From The Vaults

18 September 2023
Where It All Started by Karl Quinney

Not everyone can lay claim to having the birthplace of a worldwide sport close to where they live. Born and bred in the town of Rugby, freelance travel writer Karl Quinney explores the scene where sporting history was made 200 years ago.

It cannot have escaped your attention that this year is something of a big year in the world of rugby.

Whilst the 2023 Rugby World Cup is underway in France, promising to be the biggest and best tournament yet, back across the Channel and closer to home this year marks the small matter of the 200th anniversary of the game of rugby football. Two centuries since a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School back in 1823, whilst playing a game of football on The Close caused outcry and infamy by taking the ball in his arms and running with it. In doing so creating the worldwide sport of rugby football we know today.

To walk past the School and The Close today here in the market town of Rugby in Warwickshire you would find it hard to believe such a momentous act or event - if at the time such a seemingly innocuous one - took place. But it did and is etched in sporting history.

Rugby School

The school's students attending what is still one of the UK's top 10 private schools get to see these historic surroundings at close quarters every day, perhaps not really appreciating their full significance and importance, particularly to those with an interest and passion for rugby. Those of us living, working, and generally going about their daily business in and around the town more often than not also take this hugely historic setting somewhat for granted. Ardent rugby fans near and far would yearn to be so close to what is their sporting equivalent of Mecca just once let alone every day.

So being a Rugbeian born and bred - that is someone who is a resident (and to be confused with an Old Rugbeian - an OB - who has attended the School) and also with the bicentenary and current tournament in France in mind I decided it is high time and perhaps long overdue that I find more about the in-depth history of Rugby School and this famous sporting setting as part of one of their guided tours, all of which is literally within walking distance of my front door.

The School Shop, part of the Commercial Enterprises arm of Rugby School, arranges the tours and is the meeting point for what is a fascinating two-hour visit and history lesson. With a party of 20 including tourists from the USA and Egypt ready to go, our guide for the afternoon, Julie, gets us underway with a look at the school's museum, which is a mere long pass from our starting point. The museum may be compact but what it may lack in size it more than makes up for in content with some fascinating displays and artefacts, including a Death Cart from Victorian times which from its high vantage point hanging from the rafters looks as gruesome as it sounds. And it is fitting that the cap of World Rugby's Hall of Fame Inductee #1 - William Webb Ellis and Rugby School - is prominently displayed.

From here we move out and pass 'The Island', the scene of the Great Rebellion but which according to Julie many a pupil today take for granted as simply being a mound or a hill by the shop. They are soon made aware of its significance, as are we. It's just one of many anecdotes Julie delivers throughout our time with her as she brings various events and the people involved with them and the school to life in great detail.

Our next stop is the Queen's Gates and the highlight and the opportunity many a rugby fanatic is waiting for. The chance to step onto - or as has been often the case, to kiss - the hallowed turf of The Close, the very place where the worldwide sport we all know today all began. For many it really is sacred ground and the quintessential photo opportunity with the school and the distinctive Butterfield's Chapel as a backdrop.

Our final stop of the tour is perhaps very apt seeing as we are in an educational setting. We head through the Quad and back to class as it were, in this case up a narrow staircase leading to the former study of one of the school's most famous headmasters Thomas Arnold. With that old school smell of wooden desks and a vast collection of books that have probably not seen light of day for decades all squeezed into bookcases and shelves, it all harks back to a bygone era. Yet modern day blends in seamlessly in a historic setting which is still used to today; the sight of a laptop and electronic whiteboard replacing the more traditional sight of a blackboard to bring us back to the present.

As we head back downstairs through the Quad and returning to our starting point there is one last chance to step onto the lush turf of The Close if so desired and fire any last questions at Julie. But in truth there is no need to as she has pretty much covered every aspect you could think of and all in a very entertaining manner. You can tell she loves her job, the school and showing people around.

Before heading home (or even prior to starting the tour), the School Shop is worth a look in as it stocks all official Rugby School Memorabilia including books, stationary, keyrings, shirts, ties, and replica footballs. I mentioned earlier about The Close being seen by many as sacred ground, well there is even chance to own your own part of it with limited edition glass paperweights available to buy containing the turf from where the historical rugby pitch was re-laid as a sand-based pitch last year.

It is easy to see why tours of Rugby School are popular, in demand and high on many international visitors' 'bucket list' of places to visit. Fortunately for some of us, they are at very close quarters and are a regular sight and reminder as history is very much on our doorstep.

About the Tour

Tours of Rugby School and its Museum are available most Saturdays throughout the year. It is advisable to reserve spaces and to check if any special events are running.

Tours of Rugby School are £8.50 for adults and £6.50 for concessions, with children under 10 going free of charge (correct as of September 2023).

Large group tours with one tour guide per 25 people and private tours can also be arranged.

For more information go to the Rugby School Enterprises website