IRB Hall of Fame
William Webb Ellis was born in Salford, England, on November 24, 1806, the second son of James Ellis and Ann Webb, his older brother Thomas having been born two years earlier in London.
Their father James Ellis, son of Thomas and Ann Ellis from Upton-upon-Severn, married Ann Webb who hailed from Upton St Leonard’s at St Peter’s Cathedral in Exeter in 1804.
An ensign in the 1st Dragoon Guards, James Ellis served in Ireland in 1807 and returned to the regimental barracks in Manchester in 1808. The following year he bought a commission in the 3rd Dragoon Guards for £735, a very substantial amount in those days. He died in action at Albuera in Portugal in July 1812 and was commended for gallantry.
After his death Ann Ellis applied for a pension and was granted £10 for each child. She understood the value of good education and as a result the family moved to Rugby, where the boys could receive free education as “foundationers” – that is town boys living within a radius of 10 miles from the Rugby School Clock Tower.
Both William and his older brother Thomas entered the school in 1816. Nine years later William was admitted as an Exhibitioner at Brasenose College, Oxford, while Thomas – after a brief and unsuccessful stint at the Sandhurst military academy – settled in Dunchurch near Rugby, where he married a local girl and qualified as a surgeon and chemist. He died in 1868 and is buried in the village cemetery.
William, who had a successful academic career at Oxford, graduated in 1829 and then carried on for a further two years to get his Masters Degree at Magdalen College. Ironically, though Rugby Football has secured his immortality, he excelled at cricket, playing for Oxford against Cambridge in 1827, some years before ‘Blues’ were awarded.
A close up of a game at Rugby School
After leaving Oxford he was ordained and became minister of St George’s, Albemarle Street, London. He was rector of St Clement, Danes on the Strand, the current Royal Air Force chapel, when his mother died in 1844. He did not marry and for the following 17 years of his life he was rector of Laver Magdalen church in Essex.
The only known portrait of William Webb Ellis is an engraving published in the Illustrated London News in 1854 following a sermon on the Crimean War. He became ill with tuberculosis, at the time a major life-threatening disease, and during the last decade of his life he travelled frequently to Menton, in France, which had an ever increasing reputation as a heath resort. The town had a significant British expatriate community at the time and many of them, including Webb Ellis, stayed at the famous Hotel d’Italie et de Grand Bretagne, overlooking the sea.
Ellis died on January 24, 1872, a few months after the first rugby international between Scotland and England had taken place in 1871. A few days before passing away, and aware of his deteriorating health, he bought the land for his grave in the Vieux Chateau cemetery on the coast overlooking the town and wrote his will, in which he left a substantial part of his £9,000 savings to several London charities and to his brother’s widow in Dunchurch.
His tomb was rediscovered in 1958 by a French journalist and former rugby player Roger Dries and Englishman Ross McWhirter.