Bill Nelson: My family’s Jujutsu pioneer. By Simon Keegan

My great uncle Bill Nelson was a blackbelt in the 1940s, making him a very early pioneer for this country’s martial arts. Here is a brief account of his life and the background of the martial arts he studied.

Bill Nelson was born on Christmas Day, 1924 to William and Violet Nelson. He had an older brother called Jim (my grandad) and other siblings Alec and Phoebe.

His father William Henry was a First World War veteran who was awarded medals of valour for fighting in the fields of France. After the war, William Henry gained a reputation as a hard man. He was nicknamed “the mighty Elmo” after a film star of the day and it has been said that William Henry was the hardest man on the Liverpool docks. William Henry taught his eldest sons boxing and indeed held classes for all the kids in the neighbourhood.

Simon's great grandfather William Henry, who fought in WWI

Bill’s father William Henry, who fought in WWI

William Henry’s father was even more formidable. August Nilsson, born 1866 in Monsteras, Kalmar was a member of the Swedish Royal Navy and standing around 6’3″ he was an imposing sight.

Simon's great great grandfather August Nilsson, son of Nils Johann

Bill’s grandfather August Nilsson

August was the son of Nils Johann Nilsson, in turn the son of Johannes Nilsson, who was in turn the son of the original Nils who worked for the Swedish East India Trading Company and sailed to Canton in 1778, and ended up living in Okinawa until around 1800. He worked on the ships at the same time as Karate pioneer Tode Sakugawa. It seems that the boxing these sailors studied, from their time in places like Canton and Okinawa was passed down the generations from Nils to Johannes to Nils Johann to August to William Henry to Jim and Bill.


Bill Nelson as a teenager

When the Second World War began, Jim following in his father’s footsteps and joined the army, but Bill took after his grandad August and August’s great grandfather Nils and took to the high seas. In the Merchant Navy Bill travelled the world, was hit by torpeedo, spent days in the water, was captured by Germans, escaped and was eventually courts martialled for his trouble making ways and aggressive ways.

Bill Nelson's Navy pass

Bill Nelson’s Navy pass

He was dis-honourably discharged from the Navy and only many years later was he sent his medals when he applied for them. He had after all served in a world war and saw combat in the pacific.

Medals he was awarded:

1) 1939-45 Star
The 1939–45 Star was a campaign medal of the British Commonwealth, awarded for service in the Second World War. The medal was awarded for operational service between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945.

2) War Medal 39-45
The War Medal 1939–1945 was a British decoration awarded to those who had served in the Armed Forces or Merchant Navy full-time for at least 28 days between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. In the Merchant Navy, the 28 days must have been served at sea. It is sometimes described as the “Victory Medal” for World War II, although that is not its correct name

3) Atlantic Star
The Atlantic Star was a campaign medal of the British Commonwealth, awarded for service in World War II.
The star was awarded for six months service afloat, in the Atlantic or in Home Waters, within the period 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945. Also awarded to aircrew who have taken part in operations against the enemy at sea within the qualifying areas for Naval personnel, subject to two months service in an operational unit. The 1939-1945 Star must have been earned before commencing qualifying service for the Atlantic Star.
Merchant seaman also qualified for the medal. They were required to have served in the Atlantic home waters, North Russia Convoys or South Atlantic waters.

After the war he went in pursuit of understanding hand to hand combat and martial arts and found someone he respected and someone who could finally discipline him.

That somebody was Professor Gerald Skyner, a Jujutsu instructor under Mikonosuke Kawaishi since 1928.

Crest of Skyner's

Crest of Skyner’s

A former student of Prof Skyner, Ronnie Wright (an instructor at Skyner’s Dojo in the 1960s along with Ray Davies) was quoted by the Liverpool Echo in December 2003 as saying: “A man stopped Skyner outside the club one night and asked how long it would take him to get a black belt.

Skyner told him: `Half an hour! Catch the bus at the stop over the road and go to Jack Sharps (sports shop) -they sell them there’.

“Basically he was telling him he might never get one -there is no quick or easy way.”

After opening in Mount Pleasant in the 1920s, the club moved to Catherine Street.

Skyner's Jujutsu: Established in 1928

Skyner’s Jujutsu: Established in 1928

Martial arts have always been in my family. Here is my great uncle Bill's Jujutsu master Mikonosuke Kawaishi pictured in Liverpool in 1928

Bill’s Jujutsu master Mikonosuke Kawaishi pictured in Liverpool in 1928

Bill's Jujutsu instructor Professor Skyner

Bill’s Jujutsu instructor Professor Skyner

Statue of Fang Qi Niang the lady of White Crane left to me by my great uncle, a blackbelt in the 1940s

Statue of Fang Qi Niang the lady of White Crane left to me by my great uncle, a blackbelt in the 1940s

Sakugawa Ryu Katana forged in the Far east but made of Swedish steel. Pictured with the book of Kawaishi, Bill Nelson's Jujutsu master

Sakugawa Ryu Katana forged in the Far east but made of Swedish steel. Pictured with the book of Kawaishi, Bill Nelson’s Jujutsu master

Mikonosuke Kawaishi in Liverpool

In the mid-1920’s Kawaishi left Japan and toured the United States, teaching particularly in New York and San Diego. In 1928, he arrived in the United Kingdom and established a Jujutsu club in Liverpool, where he taught Aikijujutsu. At this time, Kawaishi supplemented his meager income from teaching by wrestling professionally under the name “Matsuda”, taking on wrestlers and boxers in the ring and on stage in music halls.

In 1931, he moved to London, founding the Anglo-Japanese Judo Club and teaching Judo at Oxford University. Around this time Kawaishi was awarded his third dan by Jigoro Kano.

Kawaishi’s senior student in Liverpool was Professor Gerald Skyner, an RAF and police instructor who taught many students at his Dojo in Liverpool.

In 1936, then a fourth dan, Kawaishi moved to Paris where he taught Jujutsu and judo. During World War 2, Kawaishi returned to Japan and was imprisoned in Manchuria for a time, but he returned to Paris after the war to continue teaching.

Jujutsu in England

Jujutsu was first demonstrated in London in 1892 by a Mr Shidachi of the Yoshin Ryu, and in 1897 Manchester newspaperman Ernest John Harrison began studying Tenjin Shinyo Ryu Jujutsu and Kodokan Judo in Japan. The following year 1898 Edward William Barton Wright who had studied Fudo Shinden Ryu Jujutsu in Japan began to teach his Jujutsu method in London (which he called Bartitsu).

In 1900 Barton-Wright brought Yukio Tani to England, a small man of a wiry frame, Tani was nonethless an awesome Jujutsu man. He had studied with the Fusen Ryu school. In 1904 he was joined by Taro Miyake and that year they opened a Jujutsu school. Among the students were William Bankier, William Garrud and Jack Britten.

In 1906 Gunji Koizumi of the Tenjin Shinyo Ryu arrived in Liverpool and began teaching briefly at the Kara Ashikaga school. Jujutsu interest waned during World War I (1914-1918) and then in 1921 Jack Britten moved up to Liverpool and opened a Jujutsu school.

In 1928 Mikonosuke Kawaishi visited Liverpool and taught Aiki Jujutsu, among his students were Gerald Skyner who succeeded him.

In the 1920s-1930s my grandad Jim and great uncle Bill were taught ‘boxing’ by their father William Henry.

Other early Jujutsu and Judo instructors in these pioneer times were William Green and Harry H Hunter.

Again, interest in Jujutsu waned in 1939-1945, and after the war in 1945, Bill Nelson began training in Kawaishi Ryu with Gerald Skyner and achieved his black belt. He later left that school and joined a Tenjin Shinyo Ryu based school (or Kodokan Judo based) from the Gunji Koizumi lineage. Another student of Skyner at that time was the father of Karate legend Terry O’Neill.

Billy was renowned as the fighter of the family. Despite standing little over five feet if ever there was any trouble, Billy would sort it out. Despite his hard reputation he was an extremely kind and intelligent man who I liked very much. Bill’s wife Lilly died when she was very young and he never remarried. He travelled a lot and was a member of a hiking club and he would go to Normandy and see the war graves.

Bill and Simon, both blackbelts and descendants of Nils of Okinawa

Bill and Simon

Before Bill died in 2008, he gave me all his medals and oriental heirlooms. That year was 80 years since Kawaishi started teaching in Liverpool and I held a special course to celebrate this, which was also the 8th anniversary of Bushinkai. It was held on 08/08/08 and hosted by the Dai Nippon Butokukai, which Kawaishi had been a member of.

Bill Nelson’s Jujutsu lineage:

  • Saigo Tanomo
  • Takeda Sokaku
  • Yoshida Kotaro
  • Mikonosuke Kawaishi
  • Gerald Skyner
  • Bill Nelson

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