The Early Leather Rugby Balls

It must be remembered that before the exploit of William Webb Ellis in 1823, football, as played at Rugby, had already a distinctive feature in that a goal was scored by kicking the ball over the crossbar of the goal posts and not simply through the goal posts as in other games of football, and the following passage from Tom Brown’s Schooldays will be of interest: The Story of the Rugby Ball


Sketches of rugby balls from the memory of Mr E.F.T. Bennett

This account by the late James Gilbert is reprinted by the kind permission of Messrs. Gilbert Ltd., Rugby.

I am constantly asked why and when the Rugby ball became oval in shape. I much regret to say that my firm kept no records in the very early days of its exist­ence, and it is very difficult to answer this question.

In the book published in 1930 entitled ‘Football Records of Rugby School, 1823-1929 (collected for the Old Rugbeian Society by a sub-committee)’the following paragraph appears:

‘The group photographs in this book show the great alteration which has taken place in the shape of the ball. Though the ball was never round, it was much less than an airship than at present. How the School originally came to play with an oval ball is unknown: it baffled even the researches of the authors of the Origin of Rugby Football.’ My own researches in this matter are as follows and my chief authority is Mr E. F. T. Bennett, O.R., who was at Rugby School in the 1860’s and who said in a letter to the Morning Post of April 22nd, 1930:

‘As I am more than eighty-two years of age and my last football on Big Side was in 1864, I can say something about the ball we used in those days before the India rubber bladder had taken the place of the animal bladders, which Jim Gilbert used to blow tight with his great lungs.

‘The shape of our ball came from the bladder and was a perfect ball for long drop-kicking, or placing, and for dribbling too.

‘The modern plum-stone is good for none of these, but seems meant for carrying and throwing or passing between players.”

It must be remembered that before the exploit of William Webb Ellis in 1823 football, as played at Rugby School, had already a distinctive feature in that a goal was scored by kicking the ball over the crossbar of the goal posts and not simply through the goal posts as in other games of football, and the following passage from Tom Brown’s Schooldays will be of interest:

‘Tom followed East until they came to a gigantic gallows of two poles, eighteen feet high, and some fourteen feet apart, with a crossbar running from one to the other, at a height of ten feet, or thereabouts. “This is one of the goals,” said East; “and you see the other across there, right opposite, under the doctor’s wall. Well, the match is for the best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins;

and it won’t do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts, it must go over the crossbar; any height will do, you see, so long as it is between the posts”.’

Mr Matthew Bloxham, who was at Rugby School from 1813-20, writes that it was by means of placed kicks that most of the goals were kicked in the very early days of the game, and Mr. Bennett, in an article he wrote in The Badminton Magazine, September, 1898, describes how drop-kicking was a great feature of the game in the 1860’s. Place-kicking and drop-kicking were therefore very important features of the game in the early days, and it is probably due to these two features that we get the oval ball, as it was found that the best results could be obtained with this shaped ball—the shape being suggested in the first instance by the shape of a pig’s bladder.

Mr Bennett in his article in The Badminton Magazine, gave sketches of the balls used at Rugby in the 1860’s, which are reproduced here, and it will be noted that they are much more rounded at the ends then the modern Rugby ball.

Mr Bennett wrote;

‘The Big Side balls were half an inch larger every

way than the ordinary ball (and this is a very vast

difference); the ends were well rounded, and

seventy yards was not at all an impossible kick:

how few now think of trying a goal even from thirty


A vintage illustration of the Rugby School House Balls, 1922-23 season—made 100 years after William Webb Ellis’s famous exploit—shows the modern plum-shaped ball as Mr Bennett calls it.

This shape has been evolved since 1875, as being the best shaped ball for handling and passing in modern Rugby Football.

There is no record as to when the Rugby ball first began to assume its oval shape; probably some years before 1823. In Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the descrip­tion of the Bid Side Game will be found these words ‘the new ball you may see lies there, quite by itself, in the middle, pointing towards the School goal.’ The ball had therefore become oval by 1835, when this game was supposed to have taken place.

Rugby footballs in the early days were made of four pieces of cowhide stitched together in the same way as they are today, and were inflated with pigs’ blad­ders. These unsavoury articles were put into the leather cases in their green state, and, usually with the aid of the stem of a clay pipe, which was fastened to the opening of the bladder, they were inflated by lung power. You never see an inflated pig’s bladder being used as a football now, but when I was a small boy, it was not an uncommon sight to see one being kicked about in the street by some small boys.

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Animal hide - section A - Butt - was the best for rugby balls

The substitution of rubber for the pig’s bladder for inflating Rugby balls took place about 1870, when an inflator was also invented. And so the far from salu­brious task of inflating pigs’ bladders came to an end.

We had in our possession some time ago a Rugby football which we exhibited at the London Exhibition in 1851 and I can vouch that the shape of the ball then was much the same as shown in Mr Bennett’s sketches. Our old patterns in use at the time of the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871 show that the ball was still this shape though not quite so rounded at the ends. The Rugby Football Union was founded in 1871 but there does not appear to have been any regulation size of the Rugby ball until standard dimensions were fixed in 1892, which then appeared in the Rules of the Game. The Rule that a Rugby ball should be oval in shape and as far as possible (or words to that effect) should measure 25i-26 in, in width circumference and 30-31 in. in the length circumference remained until 1931, when the width circumference in the Rule Book was altered to 24-25 in., as players had for some years prior to this been demanding balls which were not so fat.

The Rugby Rules have always stated that the ball should be as far as possible certain dimensions and this qualification no doubt accounts for the slight variation in the shape of the ball to suit the ideas of the different Rugby Unions throughout the world. New Zealand, for instance, has always favoured a ball measuring | in. less in the width circumference than the ball used at home.

Rugby balls are made with 4, 6 and 8 panels; the most popular being the 4-panel (/’.e,, four pieces of leather sewn together as in the original. Rugby ball) and it is interesting to note that whereas New Zealand has always used 4-panel balls, South Africa prefers 8-panel balls. (Rule 4 in the R.U; Laws of the Game now states that the ball shall be of four panels.)

A lot of work takes place in the manufacture of a Rugby ball, as the following account written by a visitor to our factory shows; ‘Have you ever wondered when playing with either a netball, rugger or soccer ball what different stages have been necessary to make the final article?

Lately I became interested and my curiosity led me to tour the workshops of Gilbert’s, the well known football makers. I wanted to find out for myself how the Rugby football was made and how the game originated.

‘My guide, a worker at Gilbert’s, took me to the room where the first process was in full swing. I made my way across the leather-strewn floor to­wards a bench where a man had a large sheet of cowhide, out of which he was cutting roughly measured panels. These were weighed (for a com­plete rugger ball must weigh between 13 ozs. and 15 ozs.) and the panels that weighed too much were then put through a splitting machine to make the leather the right thickness.

‘We followed the leather along the noisy work­shop until the next stage was performed. The leather was thoroughly soaked in warm water, gripped by pliers and stretched. You will notice that there are quite a lot of stretching processes: for unless the leather is fully stretched, the ball is easily pulled out of shape after two or three games. The same leather is stretched again by a stretching iron, which was shaped something like an axe, only with its head turned the other way, and then it was put through some large iron rollers and hung up to dry.

‘The dried leather was then rolled by hand to soften it and put through some rollers to be passed out on to a stamping machine. Here the rough panels were cut to the correct sizes, which may be for a four, six, or eight-panelled ball, according to the country for which the balls are required. Yes! These balls are of the highest quality and are ex­ported to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and so on, and are always used for international matches.

‘However, the panels were taken next to be greased with dubbin (a mixture of cod oil and tallow), then they were rolled by hand to rub in the grease, dried and rolled again. (This was a very un­pleasant process because of the awful smell.)

‘Then my guide led me out of the noisy workshop, up some steps and into the rooms where the sewing was done. The men who worked in these rooms were skilled workers who have made thousands of balls each. However—to continue—the only bit of machine sewing was that done to stitch the mouth­piece on to some panels. I learnt that hand-sewing was preferred because each stitch was independent and if one stitch broke the others would still hold firm. Then the panels were sewn together by a double-handed stitch (with two needles or pig’s bristles) and with a six-stranded thread of hemp and wax. First of all the panels were sewn to make halves and then the seams were rubbed down on a clencher with an iron bar, to make the seams flat.

“After this the halves were sewn together and an

opening was left three inches from the mouthpiece. This seam was rubbed down in a similar fashion and the ball was turned inside out. This looked very simple when done by an expert, but I assure you that the leather was not as soft as it looked, and it was a very hard task for me when I tried to pull the case inside out through a three-inch opening.

‘The ball was now nearly finished. The three-inch opening was very cleverly sewn up, a tongue was sewn in, and the seams were rubbed to put a finish on them. Then a bladder was put in and blown up, the case laced, and a ball was born. Well, nearly born, for it was not ready for sale until it had been weighed and tested.’

This article written by a pupil at Rugby High School, gives a good account of what goes on in our work­shops.

The quantities demanded of a Rugby football today are that it shall be the correct shape and weight, be able to stand up to hard play and retain its shape. All these qualities depend on the leather case. The ball should weigh between 13^ oz. and 15 oz., and, to obtain this, the thickness of the leather cannot be more than about 2 mm. The leather must be, therefore, of the best quality and be thoroughly stretched or the ball will go out of shape quickly. Cowhide is the leather used, and for the best balls, only the middle of the hide is used, /.e., the butt. The diagram on the follow­ing page shows how a pelt is rounded and the part marked A is called the butt, out of which the best balls are made. The belly part of a hide marked D is of no use to football manufacturers as it stretches too much. The shoulder part marked B is used for making the cheaper quality balls.

The manufacture of football leather is a specialised job and its production is in the hands of a compara­tively few tanners—firms with many years of experi­ence behind them.

There is no leather more suitable than English hides; they have the advantage of being tight in the fibre and strong in the grain as compared with certain other kinds of hides. It is interesting to note that the annual peace-time consumption of English hides for Rugby and Association footballs just before the 1939-45 War was 16,000. In addition to this a considerable quantity of kips and other leather were used for the cheaper quality footballs. Kips are the skins of a small breed of oxen and are imported from the East Indies.

The leather which reaches the football manufactur­ers from the tanners is split-hide, that is to say the hide which has been split into two or more pieces by a special splitting machine, and the top split with the grain side is what is used for footballs. Some manu­facturers prefer the tanners to completely dress the leather; we prefer it to come to us partly dressed and we finish the dressing after each section of a ball has been stretched.

The manufacturing processes in the making of Rugby footballs have been already described in this chapter, but there is one thing that should be stressed. It is very important when cutting the sections roughly out of the hides that these are put into heaps accord­ing to the part of the hide from which they are cut, because hides are not the same texture all over like a piece of cloth. The hide is much tighter in the grain near the backbone and at the tail end of the butt than at the shoulder end and near the belly. The sections of a Rugby ball have to be married together very carefully.

A first-class Rugby ball in my opinion is a thing of beauty but unfortunately not a joy for ever. Sooner or later it gets kicked about in the mud and gets cut about by the studs of players’ boots or by other means and, though it may last several years, it is eventually scrapped. It sometimes comes to an untimely end through being placed too near a fire or hot-water pipe and gets burnt. It is really surprising how ignor­ant the general public seem to be regarding the reasonable treatment of leather, whether footballs or anything else. They apparently do not know that it is made up of a lot of delicate fibres which are destroyed by exposure to excessive heat for any length of time. Furthermore, heat naturally draws out the greases which are put in to preserve and protect the leather, and it is always desirable to give occasional applica­tions of good dubbin or oil. This is particularly neces­sary after the leather has got very wet, as is inevitable in the case of footballs. The oil or grease should be applied not too thickly when the ball is wet and the ball hung up to dry slowly away from a fire—as the wet comes out the grease will go into the leather. The life of a ball can be lengthened considerably if it be properly looked after.