|In the Warwickshire town credited with inventing rugby – and which gave its name to it – stands the building with the longest continuous connection with the sport. And within that building, behind a frontage which looks like something straight out of Dickens, is the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum.
It was in this building in 1842 that William Gilbert started a workshop, beginning a tradition of making rugby balls that is carried on to this day by Webb Ellis Ltd – and is through their shop that you get to this small museum.
Rugby School’s part in the birth of rugby and its rules is faithfully re-told, featuring the letter that credited William Webb Ellis with inventing the sport, more than 50 years after the supposed event.
As well as displays about the growth of the sport and the players that popularised it, the Museum focusses on the manufacture of rugby balls and their development from leather and pig’s bladders to modern synthetic materials. There is a film (without sound) showing the process but it is a shame there is not more, given the building’s history and use, and the lack of a showcase for the making of sports equipment elsewhere in Britain.
It would be inconceivable that the town would not have a museum dedicated to the sport but inevitably a lot of what is on show mirrors the content of the much larger World Rugby Museum at Twickenham.
Rugby Borough Council runs a blue plaques scheme and a ‘pathway of fame’ self-guided tour, both also available via MP3 downloads. The tour includes the Museum, Rugby School’s memorial celebrating Webb Ellis’s “fine disregard” for the rules of the time and Graham Ibbeson’s Webb Ellis statue. The Rugby Visitor Centre shares a building with the town’s art gallery and museum, while Rugby School has a museum and runs tours of its own – though obviously the sport is only one aspect of this.
William Webb Ellis, by then a priest and perhaps not realising what he had apparently begun, moved to the south of France in later life, probably for his health. His grave was re-discovered in the town of Menton in 1958 and can be visited. Rugby Council has produced a bilingual leaflet highlighting the links between the two towns. This is also available on Menton’s tourism website.