Forgotten XIII: The Roots of Modern Rugby

In 1871, a group of clubs came together to agree the rules of rugby, becoming founding members of the Rugby Football Union. There were 21 clubs in total – 8 of whom are still active. But what about the rest?

3rd September 2020 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ

Today, the worlds of professional football and professional rugby are poles apart. For one, there’s a big disparity in earnings between top footballers and elite rugby players, but in terms of culture and sportsmanship the differences are similarly vast. For proof, just look at the way that players speak to referees in the Premier League compared to Premiership Rugby. Or the way that they react to getting crunched in a tackle.

But the game played with the round ball and the two codes played with the oval ball – rugby union and rugby league – all share a common ancestry. In Britain, they probably originated in the medieval period as what really amounted to little more than mass brawls between rival villagers, loosely based around the concept of chasing (and fighting for possession of) an inflated pig’s bladder. Anything was permitted apart from actions that led to manslaughter or murder. These brutal games of no holds barred ‘mob football’ existed for centuries in various forms and were commonly played as part of traditional festivals. Over time, this boisterous, rough and tumble brand of fun was co-opted by rambunctious schoolboys at the greatest and most prestigious public schools in England. Eton is still known for its ancient ‘Wall Game’, while ‘Harrow Football’ is a dribbling game played with a pork-pie shaped ball, both of which are forebears of modern football and rugby.

But the name ‘rugby’, or rugby football as it is properly known, is derived from Rugby School, where the game had a fine and long tradition. It was at the same school that rugby’s most famous founding moment came in 1823, when a player named William Webb Ellis supposedly, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’. It’s a romantic story, but probably an apocryphal one. In fact, the way the game was played at Rugby School wasn’t properly set in stone until three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. Still, Webb Ellis’ name has become indelibly associated with the game, and the Rugby World Cup is officially named the Webb Ellis trophy in his honour.

The Roots of Modern Rugby | Wildbounds

An 1871 photograph of the Royal High School, Edinburgh’s rugby football club team

As these schoolboys grew up, they found themselves with an insatiable appetite for the games of their youth, and soon various amateur football clubs sprung up across the country. The first was the Guy's Hospital Football Club, formed in London in 1843 by old boys from Rugby School, which has strong claims to be the world’s first and oldest ‘football club’. But for football to spread beyond this group of alumni from the hallowed halls of England’s public schools, more people would need to know how to actually play it. The fact that almost every club and every school played the game slightly differently was also a bit of a problem. A formal set of rules was needed. And so it was that the Football Association was formed at the Freemason’s Tavern on Great Queen Street in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on 26 October 1863. The intention was to frame a code of laws that would take the best bits of the game as it existed in its various guises to create a single, commonly understood version of the game of ‘football’. This brand of the game would become known as ‘Association Football’, often abbreviated in its early days as Assoc. Football – which would ultimately become ‘soccer’, or just ‘football’.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that there were two different schools of thought when it came to these rules. The major bones of contention were around running with the ball and hacking (basically, kicking an opponent in the shins). Some wanted to outlaw both these practices, but others felt they were integral to the game. At one meeting, Francis Maule Campbell, a member of the Blackheath Club, argued that hacking was an essential element of ‘football’ and that to eliminate hacking would ‘do away with all the courage and pluck from the game, and I will be bound over to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice’. Campbell and the Blackheath Club felt so strongly about this issue that they decided to take a stand and duly withdrew their membership from the Football Association. Other rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA either.

The fundamental schism between football and rugby had taken place. The former now had its own ‘laws’ and its own association, but rugby did not. Yet the latter had enough popular support and interest from various clubs to merit its own governing body. Thus, on 4 December 1870, a letter in The Times was published, suggesting that ‘those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice, as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play’. On 26 January 1871, a meeting was duly held in London at the Pall Mall restaurant.

It was attended by representatives from 21 clubs and schools (all from London or the Home Counties), namely: Addison, Belsize Park, Blackheath, Civil Service, Clapham Rovers, Flamingoes, Gipsies, Guy's Hospital, Harlequins, King's College, Lausanne, The Law Club, Marlborough Nomads, Mohicans, Queen's House, Ravenscourt Park, Richmond, St Paul's, Wellington College, West Kent, and Wimbledon Hornets. The one notable omission was Wasps, who: ‘In true rugby fashion … turned up at the wrong pub, on the wrong day, at the wrong time and so forfeited their right to be called Founder Members’. As a result of this meeting, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded. The first laws of the game were soon drawn up, and these were approved in June 1871.

Some of the names of those original 21 clubs will be familiar – many still exist, playing at various tiers of amateur and professional rugby today. But others have been lost in the mists of time. Indeed, many proved to be short-lived, despite their historical significance. But though they may be gone, they have not been forgotten.

Black and Blue 1871 is dedicated to celebrating their part in the history of rugby, and the brand has produced a series of classic jerseys made from premium heavy slub cotton in the colours of the lost clubs. From Addison to Wimbledon Hornets, you too can commemorate the Forgotten XIII. As brand founder Matt Forward puts it, ‘we’ve taken those thirteen and breathed new life into them.’

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