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October 28, 2020 3 min read

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by Bernard Frei on March 19, 2019

Rugby Town: Rugby's Home

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 its iconic oval-shaped ball? As the story goes, William Gilbert, a cobbler by trade, created the original rugby football in this very town, and the local players embraced it and ran with it, quite literally. The ball's unique shape developed from the use of blown up pig bladders encased in leather. This elongated form was perfect for players to toss and hold onto, so the beginnings of what eventually became the official rugby ball form was set.

The Gilbert Family

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 which proved key to the business. The relationship that the Gilbert family formed with the school and the local kids populating the fields around town catapulted both rugby and its unique ball into a globally loved endeavor. Much of William Gilbert’s life history 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 and the globe.

“...and as a consequence goods of Mr. Gilbert’s manufacture, especially footballs, are to be found all over the world. Indeed it is hardly possible to go into a London shop, where footballs of different manufacturers are sold, without observing the superior quality of the Rugby ball.”

After William Gilbert’s death, the business was passed down to his nephew, James Gilbert who was renowned for his lung strength and ability to work with his hands.  James personally blew up the balls for match day and even supplied them for free. Local boys often came 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 always obliged. 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 was encased in leather and an ornate roof bore engravings of the houses of Rugby School and their crests.

Gilbert Memorial ball old photo

James Gilbert passed away 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 on three separate occasions. Instead of distracting him from the Gilbert family business, his position on the Rugby Club team 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 fell ill by the time World War I began in 1914 and he passed away in 1917.

James John Gilbert

The Gilbert Legacy Solidified

James John's son, James Gilbert, was in France fighting for England when his father died. Soon after, he returned home to run the family business alongside his mother. James Gilbert continued the family legacy of unparalleled craftsmanship and commitment to quality.  However, there came a time when he questioned the usefulness of his profession, asking 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,  provided the answers James sought. It was written for the London Exhibition in 1851 to accompany the elaborate stand that James’ grandfather 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 determined that the sport of 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. Though the Gilbert Rugby quality still exists today, James Gilbert was the last member of the Gilbert family to run the family business. 

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