I sought this article out of simple curiosity and was intrigued and surprised by the content. At face-value it seems a charming snapshot of Victorian society, the Facebook of its time. On reading, however, I was struck by the attitudes it contained, and how they compare with those facing women in fencing today.

Just four short sides of print, with eight accompanying illustrations, it depicts the changing nature of women’s roles in society at the time, at least of the upper classes. Women are referenced only in relation to their father or husband, but I dug a little deeper to find out more about some of them. We have bloomers, suffragettes, the Elephant Man, male impersonators, female playwrights, muses, lovers, lesbians and chorus girls in just under two thousand words, all while espousing the benefits of fencing for the ‘new woman’.


Lady Fencers

By Myra Dane and Mary Howarth


2013-05-01 14.24.49I was calling, a short time since, on Miss Edna Mary Stacey,[ii] of Clifton,[iii] and was somewhat surprised to hear, coming from the adjoining room, the sharp click of foils. A few moments afterwards Miss Stacey entered the room attired in the graceful costume shown in the illustrations of this article. I knew her to be interested in various forms of sport, but fencing seemed to me a novel development.

“Is this the latest amusement for the new woman?” I asked.

While deprecating the association of the beautiful art of fencing with the new woman, Miss Stacey explained that she was establishing a fencing school in Clifton, following in this the example set by London and by most of the cities on the Continent.

“What do you think of my costume?” she asked, parenthetically.

I replied that I thought it remarkably becoming, and calculated to disarm the prejudices even of Lord Salisbury[iv] himself.

“It is more than becoming,” said Miss Stacey; “it is the only dress suited to lady fencers.[v] The mask which one is obliged to wear is not very attractive, but is very necessary if accidents are to be avoided. Otherwise, fencing is at once the safest, most graceful and healthful form of exercise that a lady can indulge in.”

To give me some idea of the exercise, Miss Stacey then went through the movements of the “Salute”. The salute, I should explain, is a series of courteous movements, which, in fencing, form the prelude to a bout. Some of the attitudes are shown in the photographs of Miss Stacey that illustrate this article. In the salute the mask is not worn, and of the movements the “lunge” is the most striking.

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As soon as the salute was over, I resumed my inquiries to the advantages of fencing for ladies.

“Fencing,” said Miss Stacey, “is certainly the beau ideal of sports for ladies. It possesses this great advantage over most other forms of physical exercise, that mere muscle does not count for much, and there is no reason why girls should not equal their brothers in the practice of it. The prohibition of duelling in this country is a potent reason, perhaps, why fencing and swordsmanship are not more commonly practised. I am told that even among the officers of the army a good swordsman is rarely to be met with. As to the Continent, things are, as I have indicated, quite different. Much as we may smile at the ordinary French or German duel with swords, there is no doubt that abroad fencing is an accomplishment that every man of good social position is expected to possess. It was so here, of course, in the days of our great grandfathers.[vi] In Italy, France, and Germany the fencing master is as much in request as the golf professional is with us.

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“And here,” continued Miss Stacey, “I come to what is the very core of the matter. The modern athletic girl is forever trying to emulate the members of the stronger sex in the pursuit of sport. We have our lady golfers – and good ones, too! – but we also have our lady cricketers, lady hockey players, and even lady footballers.[vii] Now, in most of these sports, physical strength counts for more than half the game. In fencing, as we have seen, keenness of eye, dexterity of wrist, and suppleness of movement are far more important. In these qualities the average healthy girl is more than a match for her brother. Think what triumphs are in store for British girls who have been acquainted with a sport in which the battle is not always to the strong! It is a little humiliating for the enthusiastic sportswoman to reflect that, however good she may be at her particular game, she is scarcely a match for the most ordinary male player. I speak of such games as golf, tennis, hockey, and cricket. Let her turn her attention to fencing, and she will find everything changed.

“I am prejudiced, of course,” admitted Miss Stacey; “but I opinion fencing has at least one other advantage over all other sports for ladies. The healthfulness of the games I have enumerated is not to be denied, but it is more than doubtful if any of them encourages elegance of action or grace of carriage. I suppose that not even sportswomen are indifferent to appearance. Yet so much must be sacrificed in these respects to show elegance in most sports. I know of no more delightful game than golf, for instance, but its most ardent votary would scarcely claim that it is a graceful game as ordinarily played by ladies. An ardent cyclist myself, I am forced to admit that the same objection holds good in an even greater degree in this form of exercise. We women must all be athletic nowadays – let us also be elegant.”

It is obvious from the photographs published herewith that Miss Stacey’s claim for fencing as an elegant form of exercise for ladies is by no means exaggerated.

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Speaking of the special qualities required for success as a fencer, Miss Stacey said: – “I should place quickness of perception and action first. For real mastery in the art, one needs to have a sort of intuitive perception of one’s adversary’s intention, a kind of knowledge which is communicated by the mere contact of your foil with that of your opponent. In French, which is the language of fencing, this mysterious quality is called sentiment du fer.”

“If I may venture on a criticism,” I remarked in the course of our conversation, “it seems to me that the attitude en garde, with both knees bent and the left hand raised and drooping over the shoulder, looks awkward and unnatural.”

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“All the same,” responded Miss Stacey, “if you tried it you would find it perfectly natural, and, indeed, the only position in which every part of the body is balanced. You are equally ready for attack or defence, advance or retreat. Every detail of the attitude is the result of long experience. It is a tiring position, because every muscle is in a state of readiness for action.”

On leaving my charming informant, I could but echo her wish that fencing should become as general accomplishment for girls as riding the bicycle, and express the hope that the ladies of the West of England should take advantage of the opportunities offered by Miss Stacey’s school of instruction.

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Perhaps the most clever among the younger generation of lady fencers is Miss Toupée Lowther,[viii] who may justly be termed the champion swordswoman of the kingdom.

Miss Lowther (who was taught in Brussels) cannot meet her match among ladies, and in friendly combat with masculine adversaries gives a most excellent account of her remarkable skills.

She has fenced before the Princess of Wales,[ix] whose daughter, the Duchess of Fife,[x] is a devotee of the foils. Her Royal Highness, as an expert angler, is well aware that to produce and maintain a supple wrist and a sure eye, there is no exercise to equal fencing. She and many other great ladies take up the foils purely for the sake of exercise.

One of the latest developments of fencing, as an exercise and an exhibition of petty play, is the avidity with which the ladies of the theatrical profession are adopting it. It is hard to mention one that does not take her lesson two or three times a week now, whereas a year or so ago it was only the exception, and thought most distinguished and not a little daring, for a woman to learn fencing.

Mrs. Langtry[xi] quite a long time ago added l’escrime to her accomplishments, and the beautiful Mrs. Brown Potter[xii] was taking lessons recently at the most famous London salle d’armes. Miss Janette Steer[xiii] made a mark as Hamlet, fighting most successfully in her part; and another Hamlet, Mrs. Palmer,[xiv] also used the foils, not merely as parrot talks, from imitation, but from knowing what she was about, with intelligence.

Among the younger generation of actresses who are pupils now and will soon be adept swordswomen are Mr. Henry Arthur Jones’s[xv] daughters, and another memorable fighter is Miss Pinero,[xvi] whose father, the dramatic author, is himself a most accomplished fencer.

To prove that it does not rest with masters of stagecraft only to be recommended the beautiful art, it should be remembered that Miss Treves, the daughter of the eminent surgeon,[xvii] fences, with her father’s approval. Lady Harris,[xviii] the widow of Sir Augustus Harris,[xix] is also an adept with the foils.

It is now becoming pretty generally admitted that fencing should form part of the curriculum of all girls who are training for the stage or the concert platform, and, indeed, all who desire to cultivate a perfect physique.

Mr. George Edwardes[xx] sends his young ladies of the ballet from Daly’s Theatre and the Gaiety en masse to have lessons twice a week at a West End salle d’armes, and the Guildhall School of Music has appointed a famous maître d’armes to teach its pupils who aspire to becoming celebrities in song. Deportment and development are beginning to be properly understood and cultivated at last in England. Ten years ago such a duel as the one between Mddle. Palotta and Miss Frazer, fought nightly at the Gaiety Theatre during the run of The Gaiety Girl, would have been an impossibility, and, even had it been put on, would scarcely have attracted an audience unskilled to a woman with the foils.

We have now living in our midst a royal personage whose husband, by his long residence in this country, may almost be reckoned half English. The Duchesse d’Orleans is the lady to whom I refer, and she is a distinguished fencer. Every season adds to the list of Society women who are becoming proficient, and to the Society mothers who are having their girls taught the art.

The Duchess of Roxburghe’s[xxi] daughters, the Ladies Innes-Ker,[xxii] are pupils at a salle d’armes which is the resort of many who mean to become graceful fencers, and who thoroughly enjoy learning the intricacies and subtleties of this, the most beauty-endowing of pastimes.


[i] Alfred Harmsworth was a pioneer of tabloid journalism, and founded the largest publishing empire in the world at the time, Amalgamated Press.

Mary Howarth, one of the authors of the article, was also the editor of the women’s column of the Daily Mail at the time. In 1903 she was appointed the first editor of the Mirror, originally described by Harmsworth as a “Paper for gentlewomen, by gentlewomen” with a mostly female staff. This may go some way to explaining the origins of the name. However, after a successful launch sales began to plummet. Worried for its future, Harmsworth made Hamilton Fyfe its editor and Howarth returned to the Daily Mail. Fyfe proceeded to sack the majority of the Mirror’s female staff and it was reborn as an events photography paper.

[ii] Edna Mary Stacey was also a leading dancing mistress in Bristol, as well as choreographer at the Bristol Amateur Operatic Society.

[iii] A suburb of Bristol, England.

[iv] Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who was Prime Minister three times.

[v] In 1850 Amelia Jenks Bloomer, one of the most influential American advocates of women’s rights, promoted pantalets (which later became known as ‘bloomers’, even though they were not her design) to be worn under the skirt and allow greater freedom of movement. This liberating item of clothing revolutionised women’s sport. http://www.datehookup.com/content-the-life-and-times-of-amelia-jenks-bloomer.htm

[vi] Duelling was outlawed in the UK in the 1840s. In France, the last (illegal) duel took place in 1967. http://www.fencingonline.com/academy/articles/Duels,%20Doctors%20&%20Death.htm#DUELLING IN ENGLAND AND IRELAND

[vii] Despite opposition, women’s sports soared in popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century, cycling in particular being a very popular activity. http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/timeline.htm

[viii] Toupie Lowther, as she was also known, was a tennis player in the early twentieth century. She also practiced jujitsu, weightlifting and motoring. She was openly lesbian, and crossed the Alps on a motorbike with her girlfriend Fabienne Lafargue De-Avilla.

[ix] Alexandra of Denmark.

[x] Louise Victoria Alexander Dagmar, eldest daughter of King Edward VII. Married to her third cousin, the 6th Earl Fife, it became apparent that the couple would produce no male heirs. In view of this, Queen Victoria signed a Letters Patent to create a second Kingdom of Fife, with the special remainder in which in default of a male heir the peerages would pass to the daughters of the 1st Duke and then their male descendants.

[xi] A British actress renowned for her charm and beauty who was a subject of much public and media interest.

[xii] Cora Urquhart Brown Potter, one of the first American Society women to become a famous actress.

[xiii] An Actress-Manager-Playwright, who wrote suffrage plays, including “The Sphinx”.

[xiv] Mrs Bandman Palmer, an accomplished actress known as a ‘male impersonator’, held the record number at the time of 270 performances in the role of Hamlet. http://www.joyceimages.com/chapter/5/?page=4

[xv] English dramatist. His second daughter Ethelwyn Silvia, known as Sue, was an actress of moderate standing. She married several times and was also the lover and muse of Somerset Maugham for a time, his only true female love. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopaedia by Samuel J Rogal (P. 112)

[xvi] Sir Arthur Wing Pinero was an English actor, dramatist and stage director.

[xvii] Sir Frederick Treves, 1st Baronet, was a prominent British abdominal surgeon, best known for his friendship with Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man”. Based on their ages, the daughter mentioned is most likely his eldest, Enid.

[xviii] Florence Edgcumb.

[xix] British actor, impresario and dramatist.

[xx] English theatre manager who introduced a new age of musical theatre to Britain and beyond. The Gaiety and Daly’s theatre formed part of his empire, and the Gaiety Girls were the major attraction – a dancing chorus of musical comedies. They were elegant, very fashionable young ladies. Unlike the corseted burlesque stars of the previous era, they represented a new ideal of womanhood, some even marrying into aristocracy.

[xxi] Anne Emily Innes-Ker (née Spencer-Churchill). She was appointed Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria by Prime Minister Gladstone, and was the aunt of Prime Minister Churchill.

[xxii] Most likely Lady Margaret Frances Susan, Lady Victoria Alexandrina and Lady Isabel.