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.