01 April 2023

Rugby, the home of the game,
is celebrating 200 years since
Webb Ellis broke the rules

Graham Ibbeson’s statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

It is frequently said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. The saying has long been attributed to the victor at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Dublin and spent three years at Eton after his early schooldays in Trim, Dublin and Chelsea.

However, this oral tradition is probably apocryphal. The earliest version of it said to date from 1856, when Wellington revisited Eton and is said to have declared: ‘It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won!’

There are other versions of the aphorism. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), in his essay ‘An Eton Boy’ in the Fortnightly Review in 1881, wrote of ‘how the battle of Waterloo was won in the playing-fields of Eton. Alas! disasters have been prepared in those playing-fields as well as victories; disasters due to inadequate mental training – to want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity.’

George Orwell said more pungent in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941): ‘Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.’

The playing fields of Rugby … more important than the ‘playing fields of Eton’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

But there are other public schools with different memories associated with their playing fields. Thanks to events on the playing fields of Rugby 200 years ago, it could be said with pride that this year Ireland has won the Triple Crown, the Grand Slam and the Championship title.

This year marks the bicentenary of the game of Rugby. It is 200 years since William Webb Ellis took the ball in his arms and ran with it on the Close at Rugby School. Before 1823, football was played much like Australian rules football is played today. It was ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time’ that William Webb Ellis ‘first took the ball in his arms and ran with it.’

Throughout 2023, Rugby School and the rugby world are celebrating this anniversary. We will be welcoming teams from a range of backgrounds and abilities to play on The Close, as well as hosting dinners, evenings and the annual ‘Festival On The Close,’ which this year will be named ‘With a Fine Disregard’ in honour of Webb Ellis.

Regent Place … the site of ancient settlements and a long-lost castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

As I was growing up, any mention of the town of Rugby brought to mind not only the game of Rugby, the school, and William Webb Ellis, but also the cement works, the railway junction, Tom Brown’s schooldays, Matthew Arnold and Archbishop Frederick Temple.

These days, I pass through Rugby frequently on the train. But I decided to visit the town yesterday, thinking any Irish rugby fan still in a celebratory mood from the result two weeks ago should visit the home of rugby this year.

Rugby is a market town in east Warwickshire, with a population of almost 80,000, and the second-largest town in Warwickshire. It is 134 km (83 miles) north of London, 48 km (30 miles) south-east of Birmingham, and close to Coventry, Northampton and Leicester.

There were Early Iron Age settlements in the Rugby area. They were followed by the Dobunni and the Corieltauvi, Celtic tribes. During the Roman period, Tripontium was established on Watling Street, about 5.5 km away, and the small settlement was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons ca 560.

Rugby is named in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Rocheberie. In the 12th century, Rugby had a castle on the site of Regent Place today, although this may have been little more than a fortified manor house. By the 13th century the name was commonly spelt as Rokeby or Rookby. Rugby became a parish in its own right in 1221 and a market town with a charter in 1255.

Rugby School had moved to its present location by 1750 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Rugby School was founded in 1567 with a bequest from Lawrence Sheriff, who made his fortune in London as the grocer to Queen Elizabeth I. Sheriff intended Rugby School to be a free grammar school for local boys, but it gradually became a mostly fee-paying private school, and most of its pupils came from outside Rugby.

Rugby School moved from its original site north of Saint Andrew’s Church, to its present location south of the town centre by 1750. But Rugby remained a small town until the mid-19th century. A major railway junction was established in 1840 and spurred the development of industry and the rapid growth of population.

Rugby was transformed into a railway town, large-scale cement production began in the town in 1862, heavy engineering industries began to set up in Rugby in 1890s and 1900s, attracted by its central location and good transport links.

The invention of Rugby is credited to William Webb Ellis and his legendary rule breaking in 1823, when he picked up the ball and ran with it during a match. Of course, there is little evidence to support this story, but the school is credited with codifying and popularising the sport and in 1845 three Rugby School pupils produced the first written rules of the ‘Rugby style of game.’

Rugby School is also the setting of Thomas Hughes’s semi-autobiographical Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), and the town is the setting for Charles Dickens’s story Mugby Junction.

Rugby School is said to have been one of the inspirations behind the modern revival of the Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin, visited Rugby School several times in the late 19th century, and named the school as one of his major inspirations behind his decision to revive the Olympic Games.

Rugby also claims to be the birthplace of the jet engine. Frank Whittle built and tested the world's first prototype jet engine at the British Thomson-Houston (BTH) works in Rugby in 1937. Holography was invented in Rugby in 1947 by the Hungarian-born inventor Dennis Gabor, who later received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971.

The Clock Tower in Market Place stands on the site of an ancient cross and traditionally marks the centre of Rugby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The town centre in Rugby is mostly Victorian and early 20th century, although some older buildings survive. The main shopping area has traditionally been in the streets around the Clock Tower, including High Street and Sheep Street, which were pedestrianised in the 1980s.

The Clock Tower was built in Market Place in 1887 on the site of an ancient cross and traditionally marks the centre of Rugby.

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Rugby as ‘Butterfieldtown’ because of the number of buildings in the town designed by William Butterfield in the 19th century, including much of Rugby School and the rebuilding of Saint Andrew’s Church.

The buildings of Rugby School mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The buildings of Rugby School mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries, with some early 20th century additions.

The oldest school buildings are the Old Quad Buildings and the School House, the oldest parts of which date from 1748, but were mostly built between 1809 and 1813 by Henry Hakewill. Most of the present landmark buildings date from the Victorian era and were designed by William Butterfield, a disciple of AWN Pugin. They include Butterfield’s New Quad buildings, dating from 1867 to 1885, and the chapel, dating from 1872.

Graham Ibbeson’s statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School, at the junction of Lawrence Sheriff Street, Dunchurch Road and Warwick Street, is one of the most visited sites in the town. The statue was funded by world-wide subscription and unveiled in 1997.

The school buildings behind the statue were designed by Butterfield, and have patterns of Staffordshire blue-black bricks on a background of yellow and red brick. The main School Chapel, also designed by Butterfield, has the grave of Thomas Arnold and memorials to many Old Rugbeians, including Rupert Brooke, Lewis Carroll and Matthew Arnold. The grey stone Memorial Chapel designed by Sir Charles Nicholson is a later addition from 1922 and honours Old Rugbeians who died in two World Wars and in Korea, Cyprus and Egypt.

The Temple Speech Room commemorates Archbishop Frederick Temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

But what ever happened to the boy when is said to have invented the game of Rugby?

When he left Rugby in 1826, the Revd William Webb Ellis (1806-1872), went to Brasenose College, Oxford. He played cricket for his college, and for Oxford against Cambridge in 1827. He graduated BA in 1829 and MA in 1831, and after ordination became chaplain of Saint George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London, and then the Rector of Saint Clement Danes in the Strand. He became the Rector of Magdalen Laver in Essex in 1855. When he died in the south of France in 1872, he was buried at Menton.

The plaza in front of the school chapels and surrounding the Webb Ellis statue is still bedecked with the flags of the Six Nations following this year’s championship. The Webb Ellis Cup is presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup every four years. France is hosting the Rugby World Cup later this year. Here’s hoping for a memorable Irish performance.

The game goes on (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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