Schoolboy William Webb Ellis is purported to have invented Rugby Football when he 'picked up the ball and ran' in 1823. But who was Webb Ellis, did he really invent the game and what did he do next?
From The Vaults
Was He A Real Person?
- Yes. William Webb Ellis was born in Salford, Lancashire in 1806.
- His father, James Ellis, was a professional soldier with the 7th Dragoon Guards but was killed during the Peninsular War in 1812. His mother, Ann Ellis (née Webb), moved the family to Rugby, Warwickshire so that her sons might receive an education at Rugby School.
- William attended Rugby School from 1816 to 1825, before attending Brasenose College, Oxford from March 1825.
WAS HE PLAYING FOOTBALL?
- Yes and No. Rugby School was one of many public schools where the children played a version of football. Rules differed from one school to another, and the sports known today as Rugby Union and Rugby League are so-called because they both evolved from the version of football that was played at Rugby School.
- However, they were not playing the type of football later known as association football or soccer. This type of football wasn't codified until much later, in 1863.
DID HE INVENT RUGBY?
- No. Rugby football evolved at Rugby School between the late 18th Century and the late 19th Century. It was first codified by children at the school in 1845. The school ceded rule-making authority to the Rugby Football Union in 1890, who ceded the same authority to the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) in the same year.
- However, William Webb Ellis is the first person for whom an account exists of a player catching and running with the ball. This is regarded as one of the key characteristics that separates the game from other types of football.
Did He Pick Up the Ball and Run?
- No. In both accounts put forward by Matthew Bloxam in 1876 and 1880, William Webb Ellis catches the ball and rushes forwards with it.
- This was illegal during his time at the school and did not become legal until 1841. Picking up the ball and running with it remained illegal until an even later date.
- However, the plaque installed at Rugby School in 1895 states that he 'took the ball in his arms and ran with it', which some people have interpreted as 'picked up'.
DID HE INVENT RUNNING WITH THE BALL?
- Maybe. Although illegal, several school contemporaries recall running with the ball taking place during the 1830s. This seems to have occurred with greater acceptance towards the end of the decade and the practice was made legal in 1841.
- William Webb Ellis is the earliest of these rule-breakers referred to by name. It is therefore possible that he was the first.
WAS THE WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS THEORY A CONSPIRACY?
- No. The Old Rugbeian Society's investigation into the origins of rugby football coincided with the split that led to the development of Rugby League and some have suggested that the story was created to maintain the link between rugby football and the school. However, the William Webb Ellis story predates the split by 19 years. It was first circulated by Matthew Bloxam in 1876, who could not have foreseen the split in 1895.
- However, it is possible that the events of 1895 influenced the findings of the investigation although there is no evidence of this in the letters exchanged.
Did he consider himself the inventor of rugby?
- No. William Webb Ellis is not recorded as having made any comment whatsoever about the development of rugby football during his adult life. His published texts concern his work as an Anglican clergyman only.
HOW IS WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS REMEMBERED?
- William Webb Ellis is predominantly remembered as the schoolboy who 'picked up the ball and ran'.
- The men's Rugby World Cup trophy is named the 'Webb Ellis Cup' in his memory.
- William Webb Ellis was a popular and reasonably well-known Anglican clergyman - he might have expected that he would be remembered for his published sermons, in particular his speech on the Crimean War, which made the Illustrated London News in 1854.
WHO DID INVENT RUGBY FOOTBALL?
- Without question, rugby football was created by the successive generations of schoolchildren who played the game at Rugby School.
- Most prominent amongst these are the three children William Delafield Arnold, WW Shirley and Frederick Hutchins, who compiled the first written rules to any of the modern codes of football in 1845.
- In 1871, the Rugby Football Union produced the first adult 'Laws of Rugby Football'.
- Since 1890, rule changes have been ratified by the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby).
Our latest Special Exhibition, Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story, launched in September 2023 and will run throughout the 2023-24 season.
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