I wrote the following short piece as the prologue to A Social History of English Rugby Union in 2009. At that time, the William Webb Ellis myth seemed to be fading away. But as anyone who saw Friday's opening of rugby union's world cup [which you can see below], it's back with a vengeance, And once again, expediency, this time commercial, has outweighed evidence...
Of the little that is known about William Webb Ellis, we can be certain of one thing. He did not invent the game of rugby football.
An unremarkable schoolboy, he lived his life in dutiful obscurity as an Anglican clergyman until his death in 1872. Four years later, however, a second life began for him when Rugby School old boy and benefactor Matthew Bloxam suddenly named Ellis as the boy who in 1823 first picked up the ball and ran with it. Bloxam offered no evidence for his claim. Nor did he provide any in 1880 when he reiterated his view.
At the height of the war that split rugby apart in 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a committee to investigate the true origins of the Rugby football. Despite considerable efforts, not one person came forward to support Bloxam. The committee found not a single eye-witness, not a solitary written word, not even a syllable of hearsay evidence to support the William Webb Ellis story.
Nevertheless, the committee decided ‘in all probability’ that Ellis was the ‘innovator’ of running with the ball. In 1900 a plaque was erected at the school that proclaimed unhesitatingly that Ellis ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’ in 1823.
Not for the first time in the history of rugby, evidence had been outweighed by exigency.