It wasn't just that Edith Garrud was the first female martial arts instructor in the Western world. It wasn't just that this hardcore, pipe-hitting, 4'11" tall chick went out there in an Edwardian hoop skirt and a massive floppy hat and judo-flipped the hell out of armed men who outweighed her two-to-one, that she was one of the first fight choreographers in British film history, or that she kept a damned bowling pin under her dress and almost always wore three inches of cardboard armor under her dress that was capable of protecting her ribs from a direct hit by a mahogany club. It's that this hell-raising martial arts master was using her powers of feminine asskicking to smash the faces of London police officers who tried to violently break up women's suffrage rallies, and that her skills and techniques were used to train a 30-woman-strong bodyguard of ju-jitsu face-breaker suffragettes who could be assembled at a moment's notice and immediately start pummeling the balls of any jackasses who thought they could stand in the way of a woman's right to vote.
Oh yeah, and this was going down in 1908, at a time when women were only considered "well-behaved" when they were knee-deep in sandwiches and/or human progeny and when they weren't supposed to give a crap about things like voting or politics or literature or complaining about getting beat up by their husbands.
The only hors d'oeuvres Edith Garrud was interested in serving, however, involved a couple steaming hot plates of knuckle sandwiches shoved violently down the esophagus of anyone stupid enough to fuck with her.
I said she'll flip ya. Flip ya for real.
Edith Margaret Williams was born in Somerset in 1872, but moved to Wales not long after that and eventually ended up hooking up with a strapping young physical education instructor named William Garrud – a ripped-to-shreds boxer, wrestler, and badass martial arts instructor who wrote a book about ju-jitsu and used to spend his days training Welsh athletes in the fine art of one-armed pull-ups and climbing the rope in gym class without getting Indian burns on their scrotums. Edith and William got hitched, he taught her a bunch of hardcore wrist locks and hip tosses (I am really trying hard to resist a couple choice foreplay jokes here) , and before long this chick was using bone-crunching MMA Anderson Silva shit to fuck up dudes twice her size and then kick them in the jaw once they were incapacitated and emasculated.
At some point during their early married life, the Garruds met William Barton-Wright – a fellow gym coach and the inventor of an unbelievably-awesome martial art style known as Bartitsu. If that name rings a bell, it's probably because this combination of stick fighting, gentlemanly bare-knuckled boxing, French savate, and Kobe-style Ju-Jitsu is the same style of martial arts Sherlock Holmes used to ball-punch his way through every overly-complex crime London had to offer during this time period. If that's not enough to insta-boner you, this should do the trick – here's the picture that you always see associated with the art of Bartitsu:
Oh yeah, it's gonna be that kind of party.
After training in Bartitsu from the dude that invented it (yes, Barton-Wright is the dude with the master 'stache at the center of the pic above), she then went to Soho and studied Tokyo-style Ju-Jitsu with Sadakazu Uyenishi, the first ju-jitsu master to ever teach pupils outside of Japan. She became a master in using leverage and mechanics to overpower larger men and perform incredible feats of strength, and by 1907 the 35 year-old Mrs. Garrud's shit was so tight (she'd already been studying martial arts for roughly 14 years) that she actually starred in the United Kingdom's first martial arts film – a silent movie called "Jujitsu Takes Down the Footpads" where some douchebag hoodlum tries to jack her purse and she goes Jackie Chan on his ass until he's a de-ballsacked bloody smear quivering on the sidewalk crying for his momma.
Well performing public displays of badassery, opening a couple of ju-jitsu training facilities, and becoming England's first Michelle Yeoh was great and all, but around 1908 shit got serious for Edith Garrud, and her services suddenly became desperately needed by the quickly-ramping-up Women's Suffrage movement in England. Basically, this was the deal – women in England thought it would be pretty cool if they could vote, inherit land, ask for a divorce, and have some kind of legal precedent established preventing them from being put to work at eight years old. A bunch of guys thought this was bullshit, so every time a group of women would get together and demand this stuff these guys would show up with a bunch of cops and beat the shit out of them.
This was kind of a problem for Edith Garrud, so from 1907 through 1914 she opened the doors of her ju-jitsu school to train Suffragettes to fight back, and I don't mean in the non-violent Gandhi turn the other cheek way – I mean in the "any part of you that touches me is going to be detached from your body" sense. Running her women-only training halls, she assembled a band of 30 hardcore women that she trained intensely in martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, and general badassery, equipped them with weapons and armor, and then assigned these "Ju-Jitsu Suffragettes" to serve as the personal bodyguard of a Suffragette leader named Emmeline Pankhurst.
The leader of the Women's Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst was kind of like the Susan B. Anthony of England, only if Susan B. Anthony urged her followers to smash the windows out of police stations with Molotov cocktails, broke into Congress and the White House to yell at politicians, and spent half of her activist career breaking out of no fewer than seven federal prisons.
"I have reached London tonight in spite of armies of police.
I am here tonight, and not a man is going to protect me, because this is a woman’s fight,
and we are going to protect ourselves! I am coming out amongst you in a
few minutes and I challenge the government to re-arrest me!"
- Emmeline Pankhurst
Here's roughly how it worked – Pankhurst would have a suffrage rally, get arrested for "disturbing the peace or some bullshit", starve herself to death in prison, force them to release her for health reasons, and then go right back out and do it again. Eventually, hordes of cops and "unpleasant young men" opposed to the idea of women voting became such a big deal that Edith Garrud was called in to layeth the smacketh down. Garrud responded by assembling the Bodyguard – 30 women, trained in ju-jitsu and capable of using improvised weapons to fight off any jerkburger who tried to mess with Pankhurst. The women would be out there in big dresses and hats, looking totally normal, but underneath their heavy wool dresses they'd have three inches of cardboard wrapped around their midsections to prevent them from breaking ribs when they were clubbed by police truncheons.
Oh right, and under their dresses they'd be packing Indian clubs, which are basically bowling pin-looking things that really really seem like they'd hurt like a motherfucker if you got popped in the dome by one:
You can say what you want about the ethics of fighting the cops or whatever, but the Bodyguard's record is pretty damn badass if you ask me. Meeting in attics and basements and taking long routes home to keep police inspectors from following them and learning their identities, the women of the guard not only planned cunning disguise and decoy operations to through the fuzz off Pankhurst's trail, they also got out there and mixed it up with The Man on dozens of occasions. Like one time Pankhurst was giving a talk at a town hall, and 50 cops came running in with clubs to break it up – they were faced off by 25 women with Indian clubs, swinging like maniacs, bashing in heads left and right. When the cops tried to climb up on the stage after Pankhurst, they quickly learned that the garlands of flowers draped around the stage weren't decorative, but actually concealed barbed wire fencing that ripped them up and funneled them all into a choke point where the Guard could stand their ground. Another time a small group of the Guard were attacked while escorting Pankhurst to a different talk, and had to take on over a dozen armed cops. The cops eventually overpowered the women, knocked Pankhurst unconscious and fought through the horde of club-swinging suffragettes only to later learn that the woman they'd arrested was actually Pankhurst's body double.
While Garrud herself was rarely involved in these frays herself (her position in the organization was too important to risk her being arrested and imprisoned so she had to keep her nose clean), there is more than one recorded instance of her flipping cops weighing at least 180 pounds.
"Women using jiu-jitsu have brought great burly cowards nearly
twice their size to their feet and made them howl for mercy."
The militant suffragette movement took a break for the Great War in 1914, but their voices were heard loud and clear, and before the War was over an Act was passed that granted over 8 million British women the right to vote. Garrud, no longer needing to organize an underground female fight club trained in the fine art of punching cops, continued running her schools, wrote a couple magazine articles about self-defense, and ran the woman athlete's branch of the Women's Freedom League. Later in life she taught classes to London police officers (they were curious what that whole ju-jitsu cop-flipping thing was all about, and once she knew the techniques weren't going to be used to oppress her friends Edith was happy to oblige them), and worked as a martial arts fight choreographer for stage and film.
She lived the be 99 years old, passing away in 1971. In one of her final interviews, the 93 year-old martial artist responded to the interviewer's questions by giving him the recipe she'd just used for her birthday cake.
In June 2012, her home town of Islington installed a plaque at the site of her former home.
Damsel vs. Desperado
Crawford, Elizabeth. The Womens' Suffrage Movement. Routledge, 2002.
Godfrey, Emelyne. Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society. Palgrave, 2012.
Green, Thomas A. and Joseph R. Smith. Martial Arts of the World. ABC-CLIO, 2010.