When did Aussies first hear of William Webb Ellis and his Rugby deeds?1980s? 1970s? Try the 1870s!
Since the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, the William Webb Ellis Trophy has brought and kept the name of the Rugby School boy in the forefront of publicity and talk about the sport.
Of course prior to the World Cup era the story of Webb Ellis was far from unknown to even those with a modicum of interest in Rugby history, particularly those reared on the boom in Rugby books published in Britain in the 1950s-70s, that found their way to Australian book shops and libraries.
What is perhaps surprising though is how much further back in time the first mention of Webb Ellis in print in Australia goes.
In late 1900 the news reached Australia that the now famous tablet (plaque) had been added to Rugby School’s ‘Doctor’s Wall’ in tribute to Webb Ellis and his running with the ball. The story was the subject of a number of short newspaper articles in the opening months of 1901.
This however wasn’t the first time the Webb Ellis name appeared, as a year earlier the publication of the report to the Old Rugbeian Society that credited the schoolboy as the originator of running forward with the ball in hand was deemed newsworthy.
But even this wasn’t the first instance.
Way back in May 1877 newspaper editors clipped from their English contemporaries their reporting of Matthew Bloxam’s October 1876 letter to the Meteor, which first brought up Webb Ellis:
Football. — From the Meteor, a school paper edited by Rugby boys, we extract the following interesting account of the origin of football by the eminent antiquarian, Mr. M. H. Bloxam, an old Rug.: — ‘ The present Rugby game, so far as the rules authorize the ball being taken up and carried by hand, the holder running with it, was unknown during the time I was at school — 1813 to 1821 — and was, I think, introduced in Dr. Arnold’s time. I have since ascertained that this change originated with a Town Boy or Foundationer of the name of Ellis— Wm. Webb Ellis— who was entered at Rugby School in 1817, and left at Midsummer, 1825. It must, I think, have been in the second half-year of 1824 that this change from the former system, in which the football was not allowed to be taken up and run with, commenced. At first the new practice did not succeed, but was soon set aside, and not again introduced, by whom I know not, till Dr. Arnold’s mastership, 1828-1842.
Keen observers may note that Bloxam refers above to the pivotal football season as that of 1824, not 1823 as we are all familiar with today.
In a letter to Meteor in 1880 Bloxam this time stated the year was 1823.
This was a date more in keeping with what is known about Webb Ellis, moreover he had left Rugby School before 1824.
Of course, the ironic twist to all of the above is that Webb Ellis had died four years before his name was first brought up by Bloxham in 1876.
All of the Rugby football fame and reverence for the Webb Ellis name was entirely unknown to the man himself.
When the obscure English clergyman, Rev Wm Webb Ellis, passed away in 1872, there was no report in Australian newspapers.
© Sean Fagan