WEBB ELLIS RUGBY MUSEUM
by Ann Evans
Photos Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography
If you love Rugby Football, the place to visit is the Webb Ellis Rugby Museum in Rugby, Warwickshire. Within the walls of this atmospheric 19th century building you will find many thousands of items of rugby football memorabilia not just from the early days of the sport but also items given to the museum by rugby teams and clubs from all over the world.
The museum stands at 5-6 St Matthews Street, Rugby. It was officially opened in 1980 and was originally the building where William Gilbert began producing rugby footballs in 1842. Nearby is the impressive Rugby School, where the sport of Rugby Football derived it’s name, while looking on is a statue of William Webb Ellis, the schoolboy who famously first ran with the ball.
Many thousand of visitors pass through the doors of the museum. For some it’s a once in a lifetime experience. For others it becomes an annual pilgrimage to the birthplace of their favourite sport.
As you explore, you’ll find an amazing collection of photographs, balls, shirts, caps, artefacts, trophies and more which has been gathered over the last 130 years by two families – the Gilbert family and the current owners, the Webb family (no relation to William Webb Ellis).
The museum is supported and assisted by a partnership with Rugby Borough Council, whose expertise ensures that such an important historic collection of rugby football artefacts continues to benefit the community and in fact the world at large.
HOW IT STARTED
As history shows, people have been playing some kind of football since time immemorial. Often it involved huge mobs of people who would have used anything as a ball, although often it would have been an inflated pig’s bladder. There were originally no rules governing the sport either, and schools would have played different variations of the game, depending on what was available to them.
At Rugby School in the 1800s the pupils had the benefit of a grassy close which allowed them to play a game involving more running, tackling and scrimmaging. Schools with cobbled courtyards would have played a more kicking game.
Back in those days, any number of people could be in a team and it didn’t have to be even on both sides. One recorded game talks of 225 boys on one side and 75 on the other. Often the game would last for days and while there were no official rules, one unwritten rule was that if there was no outright winner after five days of playing, the game would be declared a draw.
Another unwritten rule at Rugby School was that the player catching the ball should move backwards prior to kicking it. However, in 1823 a 16 year old pupil named William Webb Ellis ran forward with the ball after catching it and in doing so established this distinctive element in the game – and marked his place in sporting history.
However, it was many years later that this was actually recorded. Not, in fact until 1876 – four years after William Webb Ellis’s death, that Matthew Bloxham, a noted antiquarian and old Rugbeian wrote about this in a letter to the Rugby School’s magazine, The Meteor, establishing Webb Ellis as the inventor of the running element of the sport. Bloxham wrote again in 1880 elaborating on the event, and later, in 1895 the Old Rugbeian Society investigated the claim and concluded it to be true.
WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS
William Webb Ellis was also a keen cricketer and played in the first Oxford v Cambridge match.
He went on to become a church Minister. He died in Menton, France in 1876. His grave was re-discovered by a journalist in 1959
Back in the mid 1800s the Rugby schoolboys played their game using a pig’s bladder, which would often burst. They realised that something stronger was needed so they asked a local boot and shoemaker, William Gilbert, if he could sew a leather outer casing around the bladder. He could, and before long Gilbert found himself so busy making leather rugby footballs that he gave up making boots and shoes to concentrate on making balls.
With the help of another boot and shoe maker, Richard Lindon, Gilbert moved his business from his shop in the High Street to 5 St Matthews Street – now the Webb Ellis Museum. From 1842 he and Lindon ran a flourishing business making hand stitched, four-panel, leather casings to go around the pigs’ bladders. They were kept so busy at one time they employed 30 people.
As you explore the museum, you’ll see a display of these early bladders, balls and the tools used for making them. You’ll learn too of Richard Lindon’s wife, a robust woman with some 17 children. She assisted her husband by inflating the bladders by mouth – blowing through a piece of clay pipe. Sadly she died of a lung related illness probably brought on by the state of the bladders she came into contact with. Richard Lindon went on to invent a rubber inflatable bladder and a brass hand pump, all of which are on display at the museum.
CAPS AND RULE BOOKS
Rugby School was the first to print rule books for Rugby Football – even before rule books for football had been laid down.
You’ll find copies of these early little rule books which players could slip into their back pockets in the museum. They show that some of the early terminology such as ‘knock on’, ‘in touch’, ‘off side’ and ‘try’ have lived on.
Rugby was also first in producing caps. Today caps are awarded to players playing for their country. Back in the late 1800s caps were given to the schoolboys who were good players so that they could be identified by those watching the game. Today the caps are known as International Sporting Caps but back in those early days they were called Following Up Caps.
The Rugby Museum,
5-6 St Matthews Street,
Telephone 01788 567777