William Webb Ellis

From Academic Kids

Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School
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Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School

William Webb Ellis (November 24, 1806 - January 24, 1872) is often credited with the invention of Rugby football.

William was born in Manchester the son of James Ellis, an officer in the Dragoon Guards and Ann Webb whom he married in Exeter in 1804. After James was killed at the Battle of Albuera in 1812, Mrs Ellis decided to move to Rugby, Warwickshire so that William and his older brother Thomas could receive a good education at Rugby School with no cost as a local foundationer (i.e. a pupil living within a radius of 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower). William attended the school from 1816 to 1825 and he was noted as a good scholar and a good cricketer. After leaving Rugby he went to Oxford University where he played cricket for Brasenose College, Oxford. He entered the Church and became chaplain of St George's, Albemarle Street, London and then rector of St Clement Danes in The Strand. In 1855 he became rector of Laver Magdalen in Essex and a picture of him (the only known portrait) appeared in the Illustrated London Post after he gave a particularly stirring sermon on the subject of the Crimean War.

He died in the south of France in 1872 and his grave at Menton was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter in 1958 and has since been renovated.

The story of how he founded the game of rugby football is apocryphal. Nevertheless his name is firmly established in the lore of rugby football. Ellis Park in Johannesburg, a major international rugby union stadium, is named after him and he has become immortalised by the 'William Webb Ellis Trophy' presented to the winners of the Rugby Union World Cup.

Even if Webb Ellis can be credited with introducing handling of the ball, this was not the action that split football into two codes (Rugby and Association). That split occurred later over the issue of hacking, meaning to tackle a player by kicking him in the shins. The founders of Association football (soccer) decided to ban the practice and were considered unmanly by the traditionalists. In the modern codes of play neither side allows hacking, although it probably occurs more often in soccer.

The Legend

A plaque at Rugby School bears the inscription:

THIS STONE
COMMEMORATES THE EXPLOIT OF
WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS
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
THUS ORIGINATING THE DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF
THE RUGBY GAME
A.D. 1823
Image of the plaque at Rugby School
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Image of the plaque at Rugby School

The claim that Webb Ellis "invented" the game did not surface until four years after his death and considerable doubt has been raised about the story since 1895 when it was first investigated by the Old Rugbeian Society. Among those giving evidence, Thomas Harris and his brother John, who has left Rugby in 1828 and 1832 respectively recalled that handling of the ball was strictly forbidden. Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's School Days) was asked to comment on the game as played when he attended the school (1834-1842). He is quoted as saying "In my first year, 1834, running with the ball to get a try by touching down within goal was not absolutely forbidden, but a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of 'justifiable homicide' if a boy had been killed in running in."

The sole source of the story of Webb Ellis picking up the ball originates with one Matthew Bloxam, a local antiquarian and former pupil of Rugby. In October of 1876, he wrote to The Meteor, the Rugby School magazine, that he had learnt from an unnamed source that the change from a kicking game to a handling game had "...originated with a town boy or foundationer of the name of Ellis, William Webb Ellis".

In December of 1880, in another letter to the Meteor, Bloxam elaborates on the story:

"A boy of the name Ellis - William Webb Ellis - a town boy and a foundationer, .... whilst playing Bigside at football in that half-year, caught the ball in his arms. This being so, according to the then rules, he ought to have retired back as far as he pleased, without parting with the ball, for the combatants on the opposite side could only advance to the spot where he had caught the ball, and were unable to rush forward till he had either punted it or had placed it for some one else to kick, for it was by means of these placed kicks that most of the goals were in those days kicked, but the moment the ball touched the ground the opposite side might rush on. Ellis, for the first time, disregarded this rule, and on catching the ball, instead of retiring backwards, rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal, with what result as to the game I know not, neither do I know how this infringement of a well-known rule was followed up, or when it became, as it is now, a standing rule."

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