Exploring Rugby's sporting history: The hidden corner that’s home to a world-famous team’s historic archives
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Head out of the Queen’s Gates on The Close and around the corner towards the statue of William Webb Ellis is where you will find a hidden gem of a museum.
Situated on St Mathews Street in Rugby opposite from Rugby School, The Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum is based in the original building where William Gilbert and then his nephew James made the first rugby footballs in 1842. William was the boot and shoe maker to Rugby School and he operated from a small shop in the town’s High Street a mere two streets away. By 1823 and the time William Webb Ellis was creating a piece of sporting history, Gilbert was already supplying balls to Rugby School, and also probably the same one which Webb Ellis famously caught and ran with.
Almost two decades later in 1842, business was booming for Gilbert to such an extent that he expanded their operations of manufacturing rugby footballs and moved his shop to its current location. This tradition still continues today with Webb Ellis Ltd, giving it the accolade and distinction of having the longest continuous association with the game of rugby in the world.
In 1983, the company was taken over by former England international rugby union player Rodney Webb. At the time there was no museum in Britain dedicated solely to the game of rugby football so the idea of turning the premises into a museum was created. That came to fruition four years later in April 1987 with it being first opened to the public.
Today for many people of Rugby Webb Ellis is the place to come to for getting your child ready for school as the company stocks the uniform and accessories for many of the town’s primary and secondary schools. However away from the blazers, sweaters and polo shirts is a side-door to the museum – which is free to enter - and a proverbial treasure trove of rugby memorabilia awaits.
The collection here is displayed in themed areas which include a focus on the game’s origins, famous players, and history of the game and the ball. Where the latter is concerned, visitors can find out about the traditional manufacture of the rugby ball from its origin as a pig’s bladder to the highly advanced and technical production which today serves rugby nations and clubs worldwide. There is also a Gilbert football, similar to those used at Rugby School and exhibited at the first World's Fair at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, Charter Day balls, leather stands from 1851 and the original brass hand pump of Richard Lindon, the inventor of the rubber bladder for rugby balls.
On top of this, what is quite surprising is the extent of the Museum’s collection of rugby-related items and memorabilia. It includes photos, match programmes, ties and artefacts of every description and from all over the globe.
And if this isn’t enough interest to capture the interest and imagination of rugby fans and followers alike, there is more.
As part of this impressive historical haul of rugby memorabilia is a considerable collection associated with the Barbarians, the world-famous rugby club which every year brings together players from different clubs and nations to play a small set of matches in different locations to enjoy the camaraderie of the game.
The Baa-Baas as they are called may be one of the most famous rugby teams in the sport and across the globe, but they are one which has no official home as such. They are unique in that they have no ground, no clubhouse, and charge no entry fee and no subscription. To play and coach for them is an honour. In fact the clubs the Baa-Baas visit and play pay most of their expenses meaning the team itself is in every respect nomadic, a touring club, for there are no "home" matches. The nearest the Baas Baas have come to a home and clubhouse was a spiritual home of the now-defunct Esplanade Hotel at Penarth in Wales which was used annually at Easter from 1901-1971. So with no place to call home as such and store and display items from their travels, a special Barbarians FC section at the Webb Ellis Museum houses shirts, programmes, balls and ties to pay homage to the world’s most famous rugby club.
It seems logical perhaps for a rugby collection to be stored somewhere with intrinsic links to the games. So how did it all come about? Lawrence Webb of Webb Ellis told me that he cannot actually remember the specific reasons why but approximately six years ago they were contacted by the Barbarians FC to see if they could take on and show some BBFC memorabilia which they thought would be a good angle for the museum. Naturally they jumped at the chance and said yes and it has just grown from there. They did also receive some great stuff from Guy Steele-Bodger, son of Mickey Steele-Bodger who was a stalwart of the Barbarians for so long, which certainly gave the collection a boost in variety.
But in keeping with the Barbarians institution that stands for all the good elements of the game, the Webb Ellis Museum are proud to be a part of it. And they certainly are.
So it is perhaps no surprise the museum is continues to be visited by rugby-playing teams, clubs, schools and colleges as well as fans, followers and supporters of the game whenever they are in town. A visit here is equally as important as paying homage to where the game was born just around the corner.
Well, with this fabulous little corner of rugby hidden away in Rugby yards from where the game was first born and its balls first created, why wouldn’t you?
Address Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum.
5-6 St Matthews Street,
Telephone: 01788 567777
Costs: Entry to the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum is free
Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Accessibility: Access is limited for visitors in a wheelchair. Please call the Webb Ellis shop on 01788 567777 prior to your visit.
Parking: Several car parks are close by in Rugby town centre
Karl Quinney is a freelance travel writer and business copywriter based in Rugby, Warwickshire.