Aladdin's Cave "William Webb-Ellis and The History of Rugby Football" The Forum

Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School William Webb Ellis (November 24, 1806 – January 24, 1872) is often credited with the invention of Rugby football.
William was born in Manchester the son of James Ellis, an officer in the Dragoon Guards and Ann Webb whom he married in Exeter in 1804. After James was killed at the Battle of Albuera in 1812.

Mrs Ellis decided to move to Rugby, Warwickshire so that William and his older brother Thomas could receive a good education at Rugby  School with no cost as a local foundationer (i.e., a pupil living within a radius of 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower).

William attended the school from 1816 to 1825 and he was noted as a good scholar and a good cricketer. After leaving Rugby he went to Oxford University where he played cricket for Brasenose College, Oxford.

He entered the Church and became chaplain of St George's, Albemarle Street, London and then rector of St Clement Danes in The Strand.

In 1855 he became rector of Laver Magdalen in Essex and a picture of him (the only known portrait) appeared in the Illustrated London Post after he gave a particularly stirring sermon on the subject of the Crimean War.
He died in the south of France in 1872; his grave at Menton was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter in 1958 and has since been renovated.

The story of how he founded the game of rugby football is apocryphal. Nevertheless his name is firmly established in the lore of rugby football. Ellis Park in Johannesburg, a major international rugby union stadium, is named after him and he has become immortalised by the 'William Webb Ellis Trophy' presented to the winners of the Rugby Union World Cup.
Even if Webb Ellis can be credited with introducing handling of the ball, this was not the action that split football into two codes (Rugby and Association). That split occurred later over the issue of hacking, meaning to tackle a player by kicking him in the shins. The founders of Association football (soccer) decided to ban the practice and were considered unmanly by the traditionalists. In the modern codes of play neither side allows hacking, although it probably occurs more often in soccer.


Even if Webb Ellis can be credited with introducing handling of the ball, this was not the action that split football into two codes (Rugby and Association). That split occurred later over the issue of hacking, meaning to tackle a player by kicking him in the shins. The founders of Association football (soccer) decided to ban the practice and were considered unmanly by the traditionalists. In the modern codes of play neither side allows hacking, although it probably occurs more often in soccer.


The Legend

A plaque at Rugby School bears the inscription:


A.D. 1823



The Rugby World Cup, named after Webb Ellis The claim that Webb Ellis invented the game did not surface until four years after his death and doubts have been raised about the story since 1895 when it was first investigated by the Old Rugbeian Society.

Among those giving evidence, Thomas Harris and his brother John, who has left Rugby in 1828 and 1832 respectively recalled that handling of the ball was strictly forbidden.

Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's School Days) was asked to comment on the game as played when he attended the school (1834-1842).

He is quoted as saying "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 sole source of the story of Webb Ellis picking up the ball originates with one Matthew Bloxam, a local antiquarian and former pupil of Rugby.

In October of 1876, he wrote to The Meteor, the Rugby School magazine, that he had learnt from an unnamed source that the change from a kicking game to a handling game had "...originated with a town boy or foundationer of the name of Ellis, William Webb Ellis".

In December of 1880, in another letter to the Meteor, Bloxam elaborates on the story:

"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."



The legendary story about the origin of Rugby football, whereby a young mannamed William Webb Ellis "took the ball in his arms (ie caught the ball) and ran" while playing football at Rugby School is almost certainly a complete fiction.

Sports historians have dismissed the story as unlikely since an official investigation by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. However, the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup bears the name of "Webb Ellis" in his honour, and a plaque at the school 'commemorates' the 'achievement'.

Playing football has a long tradition in England and football games had probably taken place at Rugby School for two hundred years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845.

Until the formation of the Football Association (FA) in October 1863 each football team would agree on a set of rules with opponents before a match. Teams that competed against each other regularly would tend to agree to play a similar style of football.

Rugby football has a claim to the world's first "football club", formed as Guy's Hospital Football Club, London in 1843, by Rugby School old boys.

A number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules with Dublin University Football Club being the world's oldest surviving football club having been formed in 1854 and currently playing rugby in the All Ireland League Division One.

Blackheath Rugby Club was founded in 1858 and is the oldest continuously-existing rugby club in England. It was a founding member of the The Football Association. When it became clear that the FA would not agree to rules which allowed 'hacking' and 'hacking over' (fundamental parts of the rugby game).

Blackheath withdrew from the FA just over a month after the initial meeting. Other rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA.

For the next few years rugby clubs continued to agree rules before the start of each game as they had always done, but on January 26, 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) formed.

Leading to the standardisation of the rules for all clubs in England that played a variety of the Rugby School laws. Soon most countries with a sizable rugby community had formed their own national unions. In 1886, the International Rugby Board (IRB) become the world governing and law-making body for rugby. The RFU recognised it as such in 1890.

The introduction of Rugby Football Union into New Zealand was by Charles John Monro, son of Sir David Monro, who was then speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives.

The younger Monro had been sent to Christ's College, East Finchley in north London, England.

That school had adopted rugby rules and Monro became an enthusiatic convert. He brought the game back to his native Nelson, and arranged the first rugby match between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club on May 14, 1870.


England v Wales 1890

In North America, rugby developed into American football and into Canadian football.

The 1890s saw a clash of cultures within the game, between working men's rugby clubs of northern England and the southern clubs of gentleman, a dispute revolving around the nature of professionalism within the game.

On August 29, 1895 22 clubs split from the RFU and met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, commonly called theNorthern Union.

NRFU rules gradually diverged from those of rugby union, although the name rugby league did not become official until the Northern Rugby League formed in 1901.

The name Rugby Football League dates from 1922.

A similar schism open up in Australia and other rugby playing nations. Initially rugby league in Australia operated under the same rules as rugby union.

But after a tour by a professional New Zealand team in 1907 of Australia and Great Britain; and an Australian Rugby League tour of Great Britain the next year; rugby league teams in the southern hemisphere adopted rugby league rules.

For clarity and convenience it became necessary to differentiate the two codes of rugby.



The code played by those teams who remained in national organisations which were members of the IRB became known as "rugby union".

The code played by those teams which played "open" rugby and allowed professionals became known as "rugby league".

Although the IRB claimed to be enforcing the amateur status of rugby union, many referred to the situation as "shamateurism".

On August 26, 1995 the IRB declared rugby union an "open" game and removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game. ".

The move from amateurism to professionalism has been one of great success and has undoubtedly increased the quality of rugby being played.

However, professionalism has meant a huge increase in the gap between the top nations and the second tier. Alongside the success stories there have been some famous rugby clubs which have not coped well with the new era.


Women’s rugby has been played in England since the late 1970s, although it did not see a really rapid expansion until the formation of the Rugby Football Union for Women in 1983. In  1983, the Union consisted of 12 teams based in England and Wales.

Now the RFUW represents over 200 clubs in England alone and has seen an impressive growth in the women’s game not only at the senior level but also amongst the under 16 age group.

The first representative side involving English players ran out as Great Britain against France in 1986. In 1987 England formed it’s own national side, which took on Wales in what has since become an annual fixture.

They won that match and maintained an unbeaten record in all international competition until they met the USA in the final of the 1991 World Cup, which they lost 19-6.

Revenge came when England defeted the USA, along with Canada and Wales, to take the Canada Cup in 1993. They then bested the USA again in the final of the 1994 World Cup, 38-23.

By 1998, however, the opposition had become much tougher overall and England were beaten in the semi-finals of the World Cup by New Zealand.