On this day in history : 24th November 1806 – The birth of Reverend William Webb Ellis, the Anglican clergyman who allegedly invented rugby football whilst studying at Rugby School….

William Webb Ellis – Public domain

Webb Ellis was born in Salford, Lancashire…. His father was killed during the Peninsular War and his mother moved with William and his older brother, Thomas, to Rugby – so the boys could attend Rugby School…. In those days living within a ten mile radius of the Rugby Clock Tower meant entitlement to a free education at the school…. Webb Ellis was to attend from 1816 to 1825…. He was a good scholar and adept at cricket; but it was his bending of the rules in a game of football in 1825 that we know him for….

The story goes that Webb Ellis was playing in a school match and caught the ball in his arms – which was perfectly within the rules back then…. But to run with the ball was not…. The idea was that the person catching the ball would retire back as far as he pleased without parting with the ball – as the opposing team were only permitted to advance as far as to where the ball had been caught…. They were unable to rush forward until the player in possession had either punted the ball or placed it for someone else to kick…. Only at the moment it touched the ground could the other side rush in….

Only Webb Ellis totally disregarded this rule; once he had the ball in his arms he rushed forward towards the opposite goal…. There is no record of what happened next – but his manoeuvre became a standing rule….

Public domain

There is also little evidence to how true a tale this really is….

Webb Ellis himself left Rugby School and went on to Brasenose College, Oxford – where he was to play cricket for Oxford University…. He graduated in 1831, entered the Church and later became Chaplain of St. George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London and then Rector of Magdalen Laver in Essex…. He never married and died in the South of France on the 24th of January 1872….

The story of his invention of rugby football only surfaced four years after his death and became part of sports folklore…. However, it is discounted by the majority of rugby historians…. Nevertheless, the winners of the Rugby World Cup receive the William Webb Ellis Trophy…. His grave is now maintained by the French Rugby Federation….

Webb Ellis grave, le Cimetiere du Vieux Chateau at Menton, Alpes Maritimes – Image credit : Berthold Werner – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

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