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William Webb Ellis - fact or fiction?

By Sean Davies

William Webb Ellis' plaque
The William Webb Ellis legend is now set in stone

"So there was this game of football in Rugby School in 1823 and William Webb Ellis - good old boy, he was - picked up the bloody thing and ran under the posts!

"What a shock he gave them, good old Ellis! And so he gave the game to Rugby School and they gave it to the world..."

So the story goes... but history is never that simple!

The earliest surviving reference to the Webb Ellis story comes from 1876 when Mathew Bloxam - a Rugby School old boy - wrote to the school magazine, relating the incident as told by an anonymous eyewitness.

The Old Rugby Society didn't begin research into the legend until 1895, by which time Bloxam was dead.

Few people were alive who could remember Webb Ellis, and those who did believed that running with the ball was outlawed during his day.

We need to search deeper for the origins of the game...

1806: Born in Salford
1816: Enrols at Rugby School
1823: Invents rugby?
1826: Enrols at Oxford University. Wins a cricket blue. After university, Ellis becomes chaplain of St George's, Albermale, London
1872: Dies in Menton, France

Ireland's call

Some claim that William Webb Ellis was actually playing "caid", the ancient Irish game similar to rugby - and Web Ellis' father had been stationed in Ireland with the Dragoons.

Then again, the Welsh could suggest that caid was just another version of their sport of criapan.

And the list of claimants doesn't end there.

In medieval England a rather brutal hybrid of street football, "a devilish pastime", was played by virile young men of their generation.

The origins of the sport may go back at least to Roman times with a game called Harpastum.

John Eales lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy in Cardiff in 1999
The William Webb Ellis trophy is rugby's most coveted prize

Harpastum was very much like rugby, and involved two teams whose sole objective was to carry a leather ball stuffed with feathers or cloth over the opponent's goal line.

Some say that this game was introduced by the Romans from the Far East.

Rugby rules

The old boys of Rugby School certainly had a part to play in the formation of the rules that would lead to the modern game of rugby.

In 1839 at Cambridge University, the Old Rugbeians challenged the Old Etonians to a game of football.

Controversy at the Rugbeians' use of hands led to representatives of the major public schools meeting to draw up the 'Cambridge Rules.'

Discord continued in the rapidly developing game of rugby, but in 1871 the Rugby Football Union was formed in Pall Mall Restaurant by a meeting of 20 clubs, headed by three Old Rugbeians.

By this time, other products of the elite English education system had been active in promoting the game in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and throughout the Empire.

Set in stone

David Kirk lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy in 1987
David Kirk was the first man to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy

It was against this background of competing rules and claims to primacy amongst the public schools that the Webb Ellis story emerged.

Whatever its historic credentials, the founding of a plaque to Ellis and his achievements at Rugby School set the story in stone.

The tale is memorable, easy to understand, and more user-friendly than trying to explain ancient chronicle references to unusual and violent sports.

In 1987 the leading rugby nations competed for the first World Cup, and it seemed only natural to call the prize the Webb Ellis Trophy.

The legend of the boy who gave the game to the world was now secure.

see also
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh

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