From The Vaults

16 May 2024
Who was William Webb Ellis?

It is over 200 years since William Webb Ellis is said to have run with a football on the playing fields at Rugby School. But who was the real Webb Ellis? And what did he go on to do in later life?

William Webb Ellis was born in Salford, Lancashire on 24th November 1806. He was the third son of James Ellis and Ann Webb. James, a Lieutenant in a cavalry regiment of the British Army, was killed in 1812 during the Peninsular War. Following her husband's death, Ann received a £30 allowance in recognition of his military service. She then moved the family to Rugby, where her sons would be eligible to enrol at the school as local, non-feepaying students.

William Webb Ellis was a student at the school between 1816 and 1825. During this time, it seems that he became a gifted sportsman - though half a century after he left Rugby School, he retained a reputation for being inventive with the rules. One of his peers recalled that Webb Ellis had been an 'admirable cricketer, but was generally regarded as inclined to take unfair advantages at Football'.

Brasenose College

Webb Ellis was an intelligent young man and, after leaving Rugby School, he enrolled at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. His subject was Classics and he successfully secured three 'Exhibitions', or scholarships, to support his studies financially.

Webb Ellis graduated from Oxford in 1829 and was awarded his MA two years later. Although he is not known to have played rugby at the university, he did participate in the first ever Oxford v Cambridge Varsity cricket match. The two-day match took place at Lord's in June 1827. (Oxford looked strongest in the first innings, but the match was declared a draw after rain stopped play.)

[photo - Brasenose undergraduates, date unknown]

College records indicate that Webb Ellis was not only a keen sportsman, but also a wordsmith. In a student tradition going back to the early 1700s, an undergraduate would write a poem in praise of the new brew of Brasenose Ale and it was recited by the butler on Shrove Tuesday. In 1828, Webb Ellis was chosen to write the poem - the speaker dreams that he is visited by a god of beer who proclaims 'the mystic wonders of the new-brew'd ale', and pities the previous students who had to endure 'swipes and dregs and vile small beer'. There are topical references to college life and allusions to Classical poets such as Aristotle and Homer. The poem ends: 'This said, the Genius fled like smoke; I started, rubb'd my eyes, and woke'.

After Oxford, Webb Ellis became an Anglican clergyman. He took up his first post in 1831, becoming chaplain of St George's Chapel on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London.


This silver snuffbox is one of few surviving objects once owned by William Webb Ellis. First presented to churchwarden William Dobson in 1826, the snuffbox was later presented to Webb Ellis when he was inducted as church rector at St Clement Danes in February 1843. Popular in the 1700s and 1800s, snuff was a mixture of finely ground tobacco and scented oils, which could be sniffed from the back of one's hand. Boxes used to contain snuff were often highly decorated, valuable objects. The lid of this snuffbox features an anchor and the initials S C D, in reference to the dedication of the church. According to tradition, St Clement was a first-century bishop of Rome, martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea. He is a patron saint of mariners and the anchor is his attribute.

In 1855, Webb Ellis became rector at Magdalen Laver, Essex. A new school building in the village was funded through voluntary contributions made by his former congregation at Albemarle Street. His role in coordinating the fundraiser is commemorated by a plaque in the church.

In the late 1860s, Webb Ellis moved to Menton on the French Riviera - a town surging in popularity as a destination for wealthy Europeans after an eminent English doctor claimed that its sea air and warm climate could relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis. It is possible that Webb Ellis was in poor health when he moved to Menton; he died there in January 1872. Having no immediate relatives, he left most of his money to charities supporting the education and welfare of the poor.

This content is taken from Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story, an exhibition held at the World Rugby Museum, 2023-24. We are very grateful to Rugby School, Brasenose College and St Clement Danes Church for their help with exhibition research.

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