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The History of Rugby

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Many believe that rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis "with fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game". Although it is worth pointing out that this is apocryphal as there is little in the way of evidence to substantiate this view, it is however, the popular view. So much so in fact that the international committee named the Rugby world cup the "William Webb Ellis Trophy".

Webb Ellis' father was stationed in Ireland with the Dragoons, where, it is said, he would have witnessed the native game of Caid (Cad), could he have passed this on to his son? All branches of the Celtic race played Caid. There were two basic forms, Cross-country cad and field cad. The word 'Caid' means scrotum of the bull.

The Welsh say that Caid was just a derivative of their sport of Criapan. The Cornish called it "hurling to goales" which dates back to the bronze age, the West country called it "hurling over country", East Anglians "Campbell", the French "La Soule" or "Chole" (a rough-and-tumble cross-country game). In fact, there had been traditions of ball-in-hand sports games for centuries before Webb Ellis' was born.

Pastimes of this kind were known to many nations of antiquity, and their existence among tribes, such as the Maoris, Faroe Islanders, Philippine Islanders, Polynesians and Eskimos, points to their primitive nature.

Medieval chroniclers documented games of football between rival villages that would do anything in their power to kick, carry and blast a ball past their opponents. Authorities would later attempt to outlaw such dangerous and unproductive pastimes.

The first recorded game of ball being played in London was 1175. This was documented by a London born monk called William Fitzstephen who wrote a 'history of London' in Latin where he documented youths "playing with the ball in wide open spaces". He went on to mention that a large game consisting of all the city’s youth took place on Shrove Tuesday (Carnilevaria) in a large flat open space just outside the city.
 
Edward II passed a statute in 1314, (in consequence of the great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls - rageries de grosses pelotes), forbidding the Londoners to participate.

Edward the III ordering his sheriffs to suppress the game. A clear reference is made ad pilam. . . pedinam in the Rotuli Clausarum, of Edward III (1365), as one of the pastimes to be prohibited on account of the decadence of archery. Richard II did the same thing in 1388.

Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth enacted laws against football, which, both then and under the Stuarts and the Georges, seems to have been violent to the point of brutality, a fact often referred to by prominent writers.

James I, immediately after his release from prison in England in 1424, held a council meeting and issued an act where he debarred "fute bali".
 
Origin of Rugby

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Act of Scottish Parliament - James I 1424, Credit national library of Scotland, Edinburgh

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Act of Scottish Parliament - James II 1457, Credit national library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Charles II again made the game unlawful. In fact during the period 1314 to 1527 no less than nine European monarchs make it a specific offence to play "foote balle", instead directing their subjects to practice archery instead or face fines or even imprisonment. Despite it all, youths continued to play the game.

The game is also said to have originated in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) from the Viking game of Knappan which became very popular during Tudor times in Pembrokeshire.

Some have tried to trace the origins of these games to the 6th century Roman sport of Harpastum a word derived from the Greek word meaning seize (also later on in Florence, Italy called "Calcio"), but then others have argued that the Romans learnt this games from the Far East, from China or even Japan, and so it goes on.

We can be certain that ever since man learned to walk on two legs he was tempted to kick, throw and catch objects for his own enjoyment...

The invention of Rugby was therefore not the act of playing early forms of the game or the acts of a certain Webb-Ellis (true or not), but rather the events which led up to its codification. Like so many sports which originated from Victorian England it was competition, the sense of fair play and the subsequent need for rules and laws which allowed the game to develop on a global basis and spawn internationally.
       
The statue, by Graham Ibbeson and modelled after his own son, cost £40,000 which was raised by a public appeal.

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The bronze statue of a boy running with a Rugby ball, cast using the lost wax technique, now stands at the junction of Lawrence Sheriff Street and Dunchurch Road, beside the school and opposite Gilbert's museum.

On bronze plaque: 'THE LOCAL BOY WHO INSPIRED / THE GAME OF RUGBY FOOTBALL / ON THE CLOSE AT RUGBY SCHOOL IN / 1823. / SCULPTOR: GRAHAM IBBSEON / 1997'

The game of football as played at Rugby School (Rugby, England) between 1750 and 1823 permitted handling of the ball, but no-one was allowed to run with it in their hands towards the opposition’s goal. There was no fixed limit to the number of players per side and sometimes there were hundreds taking part in a kind of enormous rolling maul.

The innovation of running with the ball was introduced sometime between 1820 and 1830.

If William Webb Ellis's was responsible for this innovation as stated in Mr Bloxam's account, it was probably met by vigorous retribution but by 1838-9 Jem Mackie, with his powerful running, made it an acceptable part of the game although it was not legalized until 1841-2 initially by Bigside Levee and finally by the first written rules of August 28th, 1845.

Mr Bloxam was a student at Rugby School at the same time as Webb-Ellis but left some years before him. His account of what someone else witnessed (probably his brother) is the only evidence on which the story is based.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 March 2009 23:56 )