Question: Who was William Webb Ellis?
Answer: William Webb Ellis, were we to rely solely on tradition, is the guy who, in a split-second decision, triggered the creation of not only the organized rugby for which he is credited, but also soccer, American football and all their cousins.
Webb Ellis got his early education at Rugby School in Warwickshire where, two hundred years ago, at the age of 16, precociously changed the history of sport forever.
As a plaque on the school grounds reads:
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 statue of Webb Ellis on the grounds bears a plaque proclaiming him as “the local boy who inspired the game of rugby football….”
Webb-Ellis was first given credit for this evolutionary leap by a contemporary of his named Matthew Bloxam to the school newspaper – in 1876, 53 years after the “fact” and putting Bloxam at about 70 years old.
Even if Bloxam was possessed of excellent memory, his judgement of the “rules of football of his time” may be well off: Before 1820, few organized matches of any sort of football were held between school teams. For five decades thereafter, the rules for said matches were quite fluid, frequently hashed out verbally shortly before the match started.
In 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society commissioned a report to determine an origin for the game; two years later, the report, which contained a solitary mention of Webb Ellis, was published.
In addition, the society figured that likely the rule at Rugby School in 1823 allowed for a player to catch or pick up the ball, at which point he was obliged to drop back some number of steps before dropkicking the ball in a style still used today.
Despite the society’s own lukewarm attitude toward the Webb Ellis story, the aforementioned plaque commemorating Webb Ellis’s unoriginal play was set at Rugby School in 1900.
Naturally, this story is far too neat, too precise and, ultimately, too good to be true. And just as naturally it’s been debunked for quite some time already by better historians than Os Davis. The 1979 book on rugby by Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard entitled Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players asserted that
“By giving pride of place in their report to the William Webb Ellis story, which correctly located the beginnings of rugby football in their school, the Old Rugbeians were attempting … to reassert their proprietorship of the rugby game at a time when it was escaping their control and changing in ways of which they disapproved.”
In the opening pages of the 1997 tome The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Rugby notes on the origin of the modern sport that:
“the only thing that is for certain is that Rugby School’s William Webb Ellis did not spontaneously invent the game when he picked up the ball and ran with it […] rugby was by no means the first code to involve running and handling. In fact, before Webb Ellis did his party trick in 1823, all codes of football involved running and handling.”
Today, the winner of the Rugby World Cup is awarded the Webb Ellis Cup – yet few outside the most ardent believers in the myth seriously accept him as the inventor of rugby, much less even a good player at all, necessary. (We do know that he played for the Oxford cricket team, though.)
And Americans born before, say, 1976, may find somehow familiar the William Webb Ellis story and its artificial proliferation – even those who don’t know a thing about the game. That’s because America has its own fake sports origin story which has dissipated from the public consciousness…
Next time: Who invented baseball?