Clergyman William Webb Ellis, infamous schoolboy creator of rugby football and the name etched upon the Rugby World Cup Trophy, was born this day 24th November 1806 in Salford.
William was the youngest son of James Ellis, a Lieutenant of the 3rd Dragoon Guards and Ann, daughter of William Webb, a surgeon of Alton Hampshire. Following the death of his father in Peninsular War cavalry action at the Battle of Albuera 1812, whilst serving under Duke of Wellington, William’s family were left unprovided for except for a small army pension. Mrs Ellis moved to Rugby, Warwickshire, so that William and his brother Thomas could receive an education at Rugby School at no cost as local ‘foundationers’ (a pupil living within a radius of 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower).
William attended the school from 1816 – 1825 and was recorded as being a good scholar and sportsman, although it was noted that he was “rather inclined to take unfair advantage”.
According to an account published in a school chronicle some years after the event William Webb Ellis whilst playing at football in 1823, caught the ball and, with a fine disregard to the rules as played in his time, rushed forwards with it in his hands towards the opposite goal, thus originating the distinctive feature of the game we now know.
Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays commented on the game as played when he attended the school “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 running in.”
After leaving Rugby in 1826, Webb Ellis went to Brasenose College, Oxford where he played cricket for his University and graduated with a BA in 1829. He entered the Church and became chaplain of St George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London and then rector of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. He never married and died in the south of France in 1872, leaving his estate to charity. His grave in le cimetière du vieux château at Menton in Alpes Maritimes was rediscovered in 1958 and has since been renovated by the French Rugby Federation.