William Webb Ellis

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Image:William Webb Ellis.jpg
This only known portrait of William Webb Elllis, circa 1857, from the Illustrated London News.

William Webb Ellis (November 24, 1806January 24, 1872) is often credited with the invention of Rugby football. The story of how he founded the game is apocryphal. Nevertheless his name is firmly established in the lore of rugby football. He has become immortalised by the William Webb Ellis Cup presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup.

Even if Webb Ellis can be credited with introducing running with the ball in hand, 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. Under present rules neither code allows hacking, although ironically it probably occurs more often in soccer.


[edit] Biography

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Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School

William was born in Salford, Lancashire, (Some sources say he was born in Manchester, Webb Ellis actually said he was born in Manchester in a 1851 census as he later moved to the city) 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. Though it was noted that he was 'rather inclined to take unfair advantage at cricket'. The incident where Webb Ellis picked up and ran with the ball in his arms during a football match is supposed to have happened in the latter half of 1823.

After leaving Rugby he went to Oxford University in 1826, aged 18. Here 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; his grave at Menton was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter in 1958 and has since been renovated.

[edit] The legend

[edit] Origin of the claim

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 [1823], 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."

[edit] 1895 investigation

The claim that Webb Ellis invented the game did not surface until four years after his death and doubts have 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 had 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."

[edit] The plaque

A plaque at Rugby School bears the inscription:

A.D. 1823
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Image of the plaque at Rugby School

[edit] Controversy

Some sources have claimed that Ellis may have actually been giving a demonstration of a sport known as caid, which was an ancient Irish game that is similar to rugby. Some speculate that Webb Ellis could have witnessed it during his youth whilst his soldier father was stationed in Ireland. Though this story, as dubious as it may be, adds fuel to the speculation that Webb Ellis did not create the game per se, as there had previously been sports such as caid and harpastum, a game which was similar to rugby that was played by the ancient Romans. There was another game in Wales called "cnapan", which was still being played in 1823. That involved teams of up to 1,000 players on each side, and it was a running, handling and passing game with much physical contact and with elements that resembled scrums and lineouts. There was no kicking of the ball in that game, since it was made of wood and (to add interest) boiled in tallow to make it slippery! Could some of the boys at Rugby School have known about that game?

There is also much speculation as to what kind of rules were in place for football at the Rugby School. Some sources have claimed that the rules of the game being played were constantly altered. Malcom Lee said in an interview that "...the rules were discussed almost every time the boys went out to play and that adjustments were frequently made [to the game]" [1]

Shortly before the great schism in rugby which resulted in the development of two rival codes rugby union and rugby league the RFU elevated the myth to an apparent truth as they tried to prove that union code was the true legitimate heir of the game.[citation needed]

[edit] Today

Image:Webb Ellis Trophy.jpg
The Rugby World Cup, named after Webb Ellis

Despite the unresolved debate whether Webb Ellis did indeed carry out the actions of running with the ball, or whether he should be credited as the creator of the rugby game, the notion that describes Webb Ellis as creating the game is very popular. Thus, the story of Webb Ellis has legendary status in the history of rugby. The William Webb Ellis Cup was named after him, the cup being the prize of the Rugby World Cup.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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William Webb Ellis

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