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Schoolboy players

The illustrious history of Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, transcends the recognizable fact that it is regarded as the birthplace of rugby football, a sport played currently in more than 95-countries. Through the personage of William Webb Ellis (schoolboy from 1816 to 1825), the world acknowledges the story – part myth or part truth – that he picked up the ball and ran with it on that memorable day in 1823.

From the moment in the mid-18th-century that students at Rugby, and later at other English public schools, referred to the carry and tackle game as “rugby football, the fate of the sport and the school would be linked forever.

It is important to narrate, at first, the non-sport facet of Rugby School to understand how its academic foundation, arising from the dedication of its noted Headmaster, Thomas Arnold (1828 to 1842), influenced the concept of education both in Great Britain and in the United States. Also, it’s a direct link from Arnold’s advocacy of a “muscular Christianity” for boys to the idea of communal amateur athletics, and the modern Olympic Games.

History and Thomas Arnold

Rugby School was founded in 1567 as a school for local boys, one of the many public schools like Harrow, Eton, and Winchester that would educate upper class youth. The reputation of the school changed more prominently when Thomas Arnold assumed the role of Headmaster in 1828, initiating a series of educational and scholastic reforms. The most prominent was the insistence on a classic languages (Latin and Greek) to serve as the basis for education. Between 1842 and 1899, 23 of Rugby’s assistance masters would, in turn, become Head Masters at other schools, transporting the school’s classic curriculum to other British institutions.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays

Arnold’s reforms, both academic and within Rugby (i.e.; the prefect systems for upper-classmen), would have remained confined to other, similar British schools had it not been for the publication in 1857 of the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. The author, who attended from 1834 to 1842 (and matriculated at the school during Arnold’s time) stated it was written “by an Old Boy of Rugby.” Tom’s educational, sport, and social activities took readers into a first-hand look at general life at a public school, and, a specific look at Rugby School. This novel would introduce the genre of British public school fiction followed by later works of James Hilton’s 1934 Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and, most famously, the seven novels about the wizard’s school (Hogwarts.)

Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympics

France has taken a pasting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and it desperately looked for answers why. An idea occurred that the nation’s youth had to toughen up to meet the next German challenge, resulting in a demand for more physical sports for boys. The French leaders looked across the Channel to the United Kingdom and its many sports programs.  One of the prominent French leaders was Pierre de Coubertin who had read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and made several visit to Rugby School in the 1880s. He helped introduce rugby in elite clubs in Paris, played, coached, and refereed the game. Through his participation in organizing and expanding club rugby, the Baron envisioned the idea of nations coming together to participate in a modern Olympic Games.

(Part II – The pitch, the sport and the museum at Rugby School)