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Who Was William Webb Ellis?

Folk football

Photo: World Rugby Museum

In 1887 the English judge and athlete Montague Shearman (founder of the Amateur Athletics Association in 1880) wrote a book called ‘Athletics and Football’.

In it he made some poorly researched statements about the origins of Rugby Football. His book came to the attention of the Old Rugbeian Society who saw some obvious errors and in July 1895 appointed a sub-committee to “investigate these statements” and to enquire into the origins of the game.

In their report they countered the claims made by Shearman, and then moved on to examine claims made by the antiquarian Matthew Bloxam, first published in the ‘Meteor’ (the magazine for Old Rugbeians) in December 1880.

Bloxam, who had been playing football at the School between 1813 and 1820 (just before William Ellis), said that at that time "no one was allowed to run with the ball in his grasp towards the opposite goal."

When and how did this momentous change occur?

Bloxam wrote, "In the latter half of 1823, originated that change." He went on to name a boy of 16 years (William Ellis) who caught the ball in his arms and instead of retiring backwards rushed forwards.

This is as far as most people look.

However, Bloxam went on to say:

  • he did not know how this infringement was followed up
  • he was not present at the time of the incident (and so must have heard the story from elsewhere, maybe not even from an eye-witness)
  • he did not know when this action became the standing rule

Consequently Ellis’s actions (if they happened) were not responsible for changing the rules, and at best can only be seen as inspiration for subsequent ‘runners’.

It would appear that Bloxam had satisfied himself with the accuracy of this story. However, in a letter to ‘The Standard’ in 1876 (only four years previously), he had claimed that although handling the ball was not done in his day (1813-20), he thought that it had come into practice during the Mastership of Dr Arnold (1828-42).

There is no mention of:

  • a single person altering the rules
  • the year 1823
  • William Ellis himself

Therefore the William Ellis story must have come to his attention sometime after his letter to ‘The Standard’ in 1876. So, not only was the only person to name William Ellis not an actual eye-witness, but it seems that he only heard the tale for the first time 53 years after the event!

William Webb Ellis was a pupil at Rugby School in 1823, and was the right age for the Bloxam story. This is indisputable. But why could no one confirm the story? Surely such a momentous event would have left an impression on those present.

The Old Rugbeian sub-committee proceeded to contact others to see if their memories corresponded with Bloxam’s story.

Thomas Hughes (born in 1822 and a schoolboy at Rugby – he was later the author of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’) named another – Jem Mackie – as the first great “runner-in”. Mackie popularised the action in 1838/9 and the custom was officially legalised at Rugby School in 1842. Hughes also states “the Webb Ellis tradition had not survived” to his day (i.e. 1834, 12 years after the alleged Ellis incident) so it was obviously no influence on Mackie.

Not one of the dozen Old Rugbeians who were able to comment on the early evolution of the game (c.1820-42) backed up the William Ellis story. One, a contemporary of Ellis, considered the story possible, but was not aware of it.

However, the Sub-Committee concluded that “in all probability” William Ellis introduced the concept of running with the ball in late 1823. However, I would point towards the following facts:

  • Bloxam was not an eye witness to the event
  • there is no corroboration from any other witnesses
  • the William Ellis story had already been forgotten very soon after the event
  • Bloxam came across the story 53 years after the event

I can deduce no sinister motive behind the claim of the Old Rugbeian sub-committee, or behind the assumptions of Matthew Bloxam – by all accounts an honest and unbiased antiquarian. They shared a genuine, if uncritical, desire to discover the truth.

However, it was due to the sub-committee’s findings that the real explosion of the story began. A few years later, in 1900, a plaque naming William Webb Ellis was erected in The Close, Rugby School. The Old Rugbeian Society intended to celebrate the game, for which they felt understandable pride. In naming Ellis they gave sanction to a second-hand story.

Rather than stressing the gradual acceptance of the carrying game over a 20-year period from an uncertain starting point, they produced a ‘big-bang’ story – one that has been accepted ever since.