William Webb Ellis, the inventor of rugby, died on this day in rugby history in 1872. The man went on to become a reverend but his fame came from rugby which only occurred after his death.
After his father was killed at the Battle of Albuera, Ellis moved with his mother and brother, Thomas, to Rugby so that they could attend at no charge the Rugby School. William was definitely a student at the school but the credit for being the boy who caught the ball and ran with goes to Matthew Bloxam and his account in The Meteor, the Rugby School magazine although the accuracy is debatable.
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Bloxam wrote two differing accounts of the young Ellis picking the ball up and running with it. The first account came in 1876 and pointed to the event happening in 1824 when Ellis had left the school.
The second account came in 1880 and pointed the incident occurring in 1823.
"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."
The event as described was called into question in 1895 when the Old Rugbeian Society was trying to verify it and could not find any ‘first hand evidence of the occurance.’
Nevertheless, the Rugby School erected a plaque that same year giving the school and William Webb Ellis the credit.
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
1872 – William Webb Ellis, inventor of rugby