Grave of the first rugby player William Webb Ellis in an old cemetery in Menton on the French Riviera

An inspired cheat

Admiring William Webb Ellis’s “fine disregard for the rules”

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When a former rector of St Clement Danes died of tuberculosis on the French Riviera some 150 years ago, it caused little stir back in England. His 1853 tract, Dangerous Errors of Romanism, was scarcely known; his stirring sermon on Crimea, which had earned him a picture in the Illustrated London News, was long forgotten; and the 12 runs he made batting at No 3 for Oxford in the first Varsity cricket match in 1827 did not merit an obit in Wisden. The Church Times did not mention this muscular Christian until 1966, almost a century after his death.

For decades his grave in a hilltop cemetery overlooking the Mediterranean lay covered with weeds until it was rediscovered in the 1950s. Yet later this year it will become a place of pilgrimage, and festooned to commemorate the bicentenary of something he may not have done. The reason is explained there in four words on a plaque: “The first rugby player.”

Instead of punting it away or kicking at goal, Webb Ellis rushed forward with the ball in his hands

William Webb Ellis is properly honoured in Menton now. A trail explaining the game he allegedly created in a dodgy moment in 1823 leads you from the town’s railway station to the graveyard, where stands a bronze statue of the Rugby schoolboy who, in the words of his headstone, “first took the ball in his arms and ran with it”. The England, Wales and Scotland teams who will play in Nice at this autumn’s World Cup should make the short trip to pay their respects. After all, it is his name on the trophy they hope to win. England may even be inspired to try running with the ball themselves, a tactic that has been lacking recently.

Webb Ellis died two weeks before the first Varsity rugby match and a year after the first international, but his name was almost certainly not mentioned at either. The first open rugby club, formed on Blackheath in 1858, would have had little knowledge of the boy who, as The Times put it in a report on a centenary match between Rugby and Blackheath, produced “an inspired bit of cheating”.

The story was first told four years after Webb Ellis’s death in a letter to The Meteor by Matthew Bloxam, an antiquary who had been at Rugby a few years above him and wrote that the boys assembled in the Close after lessons. Captains selected the best 20 for each side and everyone else divided roughly. A game was then played between teams of several dozen in which they had to propel the ball, by kicking or mauling, towards a goal.

Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School, Rugby, Warwickshire, England.

That changed in 1823, he added, when a town boy caught the ball. Instead of punting it away or kicking at goal, Webb Ellis rushed forward with the ball in his hands. It was an act, Bloxam concluded, “which if a fag had ventured to have done, he would probably have received more kicks than commendations”.

The move was a foul, but a cunning one. Matches were not refereed, so penalties were often physical, but senior boys would retire to chew over the events afterwards. Perhaps some liked what they saw and adopted it, though others would cry “Hack him over” at anyone trying it.

Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days, told a school committee investigating Bloxam’s claim that when he started at Rugby in 1834, running with the ball was not forbidden “but a jury of boys would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed in running in”. John Lyon, a little older, recalled it was allowed, but said you’d get awfully bruised shins if you tried it. A powerful player called Jem Mackie in the 1830s is credited with mastering the tactic that Webb Ellis supposedly created.

The game did not change overnight, but thanks to Rugby producing the first printed laws of the game, in 1845, this version spread via boys taking it to university and masters becoming heads elsewhere. Though the committee did not find first-hand evidence to support the story, the school was proud of its myth-history and in 1900 erected a plaque referring to Webb Ellis’s “fine disregard for the rules”.

Webb Ellis had a reputation as a cheat. One Thomas Harris told the inquiry that he was known to take an “unfair advantage” at football

David Ray, a former master at Rugby and co-author of Puddings, Bullies & Squashes, an entertaining history of early public school football, is happy to give him the credit. “I am pretty certain he did what was claimed,” he said. “Bloxam may have left the school by then but he stayed as a local man and was known to watch rugby on the Close for much of the nineteenth century.”

He added that Webb Ellis had a reputation as a cheat. One Thomas Harris told the inquiry that he was known to take an “unfair advantage” at football. “He was a bit of a chancer and not very popular,” Ray said. “There was even a rumour that his mother had sat his Oxford entrance exams for him.” At least Webb Ellis put his place to good use when he went up in 1826. One of the few other traces of his creativity lies in the “Shrove Tuesday Ale Verses” composed since 1709 by students at Brasenose, his college.

The winning entry for 1828 by “WWE” — surely it must be him — includes these lines: “The time draws nigh when one good glass/ shall nerve men for the fiery pass.” What further proof do we need that Webb Ellis was a rugger bugger than a drinking song?

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