Right, well, so, I went to this seminar this past weekend… Skipped the Saturday training session, just went to the Sunday training session, but I also went to the Saturday night social at Delmonico’s, where I’d somehow never been before.
I had an agenda. I wanted to ask the guy who was teaching the classes, Mark Donnelly, what exactly it meant on his bio that he’d consulted with HMS Victory.
We were in the grill room, a half dozen people from the Bartitsu Club of NYC, and conversation had covered…let’s see, how to make a guard for a singlestick out of a dog’s chew toy; why it was not feasible that anyone ever actually climbed rigging with a cutlass in his teeth (“I’ve tried,” said Donnelly. “You can’t do ANYTHING with a cutlass in your teeth. Those things are heavy.”); how to treat leather with resin when making a grip for a sword; and the exploits of an elderly habitué of the pub that Donnelly used to go in York, who had a large mustache called Binky. No, that was not a dangling modifier. The mustache was called Binky.
Anyway, so I finally asked him about the Victory, and it turned out that yes, he had in fact researched and taught hand-to-hand fighting techniques for Napoleonic era boarding actions. “There’s so little out there about what the actual fighting was like,” he said. “There are cutlass drills, which were based on sabre drills, but that’s just basically calisthenics.” The major thing he’d found, he said, was a treatise covering things like how to protect your ship from lightning and how to dock in a narrow berth, but it also had a section on boarding combat techniques. “Its main focus was ‘our guys aren’t being taught what they need to know,'” said Donnelly, and it laid out what they did need to know.
His second source, though… was the kind of thing that makes history sing for me. The first London police force was set up in 1829 (no, these are not Fielding’s Bow Street Runners; these are the bobbies, the peelers.) The constables were drawn, in large part, from the toughs who had been serving as customs agents down by the docks, hunting for smugglers. “This was not,” said Donnelly, “a safe place to be.” And a large number of those revenue agents, in turn, were ex-navy men.
One of the things that got written, in the 183os, in those first few years of the force, was a manual of policing. And, of course, all the fighting techniques that were described– to be used with the standard issue cutlasses that every constable carried at the time– were the ones that all these ex-sailors had brought to the London docks when they found themselves out of a job once peace was concluded with France.
Donnelly smiled. “So the police combat techniques that the London constabulary used, they had learned defending England from Napoleon.”