A History of Rugby Football

In 1820 the game of Rugby was played rather like soccer, but players were allowed to catch the ball and kick it out of their hands. There were no limits to the number of players on each side, for example, School House v Rest of the School. In 1839, when Queen Adelaide visited the School, School House (75) played ‘the rest’ (225). To score a try would not gain points but would allow a team to ‘try’ to take a ‘drop at goal’ to score a point. With so many on each side this was hard to do and sometimes games would last up to five days. The Close itself was merely three rough fields, and it was not until the late 1850s that the ground was levelled. Sheep still grazed here until the early 1900s. No written rules at this time!


In 1823, William Webb Ellis, a local boy in Town House, first ran with the ball, but this rule was not adopted straight away. By 1830, running with the ball was an accepted play, although the first written rules did not appear until 1845. These rules were written by the boys. Ellis was born just outside Manchester, but moved down to Rugby. He went on to Brasenose College Oxford where he took Holy Orders. He died in France in 1872 where his grave is cared for by the French RFU.

An original Rugby ball was round and changed shape over a period of time to the oval it is today. They varied in sizes depending on the pig’s bladder they were made from. Gilberts, a local boot maker, took up ball making to supply the School. Others, notably London, supplied the boys and it was this maker that invented the inflatable inner and the pump.

Many of the words associated with today’s game originated here. For example, ‘try’ was from the days when a touch-down did not score points, but allowed an attempt to kick at goal. ‘Offside’, ‘knock on’, ‘touch’ and ‘goal line’ are all from the original School football rules.

The Rugby Ball

Rugby School was the only team to play in white because the committee of the RFU in 1871 was composed largely of ORs, which is why England played in white. School House was the first team to play in a uniform kit (long flannels, shirts and caps), because it was the only House to play as a single group until 1850. Before this, the boys played in their ordinary school clothes in teams made up from various Houses. In 1867 the first ‘foreign’ match was played against ORs and the town. The teams were now down to 20 players, and then 15 by 1876. Internal teams stayed at 20 until 1888. The first inter-School match was against Cheltenham in 1896 and half the players in the first England international team were ORs. The RFU was formed (largely of ORs) in 1871 and the first national code was introduced. The boys at Rugby kept their own rules, and even modified them, until the late 1880s. There were no referees in the early days – boys would wear sharpened boots with nails in them for extra hacking. Boys considered good enough to play for the main teams were given ‘following up’ caps, which later developed into the international cap awarded to the country’s top players.

The Kit

The Calcutta (Rugby) Football Club was established by former students of Rugby School in January 1873. However, with the departure of a local British army regiment (and perhaps more crucially the cancellation of the free bar at the club!), interest in rugby diminished in the area and sports such as tennis and polo began to thrive as they were better suited to the Indian climate.

Whilst the Calcutta (Rugby) Football Club was disbanded in 1878, members decided to keep the memory of the club alive by having the remaining 270 silver rupees in their bank account melted down to be made into a trophy. The trophy was then presented to the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to use as “the best means of doing some lasting good for the cause of Rugby Football.”

The Calcutta Cup continues today as the trophy that is presented to the winner of the England versus Scotland rugby union match which takes place during the annual Six Nations Championship.


1845 First codified ‘rules’ of the game drawn up by the levee [School Prefects]: No. 5 ‘Try at goal’ - a touchdown doesn’t count unless it is converted; so it’s a try or attempt at goal. No. 18  ‘A player having touched the ball straight for a tree, and touched the tree with it, may drop from either side if he can, but the opposite side may oblige him to go to his own side of the tree.’ No. 20 ‘All matches are drawn after five days, but after three if no goal has been kicked.’ No. 25 ‘No stranger, in any match, may have a place kick at goal.’ No. 33 ‘The Island is all in goal.

The Rule Book

The first five Rugby Football Union Presidents were Old Rugbeians, as well as the first England captain. An OR introduced the game to Cambridge University. When first played some passers-by ran onto the pitch thinking they were breaking up a brawl!

The origin of half time originated at the School. After some 40 minutes the School captain stopped the game and announced it was hardly fair as his team was playing with a strong following wind. He offered the opposition the chance of playing the rest of the match with the breeze. They changed ends and half time was born. Forty minutes each way was first mentioned in the 1926 rules.

The International cap originates from Rugby, as well as the distinctive posts that go up well above the cross bar. It became near impossible to kick the ball between the posts due to the number of young men who were too young to follow-up and who packed the goal mouth. Hence the kickers began to kick over the crossbar.

Red Cap

England’s original white shirt and shorts with black socks is from Rugby and Oxbridge’s ‘blue’ is directly from the School’s XV.

The terminology in the original rules can still be found in the laws today: knock-on, onside/offside, fair catch, try, goal, place kick, 25 yard [22 m.] line, touch judge, charge, scrummage and in-goal.

More Fascinating Facts…

  • In early days there were three elm trees in the pitch.

  • The first inter-School match was against Cheltenham College in 1896.

  • Ten of the England XX who played Scotland in the world’s first international were ORs.

  • In the 1872 Oxford v. Cambridge match there were 24 ORs on the pitch (20-a-side then).

  • By 1884 the School had produced English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish Internationals.

  • The first South African captain (1891) was an old boy.

  • In 1923 England/Wales played Scotland/ Ireland in an International to celebrate the centenary of William Webb Ellis’s exploit on the Close.

  • Rugby School has supplied two Lions, 63 Internationals (four England captains, two Scottish and the lone Springbok).

  • Three Rugby International O.R.s were killed in the Great War including the incomparable Ronnie Poulton Palmer.

  • The School had won the Rosslyn Park 7s tournament in 1943 beating Bedford 11-3 in the final, and in 1945 beating Oundle 13-0 in the final.

  • In 1947 the School defeated Stoneyhurst 3-0.

  • The Rules included: ‘In the case of accidents, no player may be replaced during the course of the game.’ ‘No prizes or medals will be given.’

  • In 1968 the School was due to play Campbell College, Belfast. The pitch had been affected by a sharp frost and there was some concern. The situation was alleviated by the arrival of referee Gwyn Walters, who dug his heel in and pronounced it perfectly playable, but was then heard to mutter: “they’re young enough to bounce.”

  • In 1973 the School played the Australian Schools in their first tour match.

  • The School owns the earliest pen-and-ink drawing, water colour and oil painting of a game of Rugby Football.

Watch the dramatization of the very first moments of the game