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Origins of Rugby

Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy


Many believe that rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis "with fine disregard for the rules of football (note that football was yet to split into the various codes) as played in his time at Rugby school, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game".

Although this is in fact apocryphal, since 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".

William webb ellis statue

The towns first public commemoration of the game of Rugby was unveiled by Jeremy Guscott on 26th September 1997. The bronze 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 what is now called the Webb Ellis museum.

william Webb Ellis

On bronze plaque beneath stage:



Early Ball Games

Various early ball games were played during the middle ages (5th to 16th century) and are sometimes referred to as folk football, mob football or Shrove tide football. Such games would usually be played between neighboring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would fight and struggle to move an inflated pig's bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. Authorities would later attempt to outlaw such dangerous and unproductive pastimes.

Some of these games still exist in the United Kingdom to this day:

  • Alnwick in Northumberland: the game survives and begins with the Duke of Northumberland dropping a ball from the battlements of Alnwick Castle.
  • Ashbourne in Derbyshire (known as Royal Shrove tide Football)
  • Atherstone in Warwickshire

Atherstone football game

Atherstone Shrove Football Game (Pathé News)

  • Corfe Castle in Dorset The Shrove Tuesday Football Ceremony of the Purbeck Marblers
  • Haxey in Lincolnshire (the Haxey Hood, actually played on Epiphany)
  • Hurling the Silver Ball takes place at St Columb Major in Cornwall: A "Town against Country" match takes place on Shrove Tuesday and a return match is played the following Saturday. Another version of Cornish Hurling takes place at St Ives this game used to involve men who lived at the top of town against those at the bottom end. Now days it is a much gentler version for children only. This version takes place on Feast Monday, normally February.
  • Sedgefield in County Durham
  • Workington in Cumbria has a game between teams named the Uppies and Downies
  • In Scotland the Ba game ("Ball Game") is still popular around Christmas and Hogmanay at:
    • Duns, Berwickshire
    • Scone, Perthshire
    • Kirkwall, Orkney

All branches of the Celtic race played Caid. There were two basic forms, Cross-country and field Caid. The word Caid means 'scrotum of the bull'. The ball was usually made out of animal skins with a natural bladder inside.

Webb Ellis' father was stationed in Ireland with the Dragoons and stayed with his cousins in Tipperary, where, it is said, he would have witnessed the native game of Caid (Cad), but this is pure speculation - Source: letter to Irish Times 23rd January, 1968 by Rev. Liam Ferris. Ferris later admitted that he was stating hearsay in his letter.

The Welsh say that Caid was just a derivative of their sport of Cnapan (sometimes spelt Knapan or Knappan), which is claimed to have originated (and seems to have remained largely confined to) the Western counties of Wales, especially Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. When this game was first played is a matter for speculation but the last recorded Cnapan type game in Wales is known to have occurred in Neath on Shrove Tuesday 1884, three years after the formation of the Welsh Football Union. Cnapan is similar to the Cornish game of 'hurling to goales'.

The Vikings also played a similar game to hurling called Knattleikr. In 865 a Great Army of Danish Vikings invaded England. There were fierce battles for several years. In the end the Vikings conquered all of northern, central and eastern England, and seized much of the land for their own farms. This area was called 'The Danelaw'. During the same period, Norwegian Vikings sailed to northern and western Scotland, and seized land for their farms around the coast and islands. They also settled in the Isle of Man, and parts of Wales.

The East Cornish game of hurling to goales dates back to the bronze age. West Cornwall and the West country played hurling over country.

East Anglians played Campball whose name suggests a Germanic origin, the French la Soule or la Chole (a rough-and-tumble cross-country game, very similar to the mass football being played in England and also played mainly on Shrove tide).

In fact, there had been traditions of ball sport games for many centuries before Webb Ellis' was born.

Pastimes of this kind were also known to many nations of antiquity, the existence of ball games among the tribes, such as the Maoris, Faroe Islanders, Philippine Islanders, Polynesians and Eskimos, points to their primitive nature. Although it is extremely unlikely that these had anything to do with the development of football in England.

Documented References and attempts to ban the game

The first recorded game of ball being played in London (in a large flat open space just outside the city) was during the annual festival of Shrove Tuesday in 1175. This was documented by a London born monk called William Fitzstephen (c.1174-1183) who wrote a 'history of London' in Latin where he documented:

"After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents"

The earliest confirmation that such ball games in England involved kicking comes from a verse about St Hugh, the Anglo-French bishop of Lincoln. This was probably written in the twelfth century, although the specific date cannot be known: "Four and twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball.. he kicked the ball with his right foot".

In about 1200 "ball" is mentioned as one of the games played by King Arthur's knights in "Brut", written by Layamon, an English poet from Worcestershire. This is the earliest reference to the English language "ball". Layamon states: "some drive balls (balles) far over the fields".

Records from 1280 report on a game at Ulgham, near Ashington in Northumberland, in which a player was killed as a result of running against an opposing player's dagger. This account is noteworthy because it the earliest reference to an English ball game that definitely involved kicking; this suggests that kicking was involved in even earlier ball games in England.

The earliest reference to ball games being played by university students comes in 1303 when "Thomas of Salisbury, a student of Oxford University, found his brother Adam dead, and it was alleged that he was killed by Irish students, whilst playing the ball in the High Street towards Eastgate".

Between 1314 and 1667, football was officially banned in England alone by more than 30 royal and local laws.

The earliest reference to a game called football occurred in 1314 when Nicholas de Farndone, Lord Mayor of London issued a decree on behalf of King Edward II banning football. It was written in the French used by the English upper classes at the time. A translation reads: "[f]orasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls [rageries de grosses pelotes de pee] in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future."

Another early account of kicking ball games from England comes in a 1321 dispensation, granted by Pope John XXII to William de Spalding of Shouldham:

"To William de Spalding, canon of Scoldham of the order of Sempringham. During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days. Dispensation is granted, as no blame is attached to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend, and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the pope."

Banning of ball games began in France in 1331 by Philippe V, presumably the ball game known as La soule.

King Edward III of England also issued such a declaration, in 1363: "moreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games". It is noteworthy that at this time football was already being differentiated in England from handball, which suggests the evolution of basic rules. 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.

The first clear reference to the English word, 'football' was not recorded until 1409, when King Henry IV of England issued an edict forbidding the levying of money for "foteball.

Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth also 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 ball". This was also the earliest reference to football or kicking ball games in Scotland. James II followed suit in 1457.

Act of Scottish Parliament - James I 1424, Credit national library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Act of Scottish Parliament - James II 1457, Credit national library of Scotland, Edinburgh

James III decreed against it at his sixth parliament in Edinburgh 1471 and James IV did the same in 1491

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.

In about 1430 Thomas Lydgate refers to the form of football, Camp Ball: "Bolseryd out of length and bread, lyck a large campynge balle".

The first reference to Irish football was the Statute of Galway in 1537.

romans playing harpustum
Romans playing Harpastum

Some have tried to trace the origins of these games to the 6th century Roman sport of Harpastum, also known as Harpustum (also later on in Florence, Italy known as giuoco del calcio fiorentino ("Florentine kick game") or simply calcio ("kick"). The official rules of calcio were published for the first time in 1580 by a certain Giovanni Bardi. Just like Roman harpastum, it was played in teams of 27, using both feet and hands. Goals could be scored by throwing the ball over a designated spot on the perimeter of the field. The playing field is a giant sand pit with a goal running the width of each end. There is a main referee, six linesmen and a field master. Each game is played out for 50 minutes with the winner being the team with the most points or 'cacce'.

Athenaeus wrote : "Harpastum, which used to be called Phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, "Damn it, what a pain in the neck I've got." He describes the game thus: "He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum."

Galen, in On Exercise with the Small Ball, describes harpastum as: "better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing." He also considered it " profitable training in strategy", and said that it could be "played with varying degrees of strenuousness."

So Harpastum was apparently a Romanized version of a Greek game called Phaininda whose name was derived from the Greek word “to pretend,” as players elaborately tried to prevent the other team from intercepting a ball by deceiving them through a series of fake passes. The Romans conquered Greece in 146 BCE so it is fair to estimate that the Romans discovered the Greek versions of the games shortly after that date. Mind you, 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 its 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 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 opposition's 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 at Rugby school was introduced sometime between 1820 and 1830.

If William Webb Ellis 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.

Rugby 1845

Rugby 1845
(image from ILN provided by The Lordprice Collection)

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)
rugby school
Picture taken from similar angle (Oct. 2006)

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.

Rugby Rules

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.

Here is a short 1950's Pathe News film on the Eton field game and the Eton wall game:


Eton Field Game (Pathé News)



Eton Wall Game (Pathé News)

If you need further evidence of the diverse nature of ball games and the inventiveness of boys in pursuit of physical exercise here's a great example from Lancing college, West Sussex.


Ladywell game (Pathé News)

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. The introduction of railroads during this period assisted in the games ability to spread across the British isles.

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.

The Laws

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.

See the rugby timeline for the rest of the story.

See the great schism for the story of how Rugby split to become Union and League.

See the Laws for the history of how the laws developed.








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