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It all began in a town called Rugby in the county of Warwickshire, England. Just eighty-three miles north of London this relatively small town houses the origins of one of the world's most beloved sports. Of course, what would rugby be without that iconic oval-shaped ball? As the story goes, William Gilbert, a cobbler by trade, created the original rugby football right in this very town, and the local players took it and ran with it. The unique shape came from the use of blown up pig bladders encased in leather. This elongated form was perfect for players to toss and hold onto, and so the beginnings of what would become the official rugby ball form was set.
William Gilbert was a long-time boot and shoe maker for Rugby School, one of the most prestigious schools in England. His shop was “within a stone’s throw” of the school and it would prove key to the business. The relationship that the Gilbert family formed with the school and the local kids who populated the fields around town would catapult both rugby and its unique ball into a sport loved across the globe. Much of William Gilbert’s past has been lost to time, but an obituary published on May 12th, 1877 sheds some light on the respect that he earned not just in Rugby, but across the country.
After William Gilbert’s death, the business was passed down to his nephew, James Gilbert. Renowned for his lung strength and ability with his hands, he would personally blow up the balls for match day, and he even supplied them for free. The local boys would come would running into the shop covered in dirt from head to toe asking him to fix a pair of boots or patch a ball and James would always oblige. James was quite the craftsman as well. He created a stand for the 1851 London Exhibition that was described as “conspicuous” and, as you can see below, dripped with his dedication to quality. Every inch is encased in leather with an ornate roof bearing engravings of the houses of Rugby School and their house crests.
James Gilbert passed in 1906 and left his son James John Gilbert (Confusing, we know) in charge. Unlike his father, James John actually played Rugby Football for the local Rugby Club. He wasn’t notably skilled on the field but was notorious for breaking his collarbone three separate times. Instead of distracting him from the Gilbert family business, his position on the Rugby Club team only galvanized his commitment to his work. He saw to it personally that every ball used by the club was of the utmost quality. Unfortunately, James John had fallen ill by the time World War I came around in 1914 and he passed in 1917.
His son, James Gilbert, was in France fighting for England when his father died. He returned home soon after to run the family business with his mother. James Gilbert would go on to continue the family legacy of unparalleled craftsmanship and commitment to quality, but the business did not come to him without its questions. There came a time when James asked himself, “what is the good of my job”. The business fell into jeopardy as these existential questions plagued James’ mind. The discovery of a certificate written by our first Gilbert of this story, William, would provide the answers James sought. It was written for the London Exhibition in 1851 to accompany the elaborate stand that James’ grandfather had built. It classified Gilbert rugby footballs as “educational appliances” and it struck a chord with James. It was a perspective he had never considered before. James decided rugby was a tool, not just for physical education, but also for its ability to build a person’s character. This was all he needed. James was free to continue the legacy that his family had created. A legacy of quality and personal attention. James Gilbert would be the last member of the Gilbert family to run the family business.
Remember the history of rugby by visiting the Vintage Sports collection of rugby memorabilia on our website.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.