Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography


With the Guinness Six Nations Championship underway, Ann Evans begins a series of articles looking back at the history of Rugby Football.



The annual Six Nations Championship is well underway again for 2019, seeing the England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales Rugby Union teams competing against one another for the Championship Trophy.

Now known as the Guinness Six Nations for sponsorship reasons, it’s a tournament that began way back in 1883, when it was known as the Home Nations Championship, with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. France joined in 1910 making it the Five Nations Championship, then Italy in 2000 making it the Six Nations Championship.

Within the competition, rugby enthusiasts will also be enjoying pairs of teams battling to win six other trophies, the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland being the oldest, having been fought for since 1879 – preceding the Six Nations Championship itself.





History shows that people have been playing some kind of football since time immemorial. Often it involved crowds of people using anything as a ball – often an inflated pig’s bladder, with no rules governing the sport. In schools, they would have played different variations of football, depending upon what facilities were available to them.

At Rugby school, one of Britain’s oldest independent schools, founded back in Queen Elizabeth I’s day, the pupils had the luxury of a large grassy close which allowed them to play a game involving more running, tackling and scrimmaging.



Some Gilbert Match balls with the stencil


There were few official rules, one game is recorded as having 225 boys on one side and 75 on the other. One unwritten rule at Rugby School was that the player catching the ball should move backwards prior to kicking it. However, in 1823, 16-year-old William Webb Ellis ran forward with the ball after catching it. In doing so he earned his place in sporting history.

As former pupils and teachers left Rugby School to take up positions elsewhere, so they took the game of Rugby Football with them. One such man was Arthur Pell who went on to start the club at Cambridge University. By 1872 no less than 24 Old Rugbeians competed in the first Oxford v Cambridge match. It has been an annual event ever since, known as the Varsity Match.

Back in the 19th century there were numerous arguments and disagreements over the rules of the game, but with the publication of the Rugby School rules in 1845 the game spread with greater ease and more and more clubs started up throughout England and Scotland, many of them founded by Old Rugbeians. Guy’s Hospital RFC, established in 1843 lays claim to being the oldest existing club.





The Rugby Footballs

Back in the mid-1800s, the Rugby schoolboys used a pig’s bladder to play their game, which would often burst. Realising something stronger was needed, they asked local boot and shoemaker, William Gilbert, if he could sew a leather outer casing around the bladder. The idea was successful, and it wasn’t long before Gilbert found himself with a growing business making leather rugby footballs. His shoe and boot trade continued with the inclusion of making leather rugby boots.





In 1842, with the help of another local boot and shoemaker, Richard Lindon, Gilbert moved his business from his shop in Rugby’s High Street to 5 St Matthews Street, directly opposite the impressive Rugby School. From here they ran a successful business making hand-stitched, 4-panel, leather casings to surround the pigs’ bladders.



Richard Lindon inventor of the rubber bladder


Richard Lindon’s wife, described as a robust woman with some 17 children, would assist 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 worked with. Richard Lindon went on to invent an Indian rubber inflatable bladder and a brass hand pump. This enabled the balls to become more regulated in size, and no longer hazardous to inflate.



An early ball with a rubber stem bladder and pump


Business continued to flourish along with the popularity of the game. At one time Gilbert employed 30 people and were stitching around 2,800 balls a year. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace, they made a display for one of their leather hand-stitched balls with a pig’s bladder inside set within a leather framework representing Rugby School. It took first prize in its category. They won more medals at the Great Exhibition of 1862.



Tools used in making pig’s bladder balls


When William Gilbert died in 1877, aged 78, his nephew James succeeded him, and as the popularity of the sport grew, so did business. Gilbert began exporting their rugby balls to Australia and New Zealand, and eventually all around the world.

For generations now, Gilbert rugby balls have been famous the world over, used by schools and colleges, in friendly local games right up to the great international matches. Over the years different nations have shown a preference to different styles and shapes of ball – four panel, six panel and eight panel; from the 1970s Gilbert balls were also available in white as well as the original tan. The Gilbert Match ball represented the ‘gold standard’ in Rugby for over 100 years.



The making of a Gilbert rugby football


The Gilbert family decided to sell the business in 1978. With the brand living on under new ownership, they went on to perfect the manufacture of synthetic balls. And the iconic building at 5 St Matthew Street, Rugby, where it all started, became the famous Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum – a fascination place, supported and assisted by a partnership with Rugby Borough Council, that is open to the public all year round, free of charge.





Inside the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum