The Rugby World Cup began in London last Friday. Over the next six weeks, teams from twenty nations will compete to hoist the William Webb Ellis Cup. Or should that be the Jem Mackie Cup?
According to legend, one day in 1823, the pupils of Rugby School were playing the school’s traditional blood sport, a medieval free-for-all known as ‘foot-ball’. As the boys shoved and hacked at each other in the mud, one of them, William Webb Ellis, hit upon the ingenious notion of picking up the ball and running to the opposing team’s touchline. This was considered unsporting at the time, but eventually the other chaps caught on. A plaque at Rugby School records that Webb, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football 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, AD 1823’.
We do know that Rugby School was instrumental in the creation of the modern game. In 1845, Rugby School issued players with a ‘foot-ball’ rulebook. Other public schools followed suit. When players formed old boys’ teams and an informal league, they discovered that each school played by its own rules. So they formed the Rugby Football Union, and in 1871 issued the rules that, allowing for adjustments over the years, will be finely disregarded by the combatants for the Webb Ellis Cup.
Whether Webb Ellis recognized his role in sporting history is another question. If he was the first to pick up the oval ball, he never spoke about it. Nor did he join Rugby’s old boys’ team. He preferred cricket, at which he won a Blue for Oxford against Cambridge. After Oxford, Webb became an Anglican clergyman: the only surviving photograph of him is from an Illustrated London Post article on a sermon about the Crimean War. He died at Menton in the south of France in 1872, a few months after the formation of the Rugby Football Union, and apparently oblivious to it.
The new game soon became a national pastime. In 1875, an early rugby fan wrote to the London Standard, enquiring about the game’s origins. His letter reached the attention of Matthew Bloxam, a solicitor and amateur historian who had attended Rugby from 1813 to 1820. Bloxam is our only source for the legend of William Webb Ellis. Between 1876 and 1880, he wrote two letters and an article for The Meteor, the Old Rugbeian magazine. In his first letter, Bloxam described ‘Rugby foot-ball’ as he had played it. In his day, no one was ‘allowed to run with the ball in his grasp’. The great innovation had occurred sometime after 1828, when Thomas Arnold, the promoter of ‘muscular Christianity’, had become headmaster.
Webb Ellis left the school in 1825. Yet in his second letter, written in October 1876, Bloxam named Webb Ellis as the inventor of the game. Quoting an unnamed source, he reported that carrying the ball was permitted after ‘the second half-year of 1823’, and that Ellis had been the first to do it. In December 1880, Bloxam summarized his findings in a Meteor article. He again credited ‘a boy of the name Ellis’ as the innovator, but this time could not confirm when running with the ball became permitted.
Given that more than half a century had elapsed, that the rules were not written, and that the boys were allowed to modify them as they went along, the confusion is understandable. It was not, however, acceptable. In 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society tasked a committee with getting to the bottom of this muddy mystery. Bloxam had gone to the great changing room in the sky in 1878, but several other old boys supplied their recollections, including Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the public school novel that introduced ‘Rugby foot-ball’ and Flashman the school bully to the reading public.
The oldest correspondent, Reverend Thomas Harris (1819-1828) remembered Webb Ellis ‘perfectly’. “He was an admirable cricketer, but was generally regarded as inclined to take unfair advantages at Football. I should not take him in any way as an authority.” In Webb’s day, picking up and running with the ball was ‘distinctly forbidden’. The other correspondents had attended Rugby in the 1830s. Most of them remembered that carrying the ball was permitted, and the rest thought that it ‘probably’ had been.
The committee concluded that when Webb Ellis had attended Rugby, the school game had been a primitive precursor to Association Football (‘soccer’). Carrying the ball had been ‘gradually’ accepted in the 1830s, and formally legalized in the 1842. The committee endorsed Bloxam’s story cautiously: at some date between 1820 and 1830, a player had picked up the ball, and ‘in all probability’ he had been Webb Ellis. In 1900, the Society picked up these findings and ran with them: the plaque at Rugby School credits Webb Ellis without reservation. And in 1987, when the first Rugby World Cup was played, Webb Ellis’s name was inscribed on the silver and gold trophy.
There is an alternative story. In the late 1830s, a Rugby pupil named Jem Mackie was notorious for running with the ball. Unfortunately, Mackie was expelled following an unexplained ‘incident’. Given that the incidents in Tom Brown’s Schooldays include tying a boy to a spit and roasting him alive, we can only guess what Mackie did. Perhaps we should continue with the Webb Ellis tradition, and its ‘fine disregard’ for the origins of the game.
Dr. Dominic Green, FRHistS is the author of The Double Life of Dr. Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile. Read his feature on the New Orleans underworld in issue 27 of All About History, available to order from the Imagine Shop.