Rugby School - where the game of Rugby was invented?

Living History

Rugby School - where the game of Rugby was invented?

Rugby School in Warwickshire was founded in 1567, making it one of the oldest independent schools in Britain. Its alumni include a UK Prime Minister (Neville Chamberlain), as well as several bishops, poets and scientists.

But it is perhaps most famous for supposedly being the birthplace of Rugby football.

The school was founded as a provision in the will of Lawrence Sheriff - who supplied groceries to Queen Elizabeth I. Sheriff intended the school to be a free grammar school for the boys of Rugby and neighbouring Brownsover - where he had lived.

Up to 1667, the school remained in comparative obscurity. It was dogged by a series of lawsuits between descendants of Sheriff (who hoped to undermine the testator's intentions), and the masters and trustees (who hoped to implement them). In 1667, the final decision favoured the trust.

The game of Rugby is said to have originated at the school when, during a game of association football in 1823, pupil William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball and run with it. However, this may have been a myth. There were no set rules for football during the time, and most varieties of the game involved carrying the ball. Indeed, the story has just one source - Matthew Bloxam, who was a former pupil at Rugby, but not Webb Ellis' contemporary. In 1876 Bloxam quotes an unknown friend relating the story to him, in the school newspaper.

Richard Lindon, a boot and shoemaker who had premises across the street from the school, is, however, credited with the invention of the "oval" rugby ball, the rubber inflatable bladder and the brass hand pump.

Despite the unclear exact origins of the game of Rugby, the school is confirmed as the site where the first published set of rules for any code of football was established. In 1845, a committee of Rugby schoolboys wrote the "Laws of Football as Played at Rugby School."

Whatever the truth, it remains that the sport of rugby bears the name of the town (and school), and the Rugby World Cup is named the William Webb Ellis Trophy, after the game's supposed initiator. There are also two museums honouring the sport in Rugby - at the school itself, and in the town at the former maker of the original balls.

Further reading

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