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The Harry Baldock Story

Tank Todd

  Mr. Harry Baldock was Chief Instructor of the Baldock Institute for over fifty years and during this period trained thousands of students in physical fitness and body building. But it is not his achievements in the physical culture fields that I intend to cover in this article but more his expertise in the combat sports, unarmed combat and Jiu Jitsu practices.

Harry was born in Lancashire and at the age of five, with his parents, immigrated to New Zealand. The Baldocks settled in Christchurch and it was there that Harry’s gym career began with body building, wrestling and unarmed combat styled self defense of that era.

Harry’s mentor was the former New Zealand and Australian heavy weight wrestling champion Jack Clarke.

In 1929 Harry moved to Dunedin and instructed wrestling and physical culture at Jack Hannah’s gymnasium and by 1930 Harry was operating his own full time facility, The Baldock Institute, here in Dunedin. On Harry’s retirement in 1986 I took over as Chief Instructor of the facility and today still promote the Baldock systems of training some seventy years after the late Harry Baldock began training.

Before I begin with my account of the history and teachings of the late Harry Baldock in the close combat field I will outline Harry’s love of and great achievements in the wrestling arena. In the 1930’s Harry’s Dunedin gym was the training facility of many a visiting wrestling champion. Harry was well known in the US and many international giants in the wrestling fraternity traveled to New Zealand for the challenge of Harry and his top class mat exponents.

Harry trained many provincial and national wrestling champions including his son Peter Baldock. When wrestling was at its peak of popularity in the 1930’s the visiting town hall wrestlers would do their pre-match training at the Baldock Institute and found some of their stiffest opposition in the form of Harry and his wrestlers.

Harry was an amateur wrestling referee and the first man in Otago to become a weight lifting judge. In a future article with the assistance of Harry’s family and former students we could perhaps feature a story on Harry’s wrestling and weight lifting background.

In my opinion experience and commitment is everything and Harry had both. Over the last five years of Harry’s time at the gym I was there with him every day learning all I could of his experiences and expertise. Harry taught me how to massage, how to weight train, much about combat fitness, not physical, which he said were far from one in the same. Harry carefully tutored me in military unarmed combat, self-defense and Jiu Jitsu with one principle always in mind: you never move on to learn a new skill until you have thoroughly mastered the previous.

We spent many hours at the gym partaking in the daily cleaning and general routines of the gym business and it was during these non-training times I spent countless hours talking with Harry in regards to training methods, unarmed combat, Jiu Jitsu, the martial arts, boxing and his opinion on all kinds of related subjects.

I’m only pleased to say that Harry saw fit to offer me his life’s work and I in return will always keep the Baldock name and practices alive and continuing to develop.

The remainder of this article will read like a conversation between Harry and I as this was the way I gathered the material by Harry and me talking. Believe me it was not always easy to get Harry to go into detail on the subject of my choice. I had to pick the right time and have the right reason for wanting to know and then just be careful not to put my foot in it with my lead in questions. The way to go was by being subtle, sincere but practical and genuine. See, Harry was the boss of his domain and if you wanted to be in his domain that meant respect for Harry, for the facility, for the equipment and hard work for you but the rewards were immense, self improvement and the occasional comment from Harry that your technique was improving, not good, but improving.

You had your responsibilities when you trained at the Baldock Institute and that was the way it was, no fooling around. Pay your dues or there was no place for you.

I once asked Harry how the public perceived him in his early days as a gym pioneer, his reply was that many thought gym practices were a danger to your health and would cause heart attacks.

Harry’s views on Jiu Jitsu were that it was the unarmed combat of the enemy of the time and it was studied in great detail by military unarmed combat instructors whose unarmed combat skills were designed to combat enemy Jiu Jitsu.

Harry was a great fan of the late Captain William Fairbairn, the commando Close Quarter Battle pioneer that designed the Close Combat skills to combat all enemies of the time. Harry told me that Fairbairn was the first European to achieve a black belt in Jiu Jitsu under Kano and that he headed the famous Shanghai Police as well as training the military elite and Police in both the UK and US.

Harry had several of Fairbairn’s texts on CQB and handed them on to me. Harry, during his time as an army unarmed combat instructor rubbed shoulders with many of the Fairbairn unarmed combat exponents and thoroughly researched theirs and Fairbairn’s teachings, incorporating them in his program. Harry kept a close eye on close combat and combat sports in general and had much literature and magazines on a host of related subjects.

Harry claimed Japanese Jiu Jitsu was too complex for battle field combat, it was physical size orientated and that would generally dictate the winner plus many of its practices were not practical or sensible for the street or battle field. Harry’s explanation for these statements was that many of the falling and going to the ground skills would most likely injure you on a rough or hard terrain or the pavement. He added skills that require you to turn your back on your opponent were downright stupid in real combat.

Grappling an opponent that was much larger than yourself was not a good practice in Harry’s opinion and the best way to combat such a threat was to not allow him to get close by out striking or kicking him, or you could end up in trouble. Usually he added while someone was endeavoring to grapple someone you could poke his eyes, kick out his knee joints or knee him in the groin or a soldier can employ one of the many primary, secondary or improvised weapons at his disposal.

Harry stated Japanese Jiu Jitsu was good for civilians but when it came to the military unarmed combat was the only answer, easy to learn designed for the military with the military in mind. Harry said there was a place for everything but facts are facts when it comes to true reporting and the purpose or value of self-defense or unarmed combat.

Harry always proclaimed that while combat sports and martial arts could be deemed competitive unarmed combat could never as he explained if you took any of the techniques that clearly were too dangerous for competition out then it was not true unarmed combat and the result would be far from combat reality.

Harry was not one for watering down or changing things just to make them look good or suit the purpose of the day. I asked Harry how he viewed the local martial arts clubs of the time and he remarked there were none in his day and they only arrived on in the last thirty years after the horrors of the war had been to a degree laid to rest and when there was a feeling of pity towards the defeated enemy and a shroud of mystery around the eastern arts. Harry said after the war there was little need for unarmed combat and it was considered too extreme for general civilian practice so the martial arts began.

Harry was proficient in Judo, Jiu Jitsu, wrestling, unarmed combat and boxing but said he had little knowledge of Karate. Harry said he saw many clubs come, go, split and do a lot of chin wagging to who and what was the best and he considered it all harmless and better than doing nothing or being on the streets.

Harry had visitors from all around the world to experience his Jiu Jitsu including high ranked Japanese black belts that considered him to be the best. No one ever managed to take him down on the mat such was his skill and physical ability.

One situation he recalled to me was while training the army, the powers that be thought Harry could do with an assistant as his work load was so heavy but Harry did not see it that way and on the first day saw fit to take this so called expert assistant out into the middle of the sports field and tie him up in knots to the point of submission several times which caused his immediate request for transfer and Harry back on his own as he liked it.

Harry in all his time as a civilian and military instructor never once lost a challenge and converted many disbelievers into dedicated followers of his institute and systems. Harry explained he never used to bother with grades or coloured belts. You were either a white belt that came with the jacket or a black belt. Later as times changed on discussing the matter with Harry he agreed that for group training coloured belts would be a good way of separating levels in the class. Harry never went in for half grades, tabs or the like and worked on the principle you’ll move on only when you have mastered the current techniques. Harry had no time for children training in Jiu Jitsu and believed it was not a good thing. He was far more inclined towards physical training games and wrestling for the youngsters.

Harry informed me that the type of Jiu Jitsu he taught was combat orientated and that after the coloured belts and black belt status from first to fourth Dan or degree the belt colour changed to black and red to signify that it was a non-sporting or traditional rank of military origins.

Harry never went in for grades or belts other than to hold his pants up, but was aware that with changing times people were looking for recognition for their efforts and that I would have to fulfill these requirements. I completed my 5th Dan grade under Harry, February 1987 and he was still, at age 82, able to come on the mat and train with me but more important was his eye for technique execution and correction of error.

 Harry would have liked me to carry on with the wrestling and body building but I had to tell him it was not for me and that military unarmed combat was the way I intended to go.

Harry showed me the unarmed combat he taught and developed for the army and installed in me his method of battlefield technique evaluation, skills designing, development and execution and most importantly how to be an instructor.

He always stated that with military close combat there was no room for mistakes and soldiers lives could depend on the effectiveness of your techniques so you’d better get it right the first time that meant research, practice under battle conditions and listening to reports from the soldiers you have trained that have used the skills in real combat they are the ones that can help you most.

While chatting to Harry one day in 1986 I plucked up enough courage to ask him if he knew of anyone who could teach me more about military unarmed combat. Harry stated most of the leading military unarmed combat men he had heard of had long passed away but that he read an article in a magazine on an US marine hand to hand combat instructor of the second world war by the name of Charles Nelson who was a self-defense and unarmed combat expert. Harry suggested I make contact with him and together we drafted a letter of introduction and from there I was invited to travel to New York and commence training so it was Harry Baldock that set me on my way and opened the right door for me.

Finally I would like to add Harry’s son Peter Baldock’s memories of his Dad’s army days and thank him very much for his assistance with this article.

My recollections are:

Pop originally enlisted RNZAF – but on the day before his final medical he came down with the flu and couldn’t attend.

One of his clients was an officer with the army and got pop conscripted because of his gym background.

He was made Sergeant Major in charge of Physical training, etc. at Burnham Camp. He not only trained the soldiers (heading overseas) but also the PE Instructors.

Because of his obvious experience, etc. he could pick and choose where he was stationed. There was constant invitation from CO’s at different camps who knew Pop from the gym in Dunedin. He served at Burnham, Wingatui and Forbury.

Pop could have been commissioned as an Officer – but declined because it would have put him in administration, whereas he (and his CO’s) wanted (him) to always stay an active Instructor.

He didn’t talk much about his Army days – just things like:

Doing hand flips all around Forbury Park, instructing who’s companies of men and catching out the slackers by taking his podium to the other side of the field and getting the company to “about face”, he did sadly mention sometimes the very good wrestlers he trained at the camps who never came back (or not in one piece), he recounted the odd occasion when some smart aleck, generally a boxer (or fighter) could beat Pops form of Jiu Jitsu / wrestling / unarmed combat, etc. He hardly ever took up the challenge – but when occasionally forced to – the outcome was inevitable and always the same. He was always pleased to relate that the soldiers who challenged him (and were beaten) generally became his best disciples and students. This was also true in all his days at the gym.

He took very seriously the responsibility of training the soldiers for not only fighting but physical survival/fitness/health. He had much pleasure in recounting the story of one of his students who when being visited by his family, was carrying his two young daughters, one in each arm, and trapped down an embankment, but was able to save them all from possible injury by going into a break-roll that Pop had taught him the day before.

He always kept his Stripes & Crown & Lanyard.

Mum had trained as a nurse, and then trained as a physiotherapist so that she could support Pop’s gym work. She was also stationed at different hospitals during the war, especially at Convalescent Hospitals for returned wounded servicemen.

Harry and students, 1932.

The Baldock Jiu Jitsu School in the 1930's.

Harry oversees one of his many wrestling classes.

Sgt Major Baldock. Physical Fitness Pioneer & Unarmed Combat expert.

Geoff Todd receives his final grading under Harry Baldock before Harry's retirement. The rank of 5th Degree Black Belt, February 1987.

Mrs Baldock a trained nurse & physiotherapist and a driving force behind the Baldock Institute.


The Baldock Institute of Physical Culture, 1937.

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