Many believe that rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis "with fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game". Although it is worth pointing out that this is apocryphal as 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".
Webb Ellis' father was stationed in Ireland with the Dragoons, where, it is said, he would have witnessed the native game of Caid (Cad), could he have passed this on to his son? All branches of the Celtic race played Caid. There were two basic forms, Cross-country cad and field cad. The word 'Caid' means scrotum of the bull.
The Welsh say that Caid was just a derivative of their sport of Criapan. The Cornish called it "hurling to goales" which dates back to the bronze age, the West country called it "hurling over country", East Anglians "Campball", the French "La Soule" or "Chole" (a rough-and-tumble cross-country game). In fact, there had been traditions of ball-in-hand sports games for centuries before Webb Ellis' was born.
Pastimes of this kind were known to many nations of antiquity, and their existence among tribes, such as the Maoris, Faroe Islanders, Philippine Islanders, Polynesians and Eskimos, points to their primitive nature.
Medieval chroniclers documented games of football between rival villages who would do anything in their power to kick, carry and blast a ball past their opponents. Authorities would later attempt to outlaw such dangerous and unproductive pastimes.
The first recorded game of ball being played in London was 1175. This was documented by a London born monk called William Fitzstephen who wrote a 'history of London' in Latin where he documented youths "playing with the ball in wide open spaces". He went on to mention that a large game consisting of all the cities youth took place on Shrove Tuesday (Carnilevaria) in a large flat open space just outside the city.
Edward II passed a statute in 1314, (in consequence of the great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls - rageries de grosses pelotes), forbidding the Londoners to participate.
Edward the III ordering his sheriffs to suppress the game. A clear reference is made ad pilam. . . pedinam in the Rotuli Clausarum, of Edward III (1365), as one of the pastimes to be prohibited on account of the decadence of archery. Richard II did the same thing in 1388.
Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth enacted laws against football, which, both then and under the Stuarts and the Georges, seems to have been violent to the point of brutality, a fact often referred to by prominent writers.
James I, immediately after his release from prison in England in 1424, held a council meeting and issued an act where he debarred "fute bali".
Charles II again made the game unlawful. In fact during the period 1314 to 1527 no less than nine European monarchs make it a specific offence to play "foote balle", instead directing their subjects to practice archery instead or face fines or even imprisonment. Despite it all, youths continued to play the game.
The game is also said to have originated in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) from the Viking game of Knappan which became very popular during Tudor times in Pembrokeshire.
Some have tried to trace the origins of these games to the 6th century Roman sport of Harpastum a word derived from the Greek word meaning seize (also later on in Florence, Italy called "Calcio"), but then others have argued that the Romans learnt this games from the Far East, from China or even Japan, and so it goes on.
I guess we can be certain that ever since man learned to walk on two legs he was tempted to kick, throw and catch objects for his own enjoyment.
...anyway back to 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 towns first public commemoration of the game of Rugby was unveiled by Jeremy Guscott on 26th September 1997.
The 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 Gilbert's museum.
On bronze plaque: 'THE LOCAL BOY WHO INSPIRED / THE GAME OF RUGBY FOOTBALL / ON THE CLOSE AT RUGBY SCHOOL IN / 1823. / SCULPTOR: GRAHAM IBBSEON / 1997'
Statue Outside Rugby School
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 was introduced some time between 1820 and 1830.
If William Webb Ellis's 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.
Rugby School 1859, note the number of players (Credit: Rugby School)
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.
In 1863 a meeting was held in Cambridge where a ban was placed on "Hacking", "Tripping" and Blackheath's preference, "running with the ball in the hands towards the opposite goal after a fair catch".
A separate meeting was also held in the Freemasons' Tavern, Great Queen Street, London with eleven schools and clubs supporting the kicking and handling codes present. They drew up common rules by which they could play each other, however, after they had reached a compromise a number of the attendees recanted and ended up adopting the Cambridge rules (which precluded running with the ball). Blackheath subsequently withdrew from the football association as it was then called. Henceforth there was a split between Association football (soccer) and Rugby Football (rugby).
Even those who supported the Rugby code were not in full agreement regarding the rules. Blackheath for example did not agree with "Hacking". A letter which appeared in the press in 1866, revealed that Richmond also were wanting to remove this feature of the game. In the end both clubs refused to play any team which supported "hacking". The result was that "hacking" disappeared from club games even though it remained at Rugby School for a few seasons more. The Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 and immediately made "hacking" and "tripping" illegal.
The formation of the RFU
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.