Many believe that rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis first took the ball in his arms and ran with it…

History of Rugby Football
  Many believe the famous origin story that rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis “with fine disregard for the rules of football (note that football was yet to split into the various codes) as played in his time at Rugby school, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game”.

Although this is in fact apocryphal, since there is little in the way of evidence to substantiate this view, it is however the popular view. So much so in fact that the international committee named the Rugby world cup the “William Webb Ellis Trophy”.

William Webb Ellis - bronze statue of a boy running with a Rugby ballThe towns first public commemoration of the game of Rugby was unveiled by Jeremy Guscott on 26th September 1997. The bronze statue, by Graham Ibbeson and modeled after his own son, cost £40,000 which was raised by a public appeal. The bronze statue of a boy running with a Rugby ball, cast using the lost wax technique, now stands at the junction of Lawrence Sheriff Street and Dunchurch Road, beside the school and opposite what is now called the Webb Ellis museum.

On bronze plaque beneath statue:


Various early ball games were played during the middle ages (5th to 16th century) and are sometimes referred to as folk football, mob football or Shrovetide football. Such games would usually be played between neighbouring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would fight and struggle to move an inflated pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. Authorities would later attempt to outlaw such dangerous and unproductive pastimes.

Some of these games still exist in the United Kingdom to this day.

…anyway back to the History of Rugby.

The invention of Rugby was therefore not the act of playing early forms of the game or the acts of a certain Webb-Ellis (true or not), but rather the events which led up to it’s codification. Like so many sports which originated from Victorian England it was competition, the sense of fair play and the subsequent need for rules and laws which allowed the game to develop on a global basis and spawn internationally.

The game of football as played at Rugby School (Rugby, England) between 1750 and 1823 permitted handling of the ball, but no-one was allowed to run with it in their hands towards the oppositions goal. There was no fixed limit to the number of players per side and sometimes there were hundreds taking part in a kind of enormous rolling maul.

The innovation of running with the ball at Rugby school was introduced some time between 1820 and 1830.

If William Webb Ellis was responsible for this innovation as stated in Mr Bloxam’s account, it was probably met by vigorous retribution but by 1838-9 Jem Mackie, with his powerful running, made it an acceptable part of the game although it was not legalized until 1841-2 initially by Bigside Levee and finally by the first written rules of August 28th, 1845.

Mr Bloxam was a student at Rugby School at the same time as Webb-Ellis but left some years before him. His account of what someone else witnessed (probably his brother) is the only evidence on which the story is based.

Whilst football for the common man was being suppressed, notably by the 1835 highways act which forbade the playing of football on highways and public land (which is where most games took place), it did find a home in the schools around the country.

Different versions of the carrying game were played in schools such as Rugby, Cheltenham, Shrewsbury and Marlborough and different versions of the kicking game were played at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse and Westminster.

Rugby school for example had developed Rugby football from football and played this game according to Rugby rules. The question as to why the game of Rugby school became so popular in preference to the games of other schools, such as Eton, Winchester or Harrow was probably largely due to the reputation and success of Rugby school under Dr. Arnold, and this also led most probably to its adoption by other schools; for in 1860 many schools besides Rugby played football according to Rugby rules.

During the middle of the 19th century, Rugby Football, up till that time a regular game only among school boys, took its place as a regular sport among men.

The former students of Rugby school (and other Rugby playing schools such as Marlborough School) started to spread their version of football (Rugby rules) far and wide. The first notable event was a former pupil, Arthur Pell who founded a club at Cambridge University in 1839. The Old Rugbeians challenged the Old Etonians to a game of football and controversy at the Rugbeians’ use of hands led to representatives of the major public schools (Rugby, Eton college, Harrow, Marlborough, Westminster and Shrewsbury) meeting to draw up the ‘Cambridge Rules’ in 1848.

To begin with, men who had played the game as schoolboys formed clubs to enable them to continue playing their favorite school game, and others were induced to join them; while in other cases, clubs were formed by men who had not had the experience of playing the game at school, but who had the energy and the will to follow the example of those who had had this experience. The introduction of railroads during this period assisted in the games ability to spread across the British isles.

See the rugby timeline for the rest of the story.

See the great schism for the story of how Rugby split to become Union and League.

See the Laws for the history of how the laws of Rugby  developed.

The Rugby Football Union was founded in the Pall Mall Restaurant in Regent Street, Charing cross, London to standardize the rules and removed some of the more violent aspects of the Rugby School game.

The meeting was initiated by Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Club, who submitted a letter to the newspapers which read: “Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play”. The 21 clubs that attended the first meeting chaired by the club captain of the Richmond Club, one E. C. Holmes, included Harlequins, Blackheath, Guy’s Hospital, Civil Service, Wellington College, King’s College and St. Paul’s School which are still playing today. Other clubs now defunct, or playing under other names, were the picturesquely named Gipsies, Flamingoes, Mohicans, Wimbledon Hornets, Marlborough nomads, West Kent , Law, Lausanne, Addison, Belize park, Ravenscourt park, Chapham rovers and a Greenwich club called Queen’s House. Many famous provincial clubs, founded before 1871, were not founder members of the Rugby Football Union, though, of course, they became members later; among these were Bath, Bradford, Liverpool and Brighton.

One famous name that was missing, though, was the London club Wasps. Somehow they managed to send their representative to the wrong venue at the wrong time on the wrong day but another version of the story was that he went to a pub of the same name and after consuming a number of drinks was too drunk to make it to the correct address after he realized his mistake.

Along with the founding of the Rugby Football Union a committee was formed, and three ex-Rugby School pupils, all lawyers, were invited to formulate a set of rules, being lawyers they formulated ‘laws’ not ‘rules’. This task was completed and approved by June 1871. The laws have changed a great deal since then and spawned other games, notably American Football and Australian Rules Football. By 1880, Scotland, Ireland and Wales had followed suit and established their own Rugby unions.  Read More>

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