William Webb Ellis and Rugby Football

Rugby School and the Webb Ellis statue.
Picture courtesy of Heritage & Culture Warwickshire

Until Webb Ellis’s definitive act, the game of football allowed the ball to be handled, but the player could not hold it and run towards the opposite goal. Progress forward was by kicking, hacking and what might be described as an enormous rolling maul involving up to 60 players. In 1820 the game was played a little like soccer, but players were allowed to catch the ball and then kick it out of their hands. There were no limits to the number of players on each side, and when Queen Adelaide visited the school in 1839 the School House team of 75 boys played against ‘the rest’, a team of 225!

In 1871 the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed, largely of Old Rugbeians, and the first national code was introduced. Rugby School was the only team to play in white, and the reason England play in white is that the first committee of the RFU was composed largely of Old Rugbeians.

Pigs Bladders

William Gilbert, a local boot maker, began to supply balls to the school. In 1842 he established the first rugby football workshop, now the Rugby Football Museum. The ball was originally round, rather than the oval of today, and changed shape as Rugby Football developed from a largely kicking to a handling game. The shape of the ball was originally determined by the pig’s bladder used for the inside. A rather shrivelled 130-year-old ball was recently discovered in a blocked-up chimney behind the wooden panels of Old Big School, still containing the remnants of the original rubber bladder.

More from Rugby
More from Sporting Heroes