The History of Rugby- Vol.1 – The Origins & Humble Beginnings

Volume 1. Origins and Beginnings of Rugby Football

Over the course of the next month, (or however long it takes) we will document the history of Rugby, providing you with an insight to the humble developments of the game we love and cherish today. This will also detail the history of Sale FC and where we slot into the timeline.

 Rugby School, 1820’s

“In 1820 the game of Rugby was played rather like soccer, but players were allowed to catch the ball and kick it out of their hands.

There were no limits to the number of players on each side, for example, School House v Rest of the School. In 1839, when Queen Adelaide visited the School, School House (75) played ‘the rest’ (225).” (Rugby School)

To score a try would not gain points but would allow a team to ‘try’ to take a ‘drop at goal’ to score a point. With so many on each side this was hard to do and sometimes games would last up to five days. No written rules at this time!

      Rugby School

In 1823, William Webb Ellis, a local boy in Town House, first ran with the ball, but this rule was not adopted straight away. By 1830, running with the ball was an accepted play, although the first written rules did not appear until 1845. These rules were written by the boys. Ellis was born just outside Manchester, but, moved down to Rugby. He went on to Brasenose College Oxford where he took Holy Orders. He died in France in 1872 where his grave is cared for by the French RFU. Although there is very little evidence to support this theory, the Rugby World Cup Trophy is now named after William Webb Ellis.

The rules had always been determined by the pupils instead of the masters and they were frequently modified with each new intake. Rule changes, such as the legality of carrying or running with the ball, were often agreed shortly before the commencement of a game. There were thus no formal rules for football during the time that William Webb Ellis was at the school (1816–25) and the story of the boy “who 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” in 1823.

Rugby football has strong claims to the world’s first and oldest “football club”: the Guy’s Hospital Football Club, formed in London in 1843, by old boys from Rugby School. Around the English-speaking world, a number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules. One of these, Dublin University Football Club, founded in 1854, has arguably become the world’s oldest surviving football club in any code. The Blackheath Rugby Club, in London, founded in 1858 is the oldest surviving non-university/school rugby club with Sale Rugby Football Club founded in 1861, becoming the fifth oldest surviving rugby club.

Cheltenham College 1844, Sherborne School 1846 and Durham School 1850 are the oldest documented school’s clubs. Francis Crombie and Alexander Crombie introduced rugby into Scotland via Durham School in 1854.

Watch the dramatisations of the very first moments of the game



The Original Ball

An original Rugby ball was round and changed shape over a period of time to the oval it is today. They varied in sizes depending on the pig’s bladder they were made from. Gilberts, a local boot maker, took up ball making to supply the School. Others, notably Lindon, supplied the boys and it was this maker that invented the inflatable inner and the pump.

William Gilbert (1799–1877) established Gilbert company, the manufacturer of sports equipment, in 1823. Gilbert had a boot and shoemakers’ shop in the high street next to Rugby School and started making balls for the school out of hand stitched, four-panel, leather casings and pig bladders

It is the shape of the pig’s bladder that is reputed to have given the rugby ball its distinctive oval shape although balls of those days were more plum shaped than oval. The balls varied in size in the beginning depending upon how large the pig’s bladder was and in those early days William’s nephew James who was famed for his extraordinary lung power, inflated the balls. It was not a job that was sought after, the pig’s bladder would be blown up while still in its very smelly ‘green state’, solely by lungpower, down the stem of a clay pipe which was inserted into the opening of the bladder.

If the pig was diseased, it was possible to develop lung diseases from blowing up the balls. The wife of Richard Lindon, another man who also made balls for Rugby School, died from an infection caught from an infected pig’s bladder. This spurred Lindon in the mid-1860s to pioneer the “rubber bladder”, the Brass Hand pump inflator and finally the advent of shape standardisation.

In 1851, a football of the kind used at Rugby School was exhibited at the first World’s Fair, the Great Exhibition in London. This ball can still be seen at the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum and it has a definite ovoid shape. In 1862, Richard Lindon introduced rubber bladders, and, because of the pliability of the rubber, balls could be manufactured with a more pronounced shape. As an oval ball was easier to handle, a gradual flattening of the ball continued over the years as the emphasis of the game moved towards handling and away from dribbling.

In 1892, the RFU included compulsory dimensions for the ball for the first time in the Laws of the Game. In the 1980s, leather-encased balls, which were prone to waterlogging, were replaced with balls encased in synthetic waterproof materials.

These establishments within the game has shaped the current and future of the sport, with a robust history, rugby has the credibility in profession and character development to grow rapidly across the globe, something exhibited at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

In the next volume of ‘The Hisotry of Rugby’ find out more about the establishment of Rugby League and the separation between Union

First England International Team- Edinburgh, 1871