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Did William Webb Ellis Invent Rugby?



"There is little evidence to support the popular belief that William Webb Ellis created a new form of football. The point is that the rules of the game as it was played at the school at that time were made by the boys themselves and those rules were constantly revised. If you look at the notes of the Bigside Levees - notes made by the boys themselves - you will see that the rules were discussed almost every time the boys went out to play and that adjustments were frequently made."
Malcolm Lee, master in charge of Rugby football in 1978, talking to John Reason and Carwyn James in The World of Rugby .

"There are so many conflicting reports of how the game of rugby came into being that the only thing that is for certain is that Rugby School's William Webb Ellis did not spontaneously invent the game when he picked up the ball and ran with it, 'Showing a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time', the time in question being 1823. Not only did a schoolboy contemporary of Webb Ellis refute the notion a few years later, but there is also the fact that rugby was by no means the first code to involve running and handling. In fact, before Webb Ellis did his party trick in 1823, all codes of football involved running and handling."
The ultimate Encyclopedia of Rugby, edited by Richard Bat

Introducing
Matthew Holbeche Bloxam
1805-1888

 

Matthew Bloxam was, like me, an enthusiast that nobody but his friends had ever heard of - with the one exception that he is the sole source of the William Webb Ellis myth. We therefore need to know something about who he was, and how he came to know about WWE.

He was himself a pupil at Rugby School , where his father was a master. Born in 1805, he entered the school in 1813 and left in 1820. He qualified as a solicitor and lived the rest of his life in the town. He acquired a reputation as a diligent antiquarian, and wrote a very successful work on Gothic architecture.

He remained a lifelong enthusiast for all things Rugbeian, and maintained close links with the school. In his day there was no school magazine, but when the Meteor was started, he contributed articles reminiscing about the old days, his days.

Rugby football was one of the subjects that attracted his interest as it grew to be a national and even international pastime. When a correspondence arose in The Standard newspaper about the origins of the game, he wrote to the Meteor with a description of the game as played when he was at the school. A later letter, in October 1876, first mentioned the William Webb Ellis story, which he had been told by some unidentified person. The details were (slightly) expanded in an article in 1880.

By the time the Old Rugbeian Society decided to conduct an investigation in 1895, he was sadly no longer available, having died in1888.

What do we know about WWE?

James Ellis was in the Dragoon Guards, and married Miss Ann Webb in Exeter in 1804. He was killed in the battle of Albuera in 1812 leaving his widow with two small sons. Thomas was 8, and William, who was born on 24 November 1806 in Salford, Lancashire , was then aged 6. Mrs Ellis decided to move to Rugby because she hoped to get the children a good education at the school at no cost as local foundationers.

William entered the school in 1816 and was a good scholar as well as a good cricketer. In 1825 he won the Second Exhibition of his year to Oxford , where he represented his university at cricket against Cambridge . He entered Holy Orders, first as minister of St George's, Albemarle Street, London, and then as Rector of St Clement Danes in the Strand. The only known picture of him appeared in the Illustrated London Post at this time, as a consequence of a stirring sermon he gave concerning the Crimean War. In 1855 he became rector of Laver Magdalen in Essex .

He died in the South of France on 24 January 1872, probably quite unaware of his supposed connection to the RFU that had been founded the year before. His grave at Menton was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter in 1959 and has since been renovated.

None of the rather small amount of further information that has been gathered about his life sheds any light at all on the claim that his action in running with the ball changed the nature of Rugby football.

How the story arose

The first article by Bloxam in the Meteor simply gave his reminiscences on the game of rugby football as played in his day. To quote Jennifer Macrory's excellent book, Running with the ball, "Bloxam had originally responded that running with the ball had been introduced sometime after Dr Arnold became Headmaster in 1828. However he had made further enquiries and then he '... ascertained that this change originated with a Town boy or foundationer of the name of Ellis, William Webb Ellis. [...] It must, I think, have been in the second half-year of 1823 that this change from the former system, in which the football was not allowed to be taken up and run with, commenced.' " This was written in October 1876.

A more detailed version of this, again by Bloxam, appeared in the 12 December 1880 edition of the Meteor:
"In the latter half of 1823, some fifty-seven years ago, originated though without premeditation, that change in one of the rules, which more than any other has since distinguished the Rugby School game from the Association Rules.
"A boy of the name Ellis - William Webb Ellis - a town boy and a foundationer, .... whilst playing Bigside at football in that half-year, caught the ball in his arms. This being so, according to the then rules, he ought to have retired back as far as he pleased, without parting with the ball, for the combatants on the opposite side could only advance to the spot where he had caught the ball, and were unable to rush forward till he had either punted it or had placed it for some one else to kick, for it was by means of these placed kicks that most of the goals were in those days kicked, but the moment the ball touched the ground the opposite side might rush on. Ellis, for the first time, disregarded this rule, and on catching the ball, instead of retiring backwards, rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal, with what result as to the game I know not, neither do I know how this infringement of a well-known rule was followed up, or when it became, as it is now, a standing rule."

It is perhaps unsurprising that after 57 years the actual details were a little hazy. Bloxam himself writes: "After the games of the day were concluded, however vigorously they may have been contended, all further remembrance of the game was consigned to the limbo of oblivion, our tasks to be learned that night were sufficiently onerous to allow little leisure for discussion, and there was no Meteor in which the incidents of each game could be recorded."

It is sheer chance that this snippet of memory has survived, shorn of all context. It is disappointing that Bloxam did not say whose memory he was relying on - clearly it was not his own. One strong possibility is that he had been talking to his brother John, who had been an exact contemporary of WWE at school. If so, it is noteworthy that the subject had apparently never arisen before.

These articles, written 53 and 57 years after the event and based on someone else's memories, are the sole source for the WWE story.

The original game

History abounds in references to ball games, such as harpastum, camp-ball, or hurling to goals, which had features now recognised as belonging to soccer or to rugby. Most games combined handling and kicking, and in some, such as the game at Scone , kicking was actually forbidden. In general, we should not be asking when carrying the ball was first allowed, but when it was first banned.

However the boys at Rugby School in 1820 would not have been aware of any historical precedents for their game, so we should look a little closer at the version they were playing. Here we can safely start with Matthew Bloxam's own memories:

"When all had assembled in the Close, two of the best players in the school commenced choosing in, one for each side. [...] After choosing in about a score on each side, a somewhat rude division was made of the remaining fags, half of whom were sent to keep goal on the one side, the other half to the opposite goal for the same purpose. Any fag, though not chosen in, might follow up on that side to the goal of which he was attached. Some of these were ready enough to mingle in the fray; others judiciously kept half-back, watching their opportunity for a casual kick, which was not unfrequently awarded them. Few and simple were the rules of the game; touch on the sides of the ground was marked out and no one was allowed to run with the ball in his grasp towards the opposite goal. It was football and not handball, plenty of hacking but little struggling. As to costume, there were neither flannels or caps, the players simply doffed their hats, and coats, or jackets, which were heaped together on either side near the goals till the game was over."

In those early days the game was controlled entirely by the boys themselves, and it was governed by custom rather than written rules. As the Rev. Thomas Harris (of whom more later) wrote of the late 1820s: "Our Laws in those days were unwritten and traditionary, so that I can give no authority beyond custom."

There are some exercise books extant that record discussions of Bigside Levees, at which such matters were argued, but the first known written rules date from 1845. Until then the game was handed down from one generation to the next, and, like the children's games you can observe in primary schools today, each generation felt free to modify the rules as they thought fit, careless of what previous generations had decided or what future generations might think.

Most of the other descriptions of the early game come from after the time of WWE, and will be considered later. One thing at least is crystal clear: running with the ball was not permitted in 1820, whatever the historical precedents elsewhere.

"The distinctive feature"?

Much is made of the claim that running with the ball is the distinctive feature of rugby as distinct from soccer, but in 1820, when there were no inter-school games, each school developed its own version of football, all with their own distinctive features. Most such games have been dropped in favour of modern standardised sports (though the Eton Wall Game still survives, for example).

We must also remember that soccer and rugby were not distinct games at that time. Everybody considered that they were playing "football" and merely accepted that there were different versions. Even as late as 1871, (the FA was founded in 1863) when the first rugby international took place, it was seen as being the third match in a series between England and Scotland - the first two of which happened to be played under Association rules.

And, of course, even within each school the game could change from one generation of players to the next. However each school did tend to have a distinctive basic style of its own as the following synopsis (for about 1850) shows.

 

 

handling

tackling

 

 

scrum

stop

catch

carry

collar

hack

goal

Eton

-

8

-

-

-

8

between posts

Cambridge

-

8

-

-

-

-

between posts

Shrewsbury

-

8

-

-

-

8

between posts

Harrow

-

8

8

-

-

-

between posts

Charterhouse

-

8

8

-

-

-

under bar

Winchester

8

8

8

8

-

-

over line

Rugby

8

8

8

8

8

8

over bar

As can be seen, all games allowed the use of hands, if only to stop the ball. What would a contemporary of Bloxam's, transferring perhaps from another school, have regarded as distinctive about the Rugby game?

Before the game even started, he would have noticed the unique H-shaped goal posts, and would have learned that "it won't do just to kick the ball through these posts, it must go over the cross bar; any height'll do, so long as it's between the posts", as East described it to Tom Brown, eponymous hero of Thomas Hughes' well-known book.

When the game started, he would have seen scrummages and mauls, involving much pushing and heaving, kicking and hacking, the ball being somewhere in the middle.

If the ball rolled out of such a press of boys, it was kicked, and if it was caught in the air, the catcher could "make his mark". He would then retire a little way, and the opposition could come up to that mark, but not charge him until he started to kick. A player with the ball could be obstructed in some way, though what we would now call tackling was apparently not permitted.

If the mark were near enough to goal, he would attempt a place-kick or drop-kick. For the former, the player would hold the ball just above the ground for another to kick, and the opposition could only charge when the ball was actually touched to the ground - at the last possible second. For the latter, the player would let the ball drop so that it bounced on the ground before he kicked it. A goal could also be scored in what the visitor might regard as a more conventional way - by kicking it off the ground and over the bar. However this was relatively unusual.

If a player catching the ball had run forward with it instead of retiring, it might have been too subtle a breach of the rules for a new-comer, though obvious enough to an experienced Rugbeian. The rules were complex, and as the estimable East tells us "you'll be a month learning them".

For us, soccer is the kicking code, and rugby the handling code; and this was probably true in the 1890s when the famous plaque was researched and written. It is not unreasonable for us to ask how this came about, but we should be wary of assuming that any such distinction was particularly noteworthy at the time of William Webb Ellis.

The original investigation

In 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a sub-committee to investigate the origin of Rugby football. They published a report in 1897 which contained in full the most significant letters they received, but did not give details of the questions that were asked. It is however fairly clear that they specifically quoted Bloxam about William Webb Ellis: Gibbs refers to an unspecified quote from Bloxam, and Hughes writes: "The 'Webb Ellis tradition' had not survived to my day."

The following table summarises the various points made to the sub-committee, and for convenience, I have also included Ellis and Bloxam in their chronological positions. Items in brackets represent an inference rather than a direct statement.

name

arrived*

left

WWE

pick-up

carry

passing

mark

hacking

collaring

try

Matthew Holbeche Bloxam

1813

1820

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Webb Ellis

1816

1825

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Harris (& John)

1819

1828

yes

no

no

 

yes

 

no

 

Henry Homer

1828

?

 

 

probably

 

 

 

 

 

H G Allen

<1830

1833

 

 

unclear

(no)

 

 

 

 

John R Lyon (& Edward)

1830

1834

 

yes

yes

 

 

yes

yes

yes

Francis Hugh Dean

1830

1839

 

 

probably

 

yes

 

 

 

George Charles Benn

1830

1840

 

no

yes

no

 

 

 

 

H R Nevill

1830

1840

 

no

yes

 

 

 

 

 

John Coke Fowler

1830

?

 

 

yes

(no)

 

 

 

 

Peregrine Birch

1831

?

 

no

yes

 

 

 

 

 

Samuel Garratt

1831

?

 

 

yes

 

 

yes

 

 

Henry H Gibbs

1832

1836

(no)

 

yes

 

 

yes

 

 

Sir Alexander Arbuthnot

1832

<<1850

 

 

yes

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Hughes

1834

1842

 

no

see below¤

no

 

 

(yes)

yes

F Lushington

?

1839

 

 

probably

 

 

yes

 

 

J W Cunningham

?

?

 

 

yes

 

 

 

 

 

* Although correspondents are listed by their year of entering Rugby School , it would have been better to list them by their leaving year, if that were available, since in general, only the senior boys played Bigside. That implies that the information given refers to their final three years or so.

It is notable that most of the writers were somewhat vague about the rules in their time. In part this was due to their age, and the time that had elapsed since their days at Rugby ; moreover subsequent developments may have confused the issue. However the lack of formality over rules in those early days was undoubtedly a significant factor.

The oldest of all, the Reverend Thomas Harris, was surprisingly confident:-
"Picking up and running with the ball in hand was distinctly forbidden. If a player caught the ball on a rebound from the ground, or from a stroke of the hand, he was allowed to take a few steps so as to give effect to a 'Drop-kick', but no more; subject of course to interruption from adverse players."

He was also the only one to have known WWE:-
"I remember Mr William Webb Ellis perfectly. He was an admirable cricketer, but was generally regarded as inclined to take unfair advantages at Football. I should not quote him in any way as an authority." (Perhaps he was under the impression that WWE himself was claiming to have invented carrying the ball.)

In a second letter he says:-
"As to Mr W Webb Ellis and his practices, you must observe that I was several years his junior, and had not either reasons or opportunities for closely observing his manner of play."

Harris also comments that his brother, John, who left in 1832, agrees with what he has written.

At the other end of the scale, Hughes made an interesting point which illustrates that rules were not as hard and fast as we see them today:-
¤"In my first year, 1834, running with the ball to get a try by touching down within goal was not absolutely forbidden, but a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of 'justifiable homicide' if a boy had been killed in running in."

The famous plaque that the Society put up in 1900 is perhaps best regarded as an early example of spin-doctoring. The actual report is much more circumspect in the conclusions it drew:-
"It may, we think, be fairly considered to be proved from the foregoing statements, that in 1820 the form of football in vogue at Rugby was something approximating more closely to Association than to what is known as Rugby football to-day, that at some date between 1820 and 1830 the innovation was introduced of running with the ball, that this was in all probability done in the latter half of 1823 by Mr W Webb Ellis, who is credited by Mr Bloxam with the invention and whose 'unfair practices' were (according to Mr Harris) the subject of general remark at the time. To this we would add that the innovation was regarded as of doubtful legality for some time, and only gradually became accepted as part of the game, but obtained a customary status between 1830 and 1840, and was duly legalized first by Bigside Levee in 1841-42 (as stated by Judge Hughes) and finally by the rules of 1846."

The last part of this, regarding the 1830s, seems unexceptionable. It is however somewhat curious that, despite quoting Mr Harris on WWE's practices, they ignore his clear statement that in his day, running with the ball was forbidden - which means that the practice had not been accepted in 1828. William Webb Ellis left the school in 1825.

Conclusions

The historical evidence that William Webb Ellis "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 AD1823" is unsatisfactory, since the story is anonymous and incomplete.

The historical evidence that 3 years after he had left the school, the practice was "distinctly forbidden" is pretty strong, being a firm personal recollection from two individuals with first-hand experience.

The necessary connection between what William Webb Ellis might have done and the development of the carrying game, is not just missing, but apparently cannot exist. He therefore cannot be presented as the father of the modern game.

No doubt the myth will continue, if only because of the William Webb Ellis Cup. The choice of name was in the same PR tradition as the famous plaque, and History is the loser. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they would say in Menton.

 

© P Shortell, 2010
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