Miss May Whitley, Self-Defense Expert of 1930s London

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As evidenced by the video above, one should never presume that a poised, well-dressed young woman from 1930s London is incapable of breaking a neck.

The lady cheerfully threatening to dislocate the elbow of her assailant is Miss May Whitley, and for a period of time in the 1930s, she entertained Londoners with a stage performance demonstrating the intricacies of self-defense. Whitley’s sparring partner—whose dialogue consists primarily of moaning in agony—is Charles Cawkell, a member of Britain’s first international Judo team.

By 1934, however, Whitley and Cawkell's sparring was taking place in a courtroom. For reasons lost to time, Whitley had divested herself of Cawkell and was now performing with another Judoka, James Harrison; an indignant Cawkell sought an injunction against their show. He didn’t succeed, as newspaper accounts of the era feature Whitley promoting her performance along with several other acts, including trapeze artist Blondie Hartley and magician Amac Terin.

The show, ads promised, would display “how easy it is to handle bag snatchers and refractory husbands.”

According to a March 17, 1935 piece in The Straits Times, Whitley’s act caught the attention of Ahmed Abdullah, a millionaire from Turkey. “Ju-Jitsu Girl to Wed Rich Turk,” the headline blared. The article explained that Abdullah’s father was a wealthy tobacco merchant, making Whitley the eventual heiress to a fortune. Though Abdullah’s family was initially against the union, Whitley was quoted as saying she was ready to convert to Islam: “I am to be accepted into Muhammedanism.”

After that pronouncement, media coverage of Whitley appears to have ceased. According to martial arts historian Joe Svinth, “May Whitley” was possibly an abandoned stage name, and any further newspaper mentions of her adventures likely died along with it. Then again, so did notions about the so-called weaker sex.