Today is the birthday (1806) of Rev. William Webb Ellis, an Anglican clergyman who is famous for allegedly being the inventor of Rugby football whilst a pupil at Rugby School. Webb Ellis’s name is firmly established in rugby union folklore and the William Webb Ellis Cup is presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup.
Webb Ellis was born in Salford, Lancashire (some sources say he was born in Manchester as Webb Ellis himself said he was born there in the 1851 census when he later moved to the city). He was the younger of two sons of James Ellis, an officer in the Dragoon Guards, and Ann Webb, whom James married in Exeter in 1804. After his father was killed at the Battle of Albuera in 1811, his mother decided to move to Rugby in Warwickshire so that William and his older brother Thomas could receive an 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). He attended the school from 1816 to 1826 and was recorded as being a good scholar and cricketer, although it was noted that he was “rather inclined to take unfair advantage at cricket.” The incident in which Webb Ellis supposedly caught the ball in his arms during a football match (which was allowed) and ran with it (which was not) is supposed to have happened in the latter half of 1823.
After leaving Rugby in 1826, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, aged 20. He played cricket for his college, and for Oxford University against Cambridge University in a first-class match in 1827. He graduated with a BA in 1829 and received his MA in 1831. He entered the Church and became chaplain of St George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London (closed c.1909), and then rector of St. Clement Danes in The Strand. He became well known as a low church evangelical clergyman. In 1855, he became rector of Magdalen Laver in Essex. A picture of him (the only known portrait) appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1854, after he gave a particularly stirring sermon on the subject of the Crimean War.
He never married and died in the south of France in 1872, leaving an estate of £9,000, mostly to various charities. His grave in le cimetière du vieux château at Menton in Alpes Maritimes was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter (co-editor of Guinness World Records) in 1958, and has since been renovated by the French Rugby Federation.
The sole source of the story of Webb Ellis running with the ball originates with Matthew Bloxam, a local antiquarian and former pupil of Rugby. On 10 October 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, Webb Ellis”.
On 22 December 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 , 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.
Bloxham’s first account differed from his second one four years later. In his first letter, in 1876, Bloxham claimed that Webb Ellis committed the act in 1824. In his second letter, in 1880, Bloxham put the year as 1823.
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. The sub-committee conducting the investigation was “unable to procure any first hand evidence of the occurrence.”
Among those giving evidence, Thomas Harris and his brother John, who had left Rugby in 1828 and 1832 respectively (i.e. after the alleged Webb Ellis incident) recalled that handling of the ball was strictly forbidden. Harris, who requested that he “not [be] quote[d] as an authority”, testified that Webb Ellis had been known as someone to take an “unfair advantage at football.” Harris, who would have been aged 10 years at the time of the alleged incident, did not claim to have been a witness to it, additionally, he stated that he had not heard the story of Webb Ellis’ creation of the game.
Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays) 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.”
It has been suggested by Dunning and Sheard (2005) that it was no coincidence that this investigation was conducted in 1895, at a time when divisions within the sport led to a schism; the split into the sports of rugby league and rugby union. Dunning and Sheard suggest that the endorsement of a reductionist origin legend by the Rugbeians was an attempt to assert their school’s position and authority over a sport that they were losing control of.
A plaque, erected in 1895, at Rugby School bears the inscription:
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
Here is a description of tea time at Rugby from Tom Brown’s Schooldays when Tom is newly arrived:
“Tea’s directly after locking-up, you see,” said East, hobbling along as fast as he could, “so you come along down to Sally Harrowell’s; that’s our school-house tuck-shop—she bakes such stunning murphies, we’ll have a penn’orth each for tea; come along, or they’ll all be gone.”
Tom’s new purse and money burnt in his pocket; he wondered, as they toddled through the quadrangle and along the street, whether East would be insulted if he suggested further extravagance, as he had not sufficient faith in a pennyworth of potatoes. At last he blurted out,—
“I say, East, can’t we get something else besides potatoes? I’ve got lots of money, you know.”
“Bless us, yes, I forgot,” said East, “you’ve only just come. You see all my tin’s been gone this twelve weeks, it hardly ever lasts beyond the first fortnight; and our allowances were all stopped this morning for broken windows, so I haven’t got a penny. I’ve got a tick at Sally’s, of course; but then I hate running it high, you see, towards the end of the half, ’cause one has to shell out for it all directly one comes back, and that’s a bore.”
Tom didn’t understand much of this talk, but seized on the fact that East had no money, and was denying himself some little pet luxury in consequence. “Well, what shall I buy?” said he; “I’m uncommon hungry.”
“I say,” said East, stopping to look at him and rest his leg, “you’re a trump, Brown. I’ll do the same by you next half. Let’s have a pound of sausages, then; that’s the best grub for tea I know of.”
“Very well,” said Tom, as pleased as possible; “where do they sell them?”
“Oh, over here, just opposite;” and they crossed the street and walked into the cleanest little front room of a small house, half parlour, half shop, and bought a pound of most particular sausages; East talking pleasantly to Mrs. Porter while she put them in paper, and Tom doing the paying part.
From Porter’s they adjourned to Sally Harrowell’s, where they found a lot of School-house boys waiting for the roast potatoes, and relating their own exploits in the day’s match at the top of their voices. The street opened at once into Sally’s kitchen, a low, brick-floored room, with large recess for fire, and chimney-corner seats. Poor little Sally, the most good-natured and much enduring of womankind, was bustling about with a napkin in her hand, from her own oven to those of the neighbours’ cottages, up the yard at the back of the house. Stumps, her husband, a short, easy-going shoemaker, with a beery humorous eye and ponderous calves, who lived mostly on his wife’s earnings, stood in a corner of the room, exchanging shots of the roughest description of repartee with every boy in turn. “Stumps, you lout, you’ve had too much beer again to-day.” “‘Twasn’t of your paying for, then.”—”Stumps’s calves are running down into his ankles, they want to get to grass.” “Better be doing that, than gone altogether like yours,” &c. &c. Very poor stuff it was, but it served to make time pass; and every now and then Sally arrived in the middle with a smoking tin of potatoes, which were cleared off in a few seconds, each boy as he seized his lot running oft to the house with “Put me down two-penn’orth, Sally;” “Put down three-penn’orth between me and Davis,” &c. How she ever kept the accounts so straight as she did, in her head and on her slate, was a perfect wonder.
East and Tom got served at last, and started back for the School-house just as the locking-up bell began to ring; East on the way recounting the life and adventures of Stumps, who was a character. Amongst his other small avocations, he was the hind carrier of a sedan-chair, the last of its race, in which the Rugby ladies still went out to tea, and in which, when he was fairly harnessed and carrying a load, it was the delight of small and mischievous boys to follow him and whip his calves. This was too much for the temper even of Stumps, and he would pursue his tormentors in a vindictive and apoplectic manner when released, but was easily pacified by twopence to buy beer with.
The lower school-boys of the School-house, some fifteen in number, had tea in the lower-fifth school, and were presided over by the old verger or head-porter. Each boy had a quarter of a loaf of bread and pat of butter, and as much tea as he pleased; and there was scarcely one who didn’t add to this some further luxury, such as baked potatoes, a herring, sprats, or something of the sort; but few, at this period of the half-year, could live up to a pound of Porter’s sausages, and East was in great magnificence upon the strength of theirs. He had produced a toasting-fork from his study, and set Tom to toast the sausages, while he mounted guard over their butter and potatoes; “’cause,” as he explained, “you’re a new boy, and they’ll play you some trick and get our butter, but you can toast just as well as I.” So Tom, in the midst of three or four more urchins similarly employed, toasted his face and the sausages at the same time before the huge fire, till the latter cracked; when East from his watch-tower shouted that they were done; and then the feast proceeded, and the festive cups of tea were filled and emptied, and Tom imparted of the sausages in small bits to many neighbours, and thought he had never tasted such good potatoes or seen such jolly boys. They on their parts waived all ceremony, and pegged away at the sausages and potatoes, and, remembering Tom’s performance in goal, voted East’s new crony a brick. After tea, and while the things were being cleared away, they gathered round the fire, and the talk on the match still went on; and those who had them to show, pulled up their trousers and showed the hacks they had received in the good cause.
It is not difficult to make good sausages as long as you have the proper equipment. You will need a meat grinder with a nozzle attachment for stuffing the casings. Once you get the hang of it you can make a marvelous variety of sausages from scraps and oddments. My favorite is lamb with rosemary and garlic. Here is a recipe for a classic English banger, best served with mash and gravy. Make sure the pork is fatty (about 20% fat), otherwise the sausages will be too dry when cooked.
Classic English Bangers
5 lbs ground pork
1 tsp ground white pepper
½ tsp ground ginger
½ sp sage
½ tsp mace
3 tbsps salt
3 ozs breadcrumbs
15’ – 18’ sausage casings
Chill the pork and then run it through the medium blade of a grinder. Mix in the other ingredients (except the casings) and run the mixture through again. Chill.
Soak the casings for about 15 minutes in warm water, then run warm water through them.
Attach the filling nozzle to the grinder head and thread the casing on to it. Tie off the end of the casing and start extruding the filling. With a little practice you will get the knack of allowing the casing to flow off consistently so that the sausages are even in diameter. Leave a few inches of empty casing at the end to be able to tie it off in a knot.
You will end up with one long sausage. Twist the roll a couple of turns every 6” or so, to make individual sausages, twisting in the opposite direction each time.
Hang the sausages to dry on a clothes horse or rack for about an hour, then refrigerate or freeze until ready to use. It pays to refrigerate them overnight to allow the flavors to marry.