|The “Old Game” as described by Allanson-Winn|
19th century martial arts have long been the poor relations of more popular historical martial arts branches, but in recent days, it has gained more and more recognition. English martial arts are still the most studied from this time period, the numerous and simple sources, the spread of the English language worldwide and the popularity of Victorian culture have greatly contributed to their current status. Singlestick is one of them. This peculiar relative to saber fencing was very popular in Georgian England before being converted as a wooden training tool. This interest has led many people to consider any mention of singlestick in books or newspapers as the British game. A famous instance is the one of Theodore Roosevelt, allegedly a famous American singlestick practitioner… but was he really practicing the old rustic game of singlestick?
Singlestick was practiced since at least the 17th century, some people suggesting it was a relative to more ancient practices in fencing schools, but no solid proof can attest to this link. Although it is often associated with England, we forget that other countries were also fond of fighting with wooden swords, as unknown to many the practice was alive in other countries. In France, the practice of “behourder” a derivative of the noble “bohourt” tourneys was practiced very much like singlestick. The first and second Sundays of Lent was reserved for the peasants and bourgeois to fight with sticks and staves. It fell out of practice around the 18th century, but Diderot in his Encyclopaedia noted that the English were continuing this tradition as well as the Spanish who call it “cannas” and the Florentine who call it “bagordare”.
The Victorian version of singlestick was much more in line with what was done in France at the time
France continued to use singlesticks all through the 18th and 19th century mostly as a fencing instrument for the military saber. While some teachers like de St. Martin (1804) hated the wooden sword, some as Brunet (1884) found it useful to safely instruct beginners and develop sufficient arm strength and control before moving on with the steel sabers. British singlestick seems to have seen the same development in the mid 19th century, slowly transitioning from a vernacular game into military and upper-class fencing.
Mentions of singlestick in 19th century newspapers lead some enthusiastic researchers to point out how popular the old English game was all over Europe and the Americas. The president Theodore Roosevelt himself being the most flamboyant figure of this hobby, but a careful look at the sources seems to indicate that things are not quite what they seem. Here is for example, what Capt. Alfred Hutton had to say about the singlestick in an entry of the Encyclopaedia of sport (1897): “This old style of “cudgelling” is now quite extinct and the “singlestick” of to-day is mainly a medium for learning the management of the light sabre as it appears in our modern fencing rooms.” Hutton also describes it as a poor substitute to the sabre for which many calls to its abolition, but he also says that it is an “honest, manly old English sport which should rather be encouraged rather than be allowed to sink into oblivion”.
Let’s first define a couple of terms. The term singlestick will firstly designate the British sport in its various incarnations while fencing stick will describe the wooden stick –be it French, British or other- equipped with a wicker or leather handguard. As you will see in this article, I believe that such a terminology should be used in the future to avoid further confusion.
Fencing sticks as sold by Spalding in 1915
While mentions of singlestick in Britain seem to refer mostly to the sport – and even then careful research should be undertaken to establish this fact- most American sources refer to something else entirely when they discuss singlestick; quite possibly French cane.
France in the 19th century was a military colossus and a model for any army aspiring to modernize its equipment and tactics. Still gleaming with Napoleonic aura, the nation also had a great reputation as far as fencing was concerned, and many French teachers instructed both civilians and military alike in different countries such as Japan or the United States. Their involvement in the Crimean War showed many countries the need to reform their military. Although the Franco-Prussian war dealt a severe blow to this reputation, people still admired the abilities of French fencers. Even the prestigious London Fencing Club employed numerous French masters to teach its members.
A cane “assaut” in Joinville academy, where a lot of Franco-American instructors were taught
It was then only a logical thing that a country with close military ties to France such as the United States sought instruction in the fashionable art of fencing with a cane, but journalists in America, it seems, were not quite sure what to call it. While the word cane was sometimes used, most chose to refer to it as singlestick. In fact, the term was used so liberally that even kendo ended up being called “Japanese singlestick” or even –in a manner which couldn’t better transcribe the confusion at this time- “Japanese quarterstaff”! Mentions of French fencing masters teaching singlestick in America abound, and it would be highly surprising that these teachers somehow taught the English game.
Canne Royale as taught in New York in 1898 by Mr. Louis
Professor Tronchet from San Francisco’s Olympic Club
Here are some examples found across American newspapers: Captain Hyppolite Nicolas at the New York Fencing Club, Tromelle, Girard, Cassie, Boulet and Tranque in Boston, Tronchet in San Francisco or Gelas in West Point. These are only some of the French fencing masters, as many other teachers of various origins can be found.
French cane is not the only thing been taught in America at the time. A close parent, Canne Royale from Belgium, is also popular. A certain Mr. Louis was teaching it in New York with his son around 1898 for example (Muskegon Chronicle, sept 14th, 1898), but the Belgian cane became known thanks to a legendary figure in American fencing: Antoine J. Corbesier, who was born in 1837 and served for a while in the Belgian and French army before finding employment at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Belgians along with Italians and French seemed to have been a popular choice at the time for potential masters at arms. The Potomac army allegedly had another Belgian as its instructor general during the Civil War: Captain Arthur de Pelgrom who later taught in Centralia Illinois not only foil and saber but also Mexican dagger, double stick and cane (Centralia Sentinel, December 14, 1865).
Corbesier is often credited with bringing singlestick to the United States, where the art was supposedly unknown at the time. Two questions spring to mind when considering this assertion. Why would a Belgian fencing master bring to the US a British practice? The answer lies further.
In 1906, a personal student of Corbesier, Andrew Chase Cunningham, wrote a small book on the use of a cane as a weapon of self-defense. His book included many photographs, some of them very telling as to the inspiration for his method.
Cunningham Right guard and a classical Canne Royale guard
His main guards are reminiscent of what can be found in earlier Canne Royale manuals. The comparison between the two leaves few doubts. Add to this an article in the New York Herald in 1886 (june 9th) where it is said that Corbesier had his students practice the “stick exercice” which was “a mode of defense and attack with sticks in unison”. This sounds remarkably like a description of a Canne Royale lesson, where the pupils trained a series of movements in groups sometimes with accompanying music. Finally, before even going to teach in Annapolis, Corbesier taught at the New York fencing club where in 1863 it is said that he taught smallsword, saber, bayonet and cane (New York Tribune, October 19th). No mention of singlestick is made until 1904 when it is said that British singlestick, quarterstaff, judo and Japanese fencing were be introduced to the academy (Springfield Republican, December 17th). It is unclear how long singlestick was taught there, judo, for example, was only taught for a year. Taking all these elements together, it doesn’t seem exaggerated to consider that what Corbesier first brought to the US was not the British version of singlestick, but rather Canne Royale, the monarchical reference being dropped out. In his 40 years of teaching at Annapolis, Corbesier taught this art to about 6000 pupils.
In 1904 St. Louis hosted the Olympic Games. Included in the fencing program was not just foil or saber but also singlestick. Many people then came to believe that British singlestick was indeed an Olympic event. Again the mistake is to consider that singlestick automatically refers to the old British game, and when we look further we find it is very unlikely.
The winner of the event – out of only three contestants- was a certain Albertson Van Zo Post from New York’s Fencing Club. Van Zo Post is often said to represent Cuba, but although he was most likely from the Cuban island, he was really representing the USA. At the time, the Club was headed by a French maître d’armes named Vauthier (Muskegon Chronicle, February 5th 1904). Mr. Vauthier, a Parisian, learned his trade in the military at
This is the only text mentioning Corbesier’s involvement with Napoleon III’s army. Perhaps following the change of government in 1870, it became preferable to avoid the subject
the Joinville academy where La Canne and Great Stick were taught and later became headmaster of fence at West Point. Fencing sticks were indeed used to teach saber to beginners, but no sources indicate that championships were disputed in France or that the sticks were used at any point when steel sabers could be used or that the student arrived at a reasonable level.
Although you might ask: then why didn’t France won any medal, or was even represented in those games? Well, the Olympic Games were not what they are today, a dozen countries were represented, and only one French athlete showed up, and to compete in the marathon of all things!
Roosevelt and Wood practicing “singlestick”. Harper’s Weekly, 1903
But the most telling case is that of Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time of his presidency was known for practicing singlestick in the White House with General Wood. On one famous incident, Roosevelt got his hand badly bruised, putting him out of training for a while. Few authors have put in question the fact that the president was practicing a form of saber fencing with a stick… but was he really? Again several clues lead us to believe otherwise.
Firstly let’s observe this picture of Roosevelt and Wood fighting. One detail immediately jumps out: if they are indeed practicing saber with sticks, why are there no baskets on these sticks? Fencing sticks at the time being mostly recognized as a cheap alternative to a metal saber; surely Roosevelt had access to better equipment. And even then why no basket, which undoubtedly lead to his wounded hand? Surely he could have bought baskets along with the sticks?
An article mentions that Wood and Roosevelt were at the time both privately instructed in “fencing and singlestick” by Maître François Darrieulat, a French fencing master, instructed in the French army and the Paris fencing academy, of the Washington Fencing Club and also a teacher at Annapolis Academy (Philadelphia Enquirer, October 19th, 1903). A picture of the club taken after 1914 shows some fencing-sticks on the wall along with bayonets and a kendo armor. Again are we seeing here a tool for the sport of British singlestick or a wooden practice sword? The Washington fencers often organized friendly competitions with the Annapolis cadets, which included according to the reporters “singlestick” (Baltimore American, April 22nd 1903). Now we know for a fact that singlestick only arrived at the Academy in 1905, and that cane was taught there for decades.
Darieulat and students of the Washington Fencing Club somewhere after 1914. Library of Congress
Finally, an article comes and muddies the singlestick trail even more. In 1903 Mr. Jean-Marie Gelas and his family moved from France to America to teach fencing, savate, and Jiu-Jitsu. Gelas and his sons were both trained at the French military academy of Joinville-Le-Pont. Quickly acquiring
Singlestick at the New York Fencing Club, but what is really illustrated is La Canne
quite a reputation, Mr. Gelas became a fencing instructor at West Point Academy, but before doing so, he helped publish an article describing what the president is practicing exactly as many people seemed to ignore it. Of course what they demonstrated was classical La Canne, and again all this points toward the strong possibility that what Roosevelt was really practicing was the French art of cane fighting and, if nothing else, that the term was used very loosely to describe any stick fighting activity (Boston Journal, March 8th, 1903).
A hand colored print from Leslie’s Weekly, March 30th 1905, showing two students of Annapolis fencing with canes.
To conclude, can we say that singlestick was unknown in 19th century America? No. Can we say that every mention of singlestick in contemporary newspapers is La Canne? No. What is important to understand is that while our modern world is obsessed with correct typology and doesn’t tolerate vague terminology, it wasn’t always the case. For many people in the past, an activity where two or more people fought with sticks was known as singlestick. Researchers should then ask themselves when stumbling unto this word in an old publication if it is really the Old British Game or some other form of stick combat.
Update: Thomas Crawley sent me another source which once again confirms the nature of singlestick in America (and maybe elsewhere). The famous Thomas H. Monstery wrote in the New York Athletic Club rules of 1878 what he thought about the use of the term: “I would here remark that the name “singlestick” for the exercise described in the law should be changed to “walking-stick”, “cane-play” or “cudgel play”. The English singlestick is only employed as a cheap substitute for the sabre or broadsword in practice (…).”