. Finally, the widespread availability of commercially manufactured boxing gloves allowed a measure of hand and finger protection beyond the requirements of sword fencers, but ideal for quarterstaff players whose weapons lacked guards.

By the late 1860s gladiatorial stage combats were a thing of distant memory, and the quarterstaff was most widely associated with the legendary outlaw hero of Sherwood Forest.

Victorian England was in the grip of Robin Hood fever, and hundreds of books, songs, plays and poems were produced, commemorating and elaborating his adventures.

A key incident in these stories, instantly familiar even today, is Robin Hood's quarterstaff match with Little John, taking place on a bridge over a shallow stream.

It is not unlikely that the recreational quarterstaff play of the later Victorian period was influenced as much by the popularity of the Robin Hood legends as by the memory of Figg and his peers fighting on the stage at Southwark Fair.

The Decline

Tragically, many young English athletes gave up their lives in the trenches of the First World War, and the generation that might otherwise have perpetuated the new sport of quarterstaff fencing was all but lost. Many other Victorian-era combat arts and sports were similarly afflicted, some experiencing a brief revival in the 1920s (such as quarterstaffing as practised by the Boy Scouts) before finally succumbing during the Great Depression and then World War Two. Similarly, the homogenising effect of the international Olympic movement caused many obscure sports to fade from memory through lack of publicity and funding. It is only in comparatively recent years that these activities have been researched and, in some cases, brought tentatively back to life.

Read More of Tony Wolf's Fine Articles:
Journal of Manly Arts: European and Colonial Combatives, 1776-191

Historical European Martial Arts

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