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There’s a Deathless Myth on the Close Tonight: Re-assessing Rugby’s Place in the History of Sport

By Lincoln Allison and Rusty MacLean* (This article was shortlisted for the 2013 Routledge Prize.)


Rugby School has traditionally been credited with an important place in the development of modern organised games. The most famous names in this attribution have been William Webb Ellis, the pupil who “invented” rugby football, and Dr. Thomas Arnold, the headmaster who gained global recognition through the publication of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Not surprisingly, academic historians have debunked the significance of both of these men, since it is demonstrable that Webb Ellis did nothing of significance and that Arnold had little interest in games.

But the significance of the school in this respect is in some ways even greater in reality – though quite different – from that in the popular myths. The “Close” in the mid-nineteenth century was a recreational and moral laboratory in the making of games. The boys there not only invented new rules, skills and customs, but took them rapidly to other schools, universities and cities. Moreover, such Rugbeans as Richard Sykes, William Arnold, Herbert Castens and Tom Wills took the practices of the Close to five continents, instituting a global sporting revolution which would have occurred whether “organised games ” became an approved necessity of education or not.

This account uses some important previously uncited sources, especially the various minutes and journals produced by the boys at Rugby.


       It is commonplace to remark that myth can be as important as literal truth in history. Foundation myths are often the most important and enduring: that Romulus and Remus founded Rome or that St. Peter founded the Roman church are beliefs which have happily co-existed for long periods with research which casts severe doubt on their essential and literal truth. Myths in sport have proved especially durable, not least because for most of the history of modern sport there has been little or no scholarship to contradict them. That baseball was “invented” by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown in 1839 has been asserted a thousand times without reference to readily available evidence which blatantly contradicts the statement. The direct English parallel is the “invention” of the game of rugby in 1823 by William Webb Ellis. It is the contention of this essay that, in respect of Rugby School, two major myths, both persistent, but denied by scholarship, have served to obfuscate the true importance of the school to the history of sport. Our argument is that Rugby is a very important place in the history of modern sport, but not because William Webb Ellis ran with a ball in his hand and not because Thomas Arnold invented “Organised Games”. But before we say what did happen that proved important, it is necessary to examine these two myths.

L’Inventeur de Rugby

       William Webb Ellis died in 1872; he was buried in le cimitiere du vieux chateau in Menton, Provence within a mile of what is now the Italian border.(1) The grave was obscure until 1958 when it was “discovered” by Ross McWhirter. Lying alongside the graves of many prominent aristocrats, many of them from Ireland or Russia, it is signposted as the grave of “l’inventeur de rugby” as it has been since 2007 when the Federation Francaise de Rugby co-hosted the Rugby World Cup, played for a trophy bearing Webb Ellis’s name. In his home town a street and a rugby ground are also named after him (he was a “foundationer” pupil whose mother, a war widow, moved to Rugby for the free education). When Jean Dujardin received a BAFTA award in 2012 as best actor for his part in The Artist he remarked how proud he was to be awarded a prize “from the land of Webb Ellis”. Not Shakespeare or Churchill, but Webb Ellis!

Neither the town nor the school has really sought to eschew the powerful propaganda effect which comes from the belief in a single, brilliant act of invention. The town has made much of l’inventeur, especially in Rugby World Cup years and the school held a grand invitational centenary game to commemorate the invention in 1923. There is a plaque at the school which commemorates the seminal moment.(2) But the story is given no credence in either academic accounts of the development of the game nor in the histories written by serious journalists and practitioners.(3) Actually, it is not so much false (which it isn’t, necessarily or completely) as preposterous in its assumptions and implications and derisory in its provenance. The plaque says that Webb Ellis was a boy in 1823

. . . who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.

If the statement is put into the context of Rugby School in 1823 it reads very oddly, as if designed to mislead. That he “took the ball in his arms” has to be understood that the right to handle the ball fully was an undisputed convention of all forms of “football” played in the area and at the school. The incident precedes the Association (or “soccer”) code of the game by forty years. Read by a less informed and more recent reader it might be understood that they were playing “soccer” – or something very much like it – at the time. Indeed such accounts can be found on the internet, as can stringent denials of Webb Ellis’s significance; it was such an account in the Rover, one of the comics produced by D.C.Thomson & Co. in the 1950s, which introduced one of us (Lincoln Allison) to the existence of the rugby game.

The idea that he then “ran with it” is missing something. The crucial missing word is “forwards” because a player could run backwards or sideways after making a mark. What was in dispute was whether he could gain ground simply by running forwards carrying the ball. Among the descendants of the game in the twenty-first century this is allowed in the American code, but not in the Australian. Thus the reference to “the rules of football” is also anachronistic. There were conventions and there were disputes, but no rules as such. Among the most disputed issues were whether one could “hack” opponents, how one could pass and the circumstances under which one could run carrying the ball. Webb Ellis may have been one of those who favoured carrying, but he was not the only one and there is no evidence that he was particularly influential.

The story does not seem to have emerged until the 1870s, much as the idea that the Duke of Wellington attributed victory at Waterloo to “the playing fields of Eton” does not seem to have emerged until after the Duke’s death. Its author was Mathew Bloxham who wrote in the school magazine, The Meteor, in 1880 that Webb Ellis

. . . pushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal, with what result as to the game I know not, neither do I know how this infringement to a well know rule was followed up or when it became as it is now a standing rule.(4)

Bloxham was a solicitor and this is a suitably modest and careful claim. He does not claim to have witnessed the incident: in fact, he entered the school in 1813 and was probably gone by 1823. His most likely source was his younger brother, John Rouse Bloxham, and it is important to note that this first statement of the Webb Ellis story does not suggest that the incident had any important influence on developments.(5) Thomas Hughes (also a lawyer) commented that when he went up to Rugby in 1834 “running in” was not specifically forbidden, but it was not done; he commented that it would have been considered “grounds for justifiable homicide”.(6) It seems probable that Hughes meant that the act would be condemned for its irrationality as much as for its dubiety. Imagine running alone towards a large hostile mass of opposed boys! The 1839 game between the School House and the Rest was between 75 boys on one side and 225 on the other, for example. It is possible, surely, that if the Webb Ellis incident occurred it happened on an occasion on which there were fewer boys than usual playing, thus making circumstances more like modern Rugby Union. Running forward with the ball – from an opposition kick rather than from a pass – was allowed in the minuted rules of 1841 and in the printed versions of 1845 and 1846.

The Webb Ellis story works as a foundation myth – and consequently as a brand image. Assuming that it actually happened, it falls into the category of symbolic events which were attributed with magnified significance by later generations – like William Tell’s apple, perhaps or Robert the Bruce’s spider. But it demonstrably had little impact on the development of football at Rugby or on the emergence of Rugby Union. And its repetition has served to mask and confuse what really happened at Rugby.

Les Jeux Arnoldiens: the Doctor as Games Master

       Dr. Thomas Arnold, head master of Rugby School between 1828 and 1842, has often been attributed with an important role in the development of “athleticism” and “organised games” in the education of boys. Not the least enthusiastic – and certainly not the least important – of these attributions came from Baron Pierre De Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic movement. In his Memoirs De Coubertin recalled that

At Easter, in 1927, among the age-old ruins of Olympia, the Greek Minister of Public Instruction removed the sheeting that covered a monument commemorating the restoration of the Olympic Games. As he honoured me by recalling past events, my thoughts turned to Kingsley and Arnold , and to the chapel at Rugby where the great clergyman rests who was, as I see it, one of the founders of athletic chivalry.(7)

In his writings De Coubertin refers to Arnold far more often than to any other educationalist and he is always “grand”: the great headmaster, the great educationalist. De Coubertin read Tom Brown’s Schooldays when he was seventeen with immense curiosity and enthusiasm and when he was twenty he made a pilgrimage to Rugby, where he was shown around the school by Henry Lee-Warner, a master who was also a former pupil. There was later a rumour that he conspired to spend a night in the newly-constructed chapel with its prone statue of Dr. Arnold.

He can have seen little or nothing which linked the Doctor directly to Rugby’s cult of games.   There was considerable investment in sports facilities and buildings at the school, but, with one minor exception, none of them had been financed or administered by Thomas Arnold; the exception was some gymnastic equipment on “the Mound”.(8) Arnold had previously been in charge of a private educational establishment in Laleham, Surrey; there were no games and he did not attempt to introduce any. The best known of his sons, by then, Mathew, was known for his belief in high educational standards and a literary culture rather than for any enthusiasm for games.(9) Arguably, the Arnold family’s greatest contributions to games came from Thomas’s wife, Mary, whose idea it was to reserve special clothes for football to save the boys’ normal clothes from the mud, and from his fourth son,William, who, three years after his father’s death was one of a sub-committee of three set up by the levée to draw up printed laws for football.

There is nothing in Tom Brown’s Schooldays which suggests a direct involvement by Thomas Arnold in games. In Chapter 5 where Tom (and later the world) is introduced to “football” he is a figure in the background, mentioned only once:

The School-house is being penned in their turn, and now the ball is behind their goal, under the Doctor’s wall. The Doctor and some of his family are looking on, and seem as anxious as any boy for the success of the School-house.(10)

De Coubertin, perhaps, saw it differently. There were the playing fields, the games, the happy, fully masculine, boys. There, three decades and more earlier, had been the Great Man, now revered. Post hoc ergo propter hoc; it happened under Good King X so Good King X must have done it – the inference may have become easier with the passage of time, possibly and partly because boys and masters were having to deal with heads who were less enthusiastic about games than they were. In a sense, Arnold had something in common with William of Orange as he is portrayed in David Hume’s History of England Volume VI whose very weakness proved to be unprecedentedly friendly to a “system of liberty” which allowed commercial society to develop as it had never been allowed before. Lytton Strachey saw both paradox and a cause for sympathy in the dissonance between the Doctor’s regime and its legacy:

By introducing morals and religion into his scheme of education, he altered the whole atmosphere of Public School life. Henceforward the old rough-and-tumble, which was typified by the regime of Keate at Eton, became impossible. After Dr. Arnold, no public school could venture to ignore the virtues of respectability. Again, by his introduction of the prefectorial system, Dr. Arnold produced far-reaching effects – effects which he himself, perhaps, would have found perplexing. In his day, when the school hours were over, the boys were free to enjoy themselves as they liked; to bathe, to fish, to ramble for long afternoons in the country, collecting eggs or gathering flowers. “The taste of the boys at this period,” writes an old Rugbæn (sic) who had been under Arnold, “leaned strongly towards flowers”; the words have an odd look today. The modern reader of Tom Brown’s Schooldays searches in vain for any reference to compulsory games, house colours, or cricket averages. In those days, when boys played games they played them for pleasure; but in those days the prefectorial system – the system which hands over the life of a school to an oligarchy of a dozen youths of seventeen – was still in its infancy and had not yet borne its fruit. Teachers and prophets have strange after-histories; and that of Dr. Arnold has been no exception. The earnest enthusiast who strove to make his pupils Christian gentlemen and who governed his school according to the principles in the Old Testament has proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form.(11)

Arnold was a devout Christian who believed that human life was a constant, Pauline, struggle against evil. If there was one sentiment which he urged more often than any other it was the greater importance of the moral and spiritual dimensions of life when compared to the merely intellectual. Politically, he was a left-Whig, with tendencies towards Christian socialism. He disapproved of most of what constituted the British Empire in his lifetime, including the East India Company, indentured labour in the West Indies and transportation to Australia. It is ironic that he is widely perceived to be the re-inventor of a Public School system which became a bastion of imperialism and militarism.

One of the difficulties of assessing Arnold is that he was both an historical figure and a character in a novel. Arguably, Hughes’ Arnold is the more famous one and, sans Tom Brown, Thomas Arnold would have been chiefly known as Mathew Arnold’s father. Hughes, it seems to us, is not inaccurate in his account of Arnold, but there is no doubt that Hughes relished the physical and the athletic – football, cricket and fisticuffs, for instance – with an enthusiasm Arnold did not share. The term “muscular Christianity”, which came into being fifteen years after Arnold’s death as an ironic description of Charles Kingsley’s beliefs, can fairly be applied to Hughes and is close to his own concept of “manly piety”.(12) It was this physicality which so appealed to De Coubertin, faced as he was in France with educationalists such as Father Dupanloup who emphasised the need to learn obedience and the denial of the body.(13)

But Hughes revered Arnold and it is easy for the reader to amalgamate the enthusiasm for the Great Headmaster and the love of muscularity into more than it really was. It is interesting to note that there is a difference between the Tom Brown of the book and the presentation of the character and the story in most of its representations on screen. These always concentrate on Chapters 5-10 which take us from Tom’s arrival at the school to the defeat of the bully Flashman (which is, of course, an important step in the success of the Doctor’s project). They form a coherent story and are the template for a thousand subsequent “school” stories. What is not seen on screen is the first four chapters, about Tom’s life at home, and the last half of the book which deal with an epidemic in the school and the physical and spiritual crisis of George Arthur, a younger boy for whom Tom is a mentor (as we should now say). It could be argued that in these passages Hughes is closer to the Doctor’s spirituality than he is in some of the more robust episodes.

Contemporary historians, taking a cold look at the traditional and popular orthodoxy of Arnold as the prophet of organised games, have tended to dismiss it completely. J.A.Mangan has baldly stated that

It must be made quite clear that the conviction that Arnold was responsible for the “athletic sports system” of the public schools, although widely held, is, in the unmerciful expression of a recent commentator, a “specific erroneous belief”. It does not accord with the evidence and should be firmly rejected.(14)

We will argue that, although this dismissal is correct on its own terms it also misses what is truly important. Arnold’s regime was crucial to the development of organised games for two reasons.

First, he allowed it to happen. The boys at Rugby were experimenting with many kinds of games and athletic competitions in a progressive way before he arrived and continued to do so after his death on his forty seventh birthday. There is a reasonable sceptical argument that he had no real choice about tolerating this process, that an attempt to prohibit or control something so central to the boys’ culture could have been fatal to his regime. But they also serve who merely allow. George I did not attempt to impose either a religious orthodoxy or a constitutional doctrine on his subjects, avoiding the errors of his Stuart predecessors: he presided over, but did not control, an unprecedented period of commercial freedom and growth. Even if Arnold had succeeded in taking control of school games they would probably not have thrived as they did. As it was, the boys continued to “own” games and they benefited from the immense energy of that ownership. In any case, Arnold positively believed in what became a liberal educational orthodoxy, the pupil’s development of responsible autonomy. One of De Coubertin’s favourite quotations from Arnold was

I wish to form Christian gentlemen; I wish to teach children to govern themselves, which is far better than governing them myself.(15)

He often commented that, whereas the French lycée was designed to produce slaves, the English public school was designed to produce masters.

Thus the second reason that Arnold is important in the history of sports and games is that he defined their limits by investing them with virtue. In the robust words of Hughes, there were “heathen” games – and ways of playing games – and “Christian” games. The heathen way, as exemplified by Flashman, included forms of hunting and fishing which verged on poaching and, of course, gambling. This struggle between a Georgian and Victorian conception of sport, portrayed as a dark side and a light side, remained a theme of school stories until the twentieth century. Games were Christian insofar as they were conducted within the bounds of “gentlemanly conduct”, a phrase which has echoed down the generations from Arnold’s sermons into the rulebooks of such organisations as FIFA in the twenty-first century. Thus, seen from one perspective, Arnold’s contribution to the history of modern sport is negligible. But seen from another it is immense: he gave it its theology. Because of this misunderstanding of Arnold’s role the extraordinary achievement of the boys on the Close has also been misunderstood and underestimated.

The Close as Oasis

It is generally agreed that in the first half of the nineteenth century the traditional games of England were in steady, often terminal, decline. Enclosure Acts, running at more than eighty a year during the wars against the French between 1793 and 1815, had severely reduced the space available. Time was also in short supply as the average of forty four “high days and holidays” enjoyed by the predominantly rural population in the mid eighteenth century was whittled down in new forms of employment to a tiny fraction of that. Bob Cratchitt had to plead for his Christmas Day and when holidays finally received statutory recognition in 1871 there were only four of them. By mid-century the majority of the population lived in towns and cities. They lacked the time and space for the larger forms of traditional recreation, including most forms of “football”. But even those left in the countryside – except possibly in the most remote areas – had severely reduced resources with which to play games.

The decline of games was not merely the unintended consequence of economic and social change: from the 1830s these processes were reinforced by political pressures. John Hargreaves has stressed that the state’s first involvement in anything we can call sport consisted of acts of prohibition. In parliament an alliance between Utilitarians and evangelical Christians passed statutory bans on many traditional sports involving animals and at local level the magistrates and the new local authorities used existing legislation to ban many existing activities as riotous.(16) In the case of Anthony Delves’ notable study of Derby in the 1840s the principal debate was about the “football” match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s which has since given the world its name for an intense local rivalry.(17) In Delves’ study the opposition to football fell into two camps. The first we can call the Fundamentalists, who wanted to rid the town of mass recreation altogether and the second the Pragmatists, who were prepared to offer more organised and orderly alternatives such as horse racing.

The new England of the middle-classes was about industry and sobriety – which was exactly what traditional folk games were not about. This was, in the phrase of one recent historian, the “age of respectability”(18) , but other historians like the traditionalist and nationalist Sir Arthur Bryant have seen it as the decline of an England which had been typified by an intense sense of duty combined with a strong sense of fun into something more selfish and narrow-minded.(19)

In short, those who wanted to play traditional games increasingly lacked the time, space and political freedom to do so. But the boys at Rugby had all of those things. They had long afternoons for recreation. They had an enclosed piece of land, “the Close”, acquired in 1750 when the school moved to its present site and which was adequate for purpose and meant that they no longer had to play improvised games in local cemeteries as they once had.(20) Their games were descended from those traditional in the area, but refreshed by boys from many other regions and even countries with innovation and argument as consequences.(21) Crucially, we shall argue, they were free from political interference either from the School authorities or – except in extreme circumstances like the rebellion of 1797 – the civil authorities. And at least some of them had access to money, the kinds of money that would allow them to invest in games facilities.

There is, of course, nothing new about saying that English games went into decline and were revived in the public schools. In saying that we are reiterating an old orthodoxy and opposing major revisions to it, but with the proviso that it happened earlier and more influentially than elsewhere. In arguing for this we shall stress three factors in the development of games at Rugby which we believe historians so far have neglected or underestimated. They are: the level of autonomy which the boys possessed, the extent of experimentation in games which they practised and the extent and effects of the Rugby diaspora.

A Boys’ Republic

       When Pierre De Coubertin visited Rugby for the first time in 1883 he was twenty years old. The school had a powerful and well-established Old Rugbean headmaster, John Percival, who had been there for six years and who would remain for another twelve. Thomas Arnold had been dead for four decades; his prone statue, saint-like, lay in the newly constructed neo-medieval chapel. He was now the revered figure who had put Rugby on the global map – or, perhaps, he could be better described as the figurehead of an idea of Rugby that Thomas Hughes had put on the global map. It would be entirely understandable for De Coubertin, as he was shown around the school by Henry Lee-Warner, who was born in the year that the Doctor died, to form a false impression about how Rugby worked. Indeed, he appears to have done so, attributing to Arnold’s direct influence much that was merely accepted by him. It was natural for many other commentators and visitors to make similar mistakes, especially if they came from overseas or state systems of education where principals and headmasters were all-powerful’

Yet he would only have had to read his Tom Brown’s Schooldays carefully to realise that although the book ends in a spirit of almost religious awe of the Doctor, it does report considerable opposition to him. In “After the Match” Brooke says to the House:

One other thing I must have a word about. A lot of you think and say, for I’ve heard you, “There’s this new Doctor hasn’t been here so long as some of us, and he’s changing all the old customs. Rugby, and the School-house especially, are going to the dogs. Stand up for the good old ways, and down with the doctor!” Now I’m as fond of old Rugby customs and ways as any of you, and I’ll give you a word of advice in time, for I shouldn’t like to see any of you getting sacked. “Down with the Doctor” ‘s easier said than done. You’ll find him pretty tight on his perch, I take it, and an awkwardish customer to handle in that line. Besides now, what customs has he put down?(22)

The answer is in two parts: some practices which today we would categorise as vandalism (such as removing the lynchpins from the wheels of farmers’ carts) and “the hounds”. The Doctor has made his compromises with the boys, distinguishing between those of the old customs which might be deemed virtuous and those which cannot. Brooke is an ally – and an important one at that.

Brooke’s speech is made at a meeting of what Hughes calls the “levy”, which is his anglicisation of what appears in its own minutes as the “levée”. There was a “levy” of the whole school, but the more frequent and powerful meeting was an assembly of the Sixth Form and clearly regarded itself as having considerable sovereignty over matters of recreation and discipline. Everyone involved would have known of the great school rebellion of 1797 when the head master, Henry Ingles (the “Black Tiger”), was forced to call in the militia and to read the Riot Act. They would also have known that several of the rebels went on to achieve high rank in the church and the army. By the Victorian period violent rebellion was no longer on the agenda in a culture which increasingly insisted on respectability; the atmosphere had changed much as the atmosphere of British Universities changed between 1970 and 1990. But the “levy” was still highly conscious of its own independent powers and head masters were dependent on their own political skills to achieve their projects. In these respects, Arnold seems to have been most effective. His distinction (in Hughes’ terms) between “Christian” and “heathen” sport worked well as did what we would now call his “open door” policy – his willingness to be readily accessible to individuals for discussions, starting a tradition which continues to this day.

Later headmasters did not always show such political skill. The tenure of Henry Hayman (1870-74) seems to have been doomed from the start by a campaign of stolid, if polite, rejection though he did not face boys alone, but colleagues and Old Rugbeans (he was not one himself). His position became a cause celebré, frequently debated in The Times.(23) When John Percival (who was a former pupil) took over in 1887 he attacked the culture of “swells” – of boys arrogating status and privilege to themselves because of success at games. The outward manifestations of this were the caps and braids worn by the “swells”. It is interesting to note the tone of the levée‘s response:

. . . the feeling of the School is against the proposed change . . . The VIth hope that Dr. Percival will always find them ready to give advice and assistance in carrying out any measures which he thinks are for the good of the School.(24)

The tone, surely, of this message is closer to that of a powerful twentieth century trade union addressing a new managing director than it is to the ways in which principals and headmasters would be addressed by pupils in most educational systems. (In this case the levée had a complex position, because it had itself condemned the arrogance of “swells” who were not in the VIth). The levée maintained its powers throughout the nineteenth century. Although Arnold had introduced prefects it continued to consist of the entire VIth form. It was only after A.A.David became Head in 1910 that the Levée was confined to prefects, thus making it a more clientalist institution and giving the Head greater control.

Hughes makes clear that the boys operated a strong version of the public school aversion to involving masters in matters of discipline:

In fact, that solemn assembly, a levy of the school, had been held, at which the captain of the school had got up , and, after premissing that several instances had occurred of matters being reported to the masters; that this was against public morality and school tradition; that a levy of the sixth had been held on the subject, and they had resolved that the practice must be stopped at once; had given out that any boy in whatever form , who should thenceforth appeal to a master, without having first gone to a praeposter and put the case before him, should be thrashed publicly, and sent to Coventry.(25)

In certain matters of games the boys’ republic does not even require its own disciplinary procedures, but can rely on its norms being internalised by its citizens:

Today, however, being the School-house match, none of the School-house praeposters stay by the door to watch for truants of their side; there is carte blanche to the School-house fags to go where they like: “They trust to our honour,” as East proudly informs Tom; “they know very well that no School-house boy would cut the match. If he did, we’d very soon cut him, I can tell you.”(26)

In summary, the boys exercised a high degree of autonomy in several areas. If it was contested in discipline, it was undisputed in matters of games. In several respects they exercised choices inconceivable to subsequent generations. There were not just endless debates about rules, but also frequent arguments about seasons. William Arnold, the Doctor’s fourth son and one of the three boys who drew up the first printed rules of football in 1845, wrote an amusing account of the “September debate” about the shift from cricket to football.(27) The football party would take to wearing multiple overcoats to stress how cold it was. In the specific year that he describes (1846) the levée agreed to the change on September 15th by a majority of forty-nine and the first great event, the “Puntabout”, ensued, leading within a couple of weeks to the match between the VIth and the rest which had replaced the School-house match as a principal event. This sort of sovereignty was eventually to be a victim of its own success as Rugby’s ways spread and seasons and rules became standardised. . However, it should be noted that when the Rugby Football Union (whose committee contained a majority of Old Rugbeans) published a code of rules for national use in 1871, the levée refused to accept them, finally complying only in 1881.(28)

The boys had the time and space and the political independence and institutions to develop games. They also showed a capacity to raise and spend money on facilities, an aspect of their power which it is easy to forget, given that in later generations schools were expected to provide sports facilities. The boys investment include rackets courts and a cricket pavilion, but they also commissioned equipment from various saddlers and other local tradesmen who thus evolved into sports equipment manufacturers.(29) The most notable of these was William Gilbert (1799-1877) whose shop, then as now, was just outside the school gates and whose eponymous balls were used for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Internal Modernisation

       Rugby School was founded in 1567 by Lawrence Sheriff, grocer to Elizabeth I. Like many such foundations it was intended to serve the poor boys of the founder’s town of origin. But by the eighteenth century it had become something like a “public” school, as they were later recognised, with boarders and a system of “houses” for residents, pupils coming from all over the British Isles and even beyond. In an important way the school was failing in its original mission and one of the long term consequences of this was that a grammar school was eventually founded (in 1878) named after Lawrence Sheriff. But the more important consequence for our purposes was that there were a considerable variety of boys, bringing different experiences and knowledge to their enterprises.

It was natural for the boys to amalgamate images of their games with the classical allusions that lay at the heart of their education. The Meteor was the school magazine which, unlike its predecessors, devoted a large part of its space to games.(30) It was first published in 1867 – it is still published today – and from the start games were portrayed in classical terms: the athletic sports were described as “our own Olympic Games” and successful actions were “Herculean” and “Corinthian”. This is the kind of classical aspiration which led the Amateur Athletic Club (later Association) to replace popular vernacular events like throwing the cricket ball and backwards running by the discus and the javelin. Certainly, Pierre De Coubertin would not have needed to visit Much Wenlock or Chipping Campden to conjure up the idea of a modernised Olympics.

Traditional games had taken place over hundreds of years without any great need for clerical activity, but to young Victorians it was natural to print rulebooks, write match reports and record scores. Referees were not an internal Rugby innovation, however: the early rulebooks were two inches square and intended to be carried in the pocket by players on the field. The legacy that referees only exist to adjudicate laws when captains disagree has largely disappeared from modern sport, though it has left some vestiges in cricket. In general some boys – as the fictional Brooke suggested – may have been keen to preserve “the old customs”, but there were many others who brought the Victorian spirit of innovation to the Close.

Moreover, their debates necessarily had a cosmopolitan quality. In the first century and a half the games were rooted in predominantly local traditions. But, as the school recruited from further afield much broader influences came to bear. There were those who knew the cnapan of Wales and Cornwall, played with a much smaller, harder ball and therefore more of a running and passing game and less of a kicking game. There was also experience of the Gaelic caid, usually taken to be the prime source for modern Gaelic Football. It has even been suggested that one Australian pupil, who will be discussed in more detail below, brought knowledge of Aboriginal games to the debate. All of this makes the question of what the ancient sources for rugby football are – or any of the similar or derived codes, for that matter – extremely elusive.

Football evolved steadily at Rugby, but, unlike cricket, it remained a local tradition. It was, though, well known as a local custom; it was taken as an interesting curiosity that the boys (still) played their own form of football which had a kind of permissive approval that was denied, for example, to the citizens of Derby. In 1839 the Dowager Queen Adelaide visited the school and watched School House play a “Rest” three times their numerical strength.(31) William Arnold, writing in 1851, described the status of football at the school thus:

In all recollections of Rugby, Football must occupy a prominent place, for Football as played at Rugby is, in itself, its accompaniments, even in its very pomps and vanities, essentially Rugbean.(32)

The game as he was recalling it (from India) from 1846 had already progressed well beyond that of a few years earlier which was destined to become globally known through Hughes. It had written rules and a small, red rule book to consult. It was played by smaller numbers and the game between the VIth and the rest had replaced the School House game as the chief event. In 1850 School House consented to play another individual house for the first time: they lost to Cotton’s. Thereafter the natural evolution of the game was towards the kind of inter-house competition which became familiar to boys in thousands of schools in a dozen countries: selected teams, fixed numbers (originally twenty per side) and competition between “the green and gold of Cotton’s, the purple and silver star of Mayor’s, the flushing red and crescent of Arnold’s . . . ”.(33)

The boys continued to run their own show, organising competitions and drawing fixtures as well as running teams. In the 1860s this internal dynamic of modernisation interacted with the development of games in the outside world and the evolution accelerated. Perhaps the most significant marker for the future occurred on November 16th, 1867 when, for the first time a School XX played a “foreign” team, the XX of A. C. Harrison. In some respects this novelty was a minor technicality because the School had already played Old Rugbean teams and eighteen of Harrison’s twenty were, in fact, ORs. But this is the most important single landmark in the recognition that “Football” was no longer a purely local custom. From 1871, the year of formation of the Rugby Football Union the School, despite disagreements about rules, regularly played other schools and the selected XXs are recorded in hard covers for posterity. With astonishing rapidity in the next twenty years what had been “essentially Rugbean” became also essentially Welsh, New Zealand and Boer. Rugby football had become the victim of its own global success.

It was not only in football that innovation was occurring. Racquets and fives courts were designed, paid for and standardised by the boys. Running also developed from uncompetitive pack-running to public houses in the Arnold era (essentially “fun running” in twentieth century terms) to “Hare and Hounds” when the boys ceased to run beagles to something much more like a modern cross-country athletics event. The “Hare and Hounds” book shows this development: by the 1860s the leisured run to the pub had evolved into an event with precisely defined courses and recorded times. The minute written by Andrew Scott of the Barby run on October 1st 1868 gives some flavour of the change:

Hares: 1. A. Scott (Wilson’s) 40mins 0secs
2.Bulpett (Wilson’s) 44mins 15 secs

Hounds: 1. Lomax (Hutchinson’s) 49 mins 55secs   (etc.)

The hares ran splendidly, Bulpett certainly proving himself to be one of the most promising runners in the school. My own time, which was carefully timed by several fellows, so there can be no mistake, was by far the fastest on record: it was by three and a half minutes faster than Hoskins in 1862 and by three and a third minutes faster than Tanqueray’s time in 1864 which up to this time was the fastest on record. The time was quite correct and we went the right way as described in Prance’s book.(34)

Scott’s precision – and his egotism – seem much closer to modern sport than they are to the runs of a generation earlier. He shows, surely, the kind of “focussed” determination, not only to achieve, but to have his achievement properly recognised, that typifies successful modern sportsmen. He is not far from “I am the greatest, God bless me” and readers of Anthony Trollope will not be surprised to learn that he found his vocation in the Church, serving as vicar of St. Mary’s, Paddington from 1884 to 1900. He typifies what De Coubertin called “the tendency of sport” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”) as opposed to “the spirit of sport” (“gentlemanly conduct” and “fair play”). It is a pleasant irony to remember that the man who contributed perhaps most to the revival of non-elite, recreational running in the twentieth century by organising the London Marathon, inaugurated in 1981, was an Old Rugbean, Christopher Brasher, brought up on “the Barby” and the other long-established school runs.

The Green Pavilion Diaspora

       At Rugby School, between the pre-historic burial ground known as “the Mound” and the main rugby field stands a large, one-roomed, green hut known as “The Green Pavilion”. It was built in 1841 at a cost of £152-10s which was raised by the boys of the levée and it is believed to be the oldest purpose-built cricket pavilion in the world which is still standing. In it are listed School cricket 1st XIs from the date of construction; these lists include many of those who developed and modified games at Rugby and many who spread the word throughout the world.

Undoubtedly the most famous is Thomas Hughes (1841) whose statue can be seen from the back of the pavilion, across the road in front of the library. Whatever one might think of Hughes as a novelist or a moralist – he is still widely read and the inspiration for contemporary books and films, but he is not much studied in Literature departments – there can be no doubting his significance. He is the St. Paul or Lenin of something that happened at Rugby, though that something can be construed in several different ways. His themes of manliness, sportsmanship, Christian duty and the importance of having the physical courage to stand up to bullies became a kind of moral and educational orthodoxy throughout the British Empire. He was also very influential in the United States (where he founded two towns called Rugby) and, through writers like Hippolyte Taine and Pierre De Coubertin, on France.

Although there were antecedents he also, in effect, founded a literary genre, the “school story” which remained important for approximately a century, though it has descendants, in the literary sense, in the twenty-first century. It would, however, be difficult to avoid the conclusion that almost all of the subsequent examples subverted Hughes’ Christian Socialism into a cruder cult of patriotism, courage and victory. As would his hero, Thomas Arnold, Hughes would have every right to be bemused by many aspects of his legacy. More reasonably, he could be read as reviving a European tradition of knightly values in an apparently cold commercial world – which is how De Coubertin read him. But Hughes is by no means the only person who frequented the Green Pavilion who can be described as an important sporting missionary. Some of the others are:

Richard Sykes (1839-1923)

       Dick Sykes was born in Stockport, but eventually settled in Montecito, California. He captained football while at Rugby and shortly after leaving school took balls from Rugby to Liverpool where he organised the first game on the 19th December 1857 and founded the first football club. Three years later he helped found the Manchester club. In the USA he introduced rugby football and golf to schools and colleges and founded five towns in North Dakota: Sykeston, Bowdon, Edgely, Chasely and Alfred.(35)

Thomas Wentworth Wills (1835-1880)

         Tom Wills may hold some sort of record as the school boarder to travel the longest distance. He came from the Australian bush town of Gundagai, New South Wales to be a boarder at Rugby at the age of 14, staying until he had completed his education. On his return, he proselytysed organised games in Victoria and on 7th August 1858 was involved in the organisation of a 40-a-side game between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School conducted according to “the Rugby regulations”. The following year he chaired the meeting which modified these into the rules of Melbourne Football Club, “a game of our own” as he put it, which became the rules of Australian Football.

Wills was also an excellent cricketer. He continued to play football for Melbourne until 1874. Sadly, Wills was, in later years, an alcoholic and depressive whose behaviour was often very erratic; he killed himself at the age of forty four. As a result, his central role in the creation of “Aussie Rules” has been played down in official accounts until relatively recently. (36)

H.H. Castens (1864-1929)

Herbert Castens was born in Pearston, Eastern Province, but educated at Rugby and Oxford where he excelled at both football and cricket. On his return to South Africa, he captained his native country at both games and, in the informal atmosphere of those days, acted as captain, manager and referee for the first British Lions tour in 1891. He spent much of his life in what was then Southern Rhodesia, rising to be Government Secretary.(37)

Henry Lee Warner (1842- 1925)

         Warner was one of four brothers from Norfolk, two of whom (himself and William), attended Rugby while John went to Marlborough and Edward to Uppingham. During his years at Rugby he was Head Boy and a leading fund-raiser for Rackets courts. But his most significant act was, arguably, when he was a master at the school in 1883 and he showed Pierre de Coubertin around the sports facilities. The two remained friends and were in correspondence for the rest of their lives.(38)

Thus the lines of communication stretch from the green hut on the Close to Australia, America and South Africa. They extend to France and through France to much of the rest of the world. Also India: William Arnold ended his short life (he died in 1859) in charge of education in the Punjab. Globalisation was not something that would wait for internal processes to be completed nor did it depend on official channels. It occurred instantly and personally and pre-dated the official gospel of games. Arguably the first national codification of football was not in England in 1863, but in Victoria in 1859. Clearly this instant globalisation of sporting ideas and practices has been underestimated and is in need of further research (mainly in the recipient countries). But even on the basis of the scholarship which already exists it is possible to say that the importance of such men as Tom Wills and Herbert Castens was vastly greater than that of their fellow Old Rugbean, William Webb Ellis.

The process of long-distance dissemination was simultaneous with a more local process. In an accelerating way from the Hughes period onwards, boys took the ideas of the Close back to their own towns and villages and on the universities and regiments they joined and the factories and parishes over which they presided. So did the masters: by 1870 eleven masters who had served under Arnold or his successors had moved on to head other major schools including Marlborough, Wellington, Cheltenham, Haileybury, Clifton, Warwick, King Edward’s Birmingham and Fettes.(39) The professional network established from Rugby was comparable to that of Wellington’s staff officers – or, at a later date, that of the University of Warwick Registry in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Famous for the Wrong Reasons

“Football” played within fixed times and places, marked by white lines; teams of limited numbers led by “captains”; “caps” for successful players; written and printed laws for games; terminology such as “off-side”, “touch” and “in goal”; white shirts for School House- and therefore for England; all of these features of modern organised games were evolved independently by the boys of Rugby school in the mid-nineteenth century as were important features of racket games and running races. They directly influenced half a dozen codes of football including the eponymous national codes of Australia, Canada and the United States. This was the work of boys and it had little to do with successive headmasters whose attitudes varied from mere tolerance to benevolent tolerance to hostility (in the case of John Percival) though it is doubtful, given the Rugbean power structure, that any of them would have achieved much either by forbidding games or by trying to take control of them. Those histories of organised games which see the process as top down, in terms of headmasters, are thus, in important respects, missing the point. For example, four out of the five headmasters profiled in J.A. Mangan’s important study were not in office until the 1850’s, by which time the process of dissemination was well under way. They were G.E.L. Cotton, whose house at Rugby had been the first to beat School House (Marlborough 1852), Edward Thring (Uppingham 1853), Henry Walford (Lancing 1859) and Hely Hutchison Almond (Loretto). The fifth is C.J. Vaughan (Harrow 1845).(40)

It is thus important to realise the counter-factual hypothesis that organised games would have developed, that they would have spread to the universities, the Army and the colonies, that something like the Football Association and or the Rugby Union would have come into being whether educational authorities like headmasters and the Clarendon Commission had become enthused about the “value” of games or not. The judgement was soon made that games were a good preparation for the rigours of Empire: William Arnold made it, writing to his old school from India in 1851, half a century before Sir Henry Newbolt equated “ten to make and the match to win” with “the colonel dead and the Gattling jammed”.(41) But it was essentially a retrospective judgement as was the puritanical educationalists’ belief that a regime of exhausting games and cold showers could help curb the dangers of sexual desire.(42) So the story of games as an official enthusiasm, with an ideological justification, may be an important story, but it is not the story of the origin of modern games.

In that story Mary and William Arnold are more demonstrably important than Thomas Arnold and Tom Wills and Herbert Castens are immeasurably more important than William Webb Ellis. The real story is of the Close as a kind of laboratory. First it was a recreational laboratory turning ill-defined vernacular games into something more organised, more formally and fairly competitive and more classical. Later there was a moral dimension to the laboratory. Quite what the contribution of Thomas Arnold and his conception of “gentlemanly conduct” was is difficult to say. The equation was a love of play plus a desire for fairer and more formal competition plus a moral aspiration to “athletic chivalry” equals modernised games. The last of these aspirations surely came fairly naturally to the likes of a young Tom Brown (or Tom Hughes) – or to anyone who had read Ivanhoe.


* Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of the Politics of Sport at the University of Brighton. His books include The Politics of Sport and its sequels and Amateurism in Sport. Rusty MacLean is Chief Librarian and Archivist at Rugby School.



  1. Visited by Lincoln Allison in September 2011.
  2. The plaque was constructed in December 1899 and January 1900.
  3. See Kenneth Sheard and Eric Dunning, Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football, Frank Cass, 1979 and John Reason and Carwyn James, The World of Rugby: A History of Rugby Union Football, BBC, 1979.
  4. Published in The Meteor, December 12th, 1880 and reprinted in Football Records of Rugby School, 1823-1929, published by George Over (Rugby), 1930, p.20.
  5. Matthew entered Rugby in 1813; the date of his leaving seems to be unknown, though he never claimed to have witnessed the Webb Ellis incident. John entered Rugby in 1814 and left in 1826.
  6. In a letter quoted in Football Records of Rugby School, op. cit., 10.
  7. Pierre De Coubertin, Olympism, Comité Internationale Olympique, 2000, p. 515.
  8. These were erected in 1835 and consisted of horizontal and parallel bars and a vaulting horse. They were originally intended for the sole use of the VIth form, but the privilege was later extended to the Vth.
  9. See especially Mathew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, Cambridge University Press, 1993. (First published 1879)
  10. Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Collins, 1993, p. 98 (First published 1857)
  11. bartleby.com/189/301.html, Lytton Strachey, “Thomas Arnold” pp.14-15. From Eminent Victorians, first published 1918.
  12. See Norman Vance, “Kingsley, Charles (1819-75)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  13. For an exploration of the idea that De Coubertin saw Arnold as the “anti-Dupanloup” see Lincoln Allison, “The Ideals of the Founding Father” in John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson (Eds.) Watching the Olympics: Power, Politics and Representation, Routledge, 2012, pp. 18-35.
  14. A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public Scxhool, Frank Cass, 2000, p. 16. (First published 1981). The author he is quoting is Alicia Percival in Very Superior Men: Some Early Public School Headmasters and their Achievement, Chas. Knight, 1973.
  15. De Coubertin, op. cit., p. 107.
  16. John Hargreaves, Sport, Power and Culture: A Social and Historical Analysis of Popular Sports in Britain, Polity Press (Cambridge), 1986.Anthony Delves, “Popular Recreation and Social Conflict in Derby, 1800-1850” in Eileen and Stephen Yeo (Eds.), Popular Culture and Class Conflict, 1590-1914, Harvester (Sussex) and Humanities (New Jersey), 1981.
  17. Anthony Delves, “Popular Recreation and Social Conflict in Derby, 1800-1850” in Eileen and Stephen Yeo (Eds.) Popular Culture and Class Conflict, 1590-1914, Harvester (Sussex) and Humanities (New Jersey), 1981.
  18. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900, Harvard University Press, 1988.
  19. Sir Arthur Bryant, The Age of Elegance: England, 1812-22, Reprint Society, 1954. (First published 1950)
  20. Originally three enclosed fields purchased with the manor house when the school moved to its present site. The next substantial addition was over a century later in 1854 when the then head master, Dr. Edward Meyrick Golbourn, bought land which includes the current 1st XV rugby pitch.
  21. Rugby’s first overseas pupil according to the records was John (presumably an anglicisation) Tashmaker who arrived from the Netherlands in 1696.
  22. Hughes, op. cit., p. 113.
  23. See J. B. H. Simpson, Rugby Since Arnold: A History of Rugby School from 1842, Macmillan, 1967, pp. 66-100.
  24. Minute of 23/09/1887.
  25. Hughes, op. cit., p. 151.
  26. , p. 94.
  27. D. Arnold, “Football” in The Book of Rugby School, published at Rugby, 1856, with a preface by Edward Meyrick Goulburn, pp. pp. 147-169. The essay appears to have been written in 1851. William Arnold’s colleagues on the rules sub-committee were Walter Waddington Shirley (Rugby 1840-46) and Frederick Leigh Hutchins (same dates). Arnold and Hutchins were seventeen at the time, Shirley was sixteen.
  28. Minutes of the Bigside Levée, February 1st, 1881.
  29. In 1860 three rugby fives courts and the first racquets court were opened, all paid for by subscriptions organised by the boys.
  30. The Rugbean (1850-52) was essentially a literary magazine with a supplement on cricket and a brief mention of athletics, but nothing on football and The New Rugbean (1858-61) had some report of football, but less than the other two activities.
  31. October 19th, 1839.
  32. The Book of Rugby School, op. cit. , p. 147.
  33. , p.160.
  34. “The Barby Hill, Thursday, October 1st, 1868” in The Hare and Hounds Book (manuscript) for that date.
  35. In all of these cases biographical sorces are in short supply, but this is especially true of Sykes. It should also be admitted that, although Sykes would have frequented the Green Pavilion, his name is the only one of those listed here which does not actually appear in it as he was not a successful cricketer.
  36. F. Mandle, “Wills, Thomas Wentworth (1835-1880” in Australian Dictionary of Biography: adb.anu.edu.au./biography/wills-thomas-wentworth-4863 (retrieved 16/05/12) The Australian online family history lists contemporary sources and can be found at: tww.id.au/family-history-wills/edward-spencer-wills/patq02.htm# (Retrieved 16/05/12). These sources (and others) disagree on the exact date and place of Wills’ birth, reflecting outback conditions at the time, but in all cases it is 1835 and in a remote place.
  37. Laubscher, “Herbert Hayton Castens,” South African History Online, www.sahistory.org.za/people/herbert-hayton-castens. (Retrieved 16/05/12)
  38. Apart from basic internal sources such as the Rugby School Register there is little biographical material available about this Henry Lee Warner (as opposed to the Tory politician of the same name). His brother Edward merited a Times obituary (19/09/1927), but he did not.
  39. B. H. Simpson, op. cit. , Appendix 1, pp. 295-298, lists 72 masters at Rugby who became headmasters of other schools between 1842 and 1964. They include R. R. Timberlake, Rugby 1932-39, Lancaster Royal Grammar School, 1939-61, who was Lincoln Allison’s first headmaster at the latter school.
  40. Mangan, op. cit.
  41. William Arnold, op. cit. , Sir Henry Newbolt, “Vitai Lampada” in Collected Poems, 1897-1907, Nelson, 1907, pp. 131-33.
  42. An example of this top-down, conspiratorial-ideological approach (the opposite, in many respects, of what is being claimed here is David Winner, Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, Bloomsbury, 2005.