‘ENGLISH MARTIAL ARTS’ – interview with Terry Brown.

This was an interview with Terry Brown in 2011 and can also be found on his own very excellent website. It was originally published on my label stroke distro website King Penda, which I’ve now retired ( the links therefore won’t all work ). I learned a lot from Terry and it was a great pleasure to interview him. Any readers who have tried stick fighting may find it interesting. From here on then is the discussion as it was originally carried out.

In the last 50 years or so, it has become customary to equate words such as ‘martial art’, or even ‘culture’ with anything but the word ‘English’. Our reputation for having a stoic and puritanical demeanour ( at least, until the weekend anyway ), and for silently valuing the ‘exotic’ ( eg Bruce Lee ) over our own well established and effective military / self defence systems perhaps makes for a separate discussion, but one will be reassured to know that there are still those out there who maintain our traditions.

You may have realised by now that Wartooth and I of the band Bretwaldas have explored the tradition of the common man’s Quarterstaff for some time in our own shoddy experiments- two gangly nobodies that wouldn’t stand a chance against some of the people we are interviewing – yet after the publishing of my article on the quarterstaff in the 2009 Pagan Herald Three magazine the ball is now rolling, and we are privileged to have some authoritative input. So, after I interviewed Chris Gilchrist of the English Quarterstaff Association here, Terry Brown, author of the excellent ‘English Martial Arts’, talked to me about his book, and I presented him with similar questions:-

Hello Terry. For the benefit of those who don’t know you, can you give us a brief background of yourself? What spurred you to write the book, English Martial Arts?

I was reading a biography about Bob Fitzsimmons which contained a reference to the backsword; having never heard of a backsword I decided to find out what it was. That simple decision led me to the British Library where little by little I discovered that the English had had their own martial arts system. At that stage I had no thought of writing a book but after several years I realised I had enough information to write a book, so I did. In addition to English martial arts I have studied Fong Yang kung fu (The Beggars Art) for 44 years. I also studied Singapore’s national martial art Khong Chang (Open Palm) attaining a black belt 2nd dan grade.

Is that you pictured on the front of the book? If so, I wouldn’t want to spill your pint!

No, that’s my senior student Frank Docherty but your instincts are correct he  already held black belts in Japanese and Chinese systems when he started training with me. More importantly he was also a boxer, bodyguard, and doorman and, as I know from personal experience, a ferocious full-contact fighter. Definitely not a man to pick an argument with.

With regards to the staff what are your thoughts on so called national styles of combat? Surely there is only one way to use such a weapon, and that is the best way?

You would think so wouldn’t you but in fact there are often quite substantial differences between some styles and systems. For example some styles hold the staff with both thumbs pointing towards the centre of the staff, that is too say towards each other whereas the English quarterstaff system points both thumbs towards the tip of the staff, that is to say pointing away from the holder’s body. . Some systems seem to rely entirely on the half-staff method which is fine of course if the opponent is doing the same but risky if not because when half-staffing both of the hands are vulnerable to attack which is not the case when quarter-staffing. I have studied 4 staff fighting systems and to me what sets the English quarterstaff apart from other systems is the set of principles which govern its use, indeed cover the use of all weapons and unarmed combat employed in English martial arts.

How might we explain such a variation in styles of the quarterstaff fighter compared with that of the African stick fighting tribe featured recently on the BBC documentary of the same name? They used long thin sticks, which they held at one end, stood well away from each other, and literally whipped the sticks around their heads. My instinct when using a staff is to do something similar. Clearly they had no formal training. Those who were hit were often scarred or maimed for life. Given this, do you think that instinctive, and let’s say ‘crude’ fighting skills, can generally be beaten by the disciplined and methodical learning experience the group advocates?

The first thing I would say is that the African stick fighters certainly don’t lack courage or determination. The circular sweeps of the Ethiopian stick fighting system are also employed in the Portuguese system of jogo de pau but the Portuguese system employs very effective blocks against such strikes. Other systems seem to rely entirely on the half-staff method which is fine of course if the opponent is doing the same but risky if not. In answer to your question I would say that you can never rule out courageous fighters which the Ethiopians certainly are. However I would always back a fighter who has both courage and an effective system.

Have you ever fought with protective clothing so that genuine blows can be realised? I’m interested in the difference between actual fighting and sport, if indeed there is one.

The power of staff weapons is truly phenomenal and I once bouted against a full-contact re-enactor who wanted to experience fighting against the quarterstaff. He was wearing a good quality suit of armour and was armed with a sword and dagger. My first blow knocked him off his feet and shook him up quite badly. After that I wound down the power to about a quarter but even so still knocked him down several times. He said afterwards he felt totally helpless because he couldn’t get in range to strike. He also said it felt like being inside an oil drum while someone hit it with a sledgehammer. If you haven’t got this level of protection you cannot really afford to hit with full power, be it staff or sword. Nowadays people use wooden or nylon wasters to allow sparring with speed and contact. Even so protective gear is still advised.

Quarterstaff fighters were big in Victorian / Georgian England, when traditional martial skills (and indeed anything that could boost nationalism in the face of an increasingly powerful Germany, such as music and art) were being revived or reinvented. Tony Wolf suggests that many of these fighters volunteered for the trenches of World War I, only to find their warrior training almost useless, and to be killed in droves. Letters exist of both British and German soldiers’ feelings that technology such as long range artillery and tanks had rendered any spiritual aspect of the warrior obsolete, and they just felt like cogs in a machine, which leads me to my question – is there still a place for a warrior path in today’s world?

I agree with Tony on this. In fact it happened many centuries ago with the English longbow. Imagine 3000 archers firing a minimum of ten arrows a minute; that’s a potential of 30,000 arrows or more a minute hitting the enemy at distances of over 200 yards. Thousands of of people in battle never getting close enough to employ their hand-to-hand fighting skills. Yes, I imagine it was pretty soul-destroying.

The sword duel has a long history in England, and men sometimes lost their lives for petty reasons. Quite rightly it was outlawed. Do you think that perhaps the quarterstaff was encouraged or revived as a weapon that was potentially less lethal? I’m specifically thinking about the theory that one might ‘give quarter’ to their foe, hence its name?

No, in terms of unarmoured combat the quarterstaff was infinitely more effective than the sword and just as dangerous. This may be hard to believe but medieval coroner’s rolls give many examples of people killed by quarterstaffs, invariably factured skulls.. Indeed, in my book (English Martial Arts) I give an authentic account of a street fight between a swordsman and a quarterstaff man. The swordsman died very quickly. The sheer speed and power of the quarterstaff are incredible. Also, when used in the quarterstaff grip (the correct way to use it) it has a substantial reach advantage over a sword.  As regards the name of the weapon there are mixed opinions. George Silver (Paradoxes of Defence 1599) referred to it as the ‘short staff’ because there was in use in his time a weapon called the ‘long staff’. Swetnam (The Schole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense, 1617) simply refers to it as the ‘staffe’. Zachary Wylde (The Schole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense. 1711) calls it the quarterstaff. More than one explanation has been offered for the name; with due respect I think we can safely rule out the connection of giving quarter because, as I point out here, it was a dangerous weapon and in any case giving quarter or mercy was a moral, tactical, or financial decision which had nothing to do with the weapon. Another explanation put forward is that timber was cut into four quarters (and therefore four quarterstaffs). This holds no water either because quarters of timber (a measurement first recorded in 1423) are 4″ x 2″, a double quarter is 4″ x 4″ and they were used as boards, posts etc.. The most likely explanation it seems to me is that it takes its name from the fact that a quarter of the length of the staff is held between the hands. This is born out by the fact that Wylde also used the term half staff to describe actions where the hands were held with half the length of the staff between the hands. The fact that the staff was normally used in the quarterstaff grip is  the reason the weapon is so named. If it was normally used in the half-staff grip it would surely be called the half-staff. The half-staff grip was used to briefly shorten the range of the weapon, say to deal with an attacker who had got past the tip of the staff.

Some people think that there is value in the theory of the old stratification of European Association into three hierarchical layers – that of the farmer / peasant, that of the warrior, and that of the priest / wizard. Given what you may have said about the spiritual aspect of the staff tradition, would you put the staff in any one of these layers?

I give a much more mundane reason, it was very cheap (usually free) and with it a trained man could defeat a swordsman. After all from Edward I’s time the most dangerous weapon around was the war bow (long bow) and that was primarily a yeoman’s weapon. I don’t recall saying anything about spirituality! Are you mixing me up with people who think runes protect you from weapon strikes? ( Ha ha… certainly not! (Ed) )

What is the reason ( historically perhaps ) for choosing a Staff over a Spear?

None really, they are, or should be used in the same way (unless the spear is accompanied by a shield) In fact, for a low cost, points could be added to each end of a staff , or iron shoes could be added to each end ( then called a tipstaff) both variations would still be used as a quarterstaff.

The English Quarterstaff Association’s videos show fighters often hold the staff in the middle and strike with the ends, and this is what is perhaps most indicative, to the layman, of the English style.

This is not quarter-staffing it is half-staffing which is fine if both people are using it but risky against swords, halbards etc. because both hands are within reach of the opposing weapon which is not the case with the quarterstaff grip. This seems to be quite like the sporting system contained in McCarthy’s manual (Quarter-staff: A Practical Manual 1883). If half-staffing is indicative to the layman of English staff fighting it is because it is constantly and incorrectly shown on film and television productions, especially those featuring Robin Hood. One can’t help but feel that early fight directors looked no further back than McCarthy thus missing out on an incredible system that is, as I know from practical experience, as good as Chinese and Japanese staff fighting systems.

So far in my experiments I have found that using the hanging guard as depicted in your book seems more logical as you are further away from trouble! To make a strike I would step forwards, and back again to defend myself.

Exactly so, in armed combat distance is king and your summary is spot on though I personally favour the low (medium) guard which I feel is more versatile.

Using the central grip seems good for hitting aside thrusts to the head or body, but doesn’t it place you too close to each other when duelling? For instance, my instinct would be to slam the staff along my opponent’s to break his hands, and then finish him off with a kick in the coddes! Isn’t the grip then just fanciful Robin Hood romanticism, or am I somewhat underestimating its effectiveness?

The grip you mention can have its uses but is very rarely necessary, thrusts to the body are easily put aside with the medium or hanging guard.

With a six feet long, and 1 ¾ inch thick piece of seasoned hazel, I successfully held back two Viking reenactors wearing helmets, and armed with sword and shield, for nearly ten ( very long ) minutes. However I was getting pretty tired by then, and they only really had to just circle around me taunting me a bit longer before I was getting tired with swinging and jabbing at them. And a swordsman is just waiting for that one opening after all. Have you ever tried using the staff against other weapons and if so with what result?

That you, with respect, with no training in authentic quarterstaff fighting held back two men is proof that distance is king. However with training you don’t have to hold them back you can actually go on the offensive. George Silver stated that one staff man was superior to two swordsmen (with daggers). In 1625 an English sailor named Richard Peeke fought, in real combat, three Spanish swordsmen armed only with a quarterstaff, he went on the offensive and won the fight killing one of them in the process. On a seminar in the USA a few years ago I was asked the same question and I demonstrated quarterstaff against sword. I split the 30 attendees into five groups of six swordsmen and bouted each group at least once, each time I routed the group, not one single blow landed on me. This was witnessed and recorded not just by the swordsmen but also by some observers. Almost all of these men were instructors in their own styles. I did it by going on the offensive, by using the length of the staff (in quarterstaff grip) to control the distance and measure. Could I have done it in a real battle! Who knows, but the important thing is that I proved that Silver’s principles and his arguments were correct and that Richard Peeke knew just how superior to the sword the quarterstaff is. Incidentally Peeke used the name quarterstaff.

I was in hospital recently, and to pass the time bought a ‘light reading’ book by Dave Courtney the English gangland villain. In it he describes a fight against a Chinese gang, where he claims that his side won merely by brute aggression and force, despite the opposing side’s ‘martial art’ techniques.

Like many things in life we must be careful not to endow the many with the abilities of the few. It is my belief that many people (such as Dave) have had some boxing training and that some martial systems are not all they are cracked up to be (though many are of course). Now I have always said that a good boxer will be a match for any martial artist in the world with a similar amount of training. Boxing is an incredibly effective fighting art that people mock at their peril. The other side of the coin is that physics really do matter, the punches of a man weighing 200/220 lbs, will really do some damage, especially if that man is a trained boxer. Now if the martial artist is not at the top of his tree or has never been in a real fight he could be in real trouble. By the way what is Dave’s book called?

Where does the Quarterstaff technique sit in relation the fast and light Oriental bo?

Not a problem at all, I frequently bout against shorter staffs and again the length of the quarterstaff gives it the advantage, distance is king and more than makes up for any minute difference in speed. In closing I would like to say that while I have striven to explain the martial strengths of the quarterstaff nowhere do I intend any slight to other systems, after all I have been studying Asian martial arts for 44 years and know that many of them are highly effective

Terry Brown.


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