It is 200 years since William Webb Ellis is said to have run carrying a football on the playing fields at Rugby School. This letter from our collection, written by schoolboy Colin Campbell Macauley in September 1811, contains one of the earliest references to Rugby football.
From The Vaults
The letter is addressed to the 'Dear Mamma' of brothers John Heyrick and Colin Campbell Macaulay, who enrolled at Rugby in 1809 and 1810, respectively. Colin warns his mother that he is unlikely to be commended for outstanding work as his new tutor is not liberal in his praise of the boys' academic efforts.
'You must not expect to hear that I am sent up for good often now because Mr Moor seldom sends up for good […] he gives so many marks for exercises if they are done well and it takes about twenty-five marks to be sent up for good […] I have only got seven marks as yet…'
The reference to football appears later in the letter, when he informs his mother that some boys have been getting into trouble for throwing acorns:
'The boys have now got very much into the habit of throwing acorns about, and they divide into parties like sides at cricket or foot ball, for the purpose of throwing acorns one at another; I can assure you that they frequently hurt very much…'
It seems that acorn throwing was just as competitive as the cricket matches the boys would have played in the summer months, and the football matches they played in the winter. The acorn throwing resulted in damage to property - Colin says that many people living in the area have had their windows broken as a result, so please do not try this at home!
'Mrs Golding, a widow woman whose husband was a watch maker … has had a pane of glass worth three shillings and sixpence brake by an acorn … the Doctor spoke publickly in school about that window of Mrs Golding's and set the Praepostors to find it out, but they have not found it out and I think they never will…'
Rugby School was one of many public schools where the children played a version of football - the rules differed from one school to another. Rugby football evolved from the game played by generations of Rugby schoolboys between the late-eighteenth and late-nineteenth century. The Macauley brothers left Rugby School before 1823, when William Webb Ellis is said to have first run with the ball: the form of football they played would not yet have included this distinctive characteristic.
Colin Campbell Macaulay went on to become a partner in a firm of solicitors at Leicester. His brother John studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, became an Anglican clergyman and was Headmaster of Repton School from 1830 to 1840.
Visit the World Rugby Museum
Find out more about William Webb Ellis, Rugby School and the origins of Rugby Football in our new special exhibition, Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story, launching 7 September 2023.
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