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The popularity for the English acceptance of rugby football in the mid nineteen-century emanated, ironically, from the publication of a work of fiction entitled Tom Brown’s School Days. Written by Thomas Hughes, who described himself as an “Old Boy of Rugby,” the novel was published in 1857, and by 1862, it sold more than 28,000 copies, a certified best-seller.
The book featured the tale of 11-year old Tom Brown who matriculates at Rugby School in the 1830s (a decade after William Webb Ellis picked up the round ball there).
Brown is befriended by an older boy in his house, and together, the two defeat the bully Flashman. The institution’s moral tone reflects the actual reforms by the noted educator Dr. Thomas Arnold, who served as headmaster at Rugby from 1828 to 1841. Arnold believed in the classics, and also, sport for public school boys. Within the novel, Tom triumphs from physical activity, boldness, team play, a fighting spirit, and bonding with others. This became the model for other British scholastic institutions, and, later for eastern elite American private schools, which sought to emulate the English system as initiated at Rugby School.
Baron de Coubertin – founder of the modern Olympics - visited Rugby School to learn first-hand the English education school formula. He imported rugby football to France, convinced that the sport could toughen up French youth.
Flashman enjoyed a twentieth-century literary renaissance as the archetypical bully in the hilarious 12-novels of George MacDonald Frazer. Fraser turned Flashman’s cowardice into success, recreating famous historical events in the late nineteenth-century.
The ethical Rugby School hero Tom Brown, possessed of a firm moral compass, and intrepid derring-do, would reappear in another literary guise as Harry Potter at Hogwarts.