Rugby's English Roots

Adding to the Empire

“Drop down a dozen Englishmen anywhere – on an island, in a backwoods clearing, or on the Indian hills – and in a very short time the schoolboy instinct will out, and the first level sward is turned into a cricket field in summer and a football arena in winter”

Commemorative Article in the ‘Rugby Advertiser’ (1923)

From the mid-19th century, New Zealand was a favourite destination for young English and Scottish emigrants seeking their fortunes overseas.

Voyages were made by ship, with the experience often proving miserable and dangerous. The journey to New Zealand took from 75 to 120 days and cost at least £15.

English migrants included many respectable rural working class families and some gentry – younger sons, those sent out for colonial experience, and a few trying to escape an embarrassing past. The remittance man – supported by money from home – was a common stereotype of the time.

Taking leave of 'old England'. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand - E-079-002).

Rugby Football and English Public Schools

In the 18th century, football was common at most of Britain’s leading public schools, with evidence suggesting it was played at Eton as early as 1747.

The ancestral home of modern rugby is Rugby School, a public boarding school founded in 1547 in the town of Rugby, Warwickshire. In the Victorian era, Rugby’s emphasis on team sports, ‘fair play’ and an approach of allocating responsibility to boys, helped shape the public school system’s ‘muscular Christianity’ ethos.

Old ‘Rugbeians’ dispersed to almost every corner of the Empire, taking with them their public school ideals and rules of rugby. Used to organising their own games and rules at school, in adulthood they easily became advocates of rugby’s mode of football when establishing clubs and matches in new colonies far from home.

Football at Rugby by E.Hardwood (1859). (Rugby School)


Did he run with the ball…?

The popular view is that rugby was born in 1823, when 16 year-old William Webb Ellis:

“with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it”.

Enshrined in rugby folklore, his name is now immortalised in the Webb Ellis Cup – presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup.

However, the Webb Ellis story only surfaced in 1895 when a committee of Old Rugbeians decided to look into the origins of their game. Much has been written and researched on the matter since then, and there appears little in the way of evidence to substantiate the ‘big bang’ theory that one boy’s rebellious act changed the rules forever.

The committee did note that the innovation of running with ball was introduced at school matches sometime in the 1820s, but later research showed it did not evolve as a feature of the Rugby School style till the 1830s and was not legalised until the 1840s.

William Webb Ellis is commemorated at Rugby School for running with the ball.

Pigs’ Bladders and Puntabouts

Today’s modern rugby balls began life as an inflated pig’s bladder, encased in a sturdy leather cover to stop them bursting.

The shape and size of the balls kicked around by Rugby School boys were determined by the dimensions of the pig’s bladder, but they were generally larger and rounder than a modern ball. Slightly smaller puntabout (or practice) balls were commonly used for knockabouts before dinner and at leisure times.

The best known of the early ball manufacturers was, and still is, Gilbert, established in the early 1800s in the town of Rugby – just a stone’s throw from Rugby School. As inflating a pig’s bladder with a clay pipe was a messy and sometimes dangerous occupation (if the bladder was infected), another rival ball maker, Richard Lindon,

developed the first rubber bladder and a brass hand pump to inflate it in 1860.

Balls used at Rugby School in the mid 19th Century (Rugby School)

Rugby School and Caps

The cap is the most well known item of rugby dress that originated from Rugby School.

It all started with a visit by Queen Adelaide in 1839, when the boys lined up to greet her wearing caps in the royal colours of crimson velvet with gold tassels. The Queen later asked to view the ‘pretty spectacle’ of a game of football and the boys obliged regardless of their best dress (and still wearing their royal caps!).

Soon each of the boarding houses at Rugby School had caps in their house colours. The practice of cap wearing had a practical reason, in that fellow team members could be easily identified in a scrummage and not mercilessly hacked by a team mate sporting viciously sharpened boot soles.

Those awarded the distinction of wearing a house cap by their house captain were allowed to ‘follow up’ or play for the school in Big Side games, whilst those without caps, normally the younger pupils who acted as ‘goalkeepers’ whilst they learnt the rules of the game, did not.

Rugby School House Caps. (World Rugby Museum-Twickenham)

First Rules of Rugby

In early times, English schools never played against each other so they had no need to share rules, and pupils and old boys held tight to their school’s traditional style of play.

At Rugby School, junior boys learned the rules of the game by watching from the relative safety of guarding the goal, and by playing ‘Little Side’ games amongst themselves. Games were organised by the boys not the masters, and the rules were flexible – often debated upon and changed by common consent after a game. An unlimited number of players could take part in a match (380 were reported taking part in one set-to in 1816), and they could last up to 5 days!

The first written rules were set down on paper in 1845 by three pupils, and thereafter rewritten and updated each year – allowing the Rugby School rules to spread much easier than rival versions. These early rules only noted the more complex details of the game, and were not intended as a primer for beginners.

Tom Brown’s Rugby School Days

Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays started the long tradition of English boarding school-set children’s literature that has continued to this day with the Harry Potter phenomenon.

Set in the 1830s at Rugby School, this classic novel was based on the author’s experiences at the school and includes a vivid account of a game of rugby football. A wildly popular book, it helped to spread rugby.

‘Why you don’t know the rules – you’ll be a month learning them. And then it’s no joke playing-up in a match, I can tell you. Quite another thing from your public school games. Why, there’s been two collar-bones broken this half, and a dozen fellows lamed. And last year a fellow had his leg broken’

Tom listened with the profoundest respect to this chapter of accidents, and followed East across the level ground till they came to a sort of gigantic gallows of two poles eighteen feet high, fixed upright in the ground some fourteen feet apart, with a cross bar running from one to the other at the height of ten feet or thereabouts.

From Chapter V – Rugby and Football – TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS