Gilbert’s rughby ball
Gilbert’s rughby ball 1851
Lenght 29 cm
Diametre at centre 21,6 cm
Weight 408 g
Of 13,000 exhibitors represented at the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, 25 manufactured sports equipment. Of these, ten related to angling, nine to cricket and five to archery. This splendid canopy, on stand no. 187, was crafted by William Gibret of Rugby. Originally boot and shoemakers, Gilberts had supplied balls to Rugby Schools since at least the 1820s, and by 1851 were based in St MAtthew Street, where the present day museum is located. Leather panels on the canopy’s uprights display the crests of all the school houses.
Rugby was a little known game at this stage, having developed, as school lore has it, after a 15 year old pupil, William Webb Ellis, showed a ‘fine disregard for the rules’ in 1823 by running with the ball in his hands, rather than, as custom dictated, retiring back then punting it forward. The veracity of this tale has been much disputed since, though there is evidence, not least from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, that the handing game did become accepted practice during the 1830s.
Cambridge University adopted rugby in 1839, but otherwise, in 1851 this oddly-shaped ball would have been regarded by the general public more with curiosit than general recognation.
Certainly the ball handled by Webb Ellis would have been round, or at least nearly round.
So why the district oval by 1851? The likeliest theory is that it was dictated by the shape of the pigs’ bladders favoured by Gibert, which resulted in a ball better suited to drop and place kicking over, rather then under the crossbar. Following the introduction of rubber bladders in 1862 – by Gilbert’s rival, Richard Lindon (whose wife, as we read earier, suffered greatly from blowing up bladders using lung power alone) – it then became more uniformly oval and thus easier to handle.
And so the Gilbert family business continued until it was finally bought up in 1978. The brand is now owned by Grays of Cambridge, who formed in 1855 and whose latest Gilbert ball is also part of a great exhibition, as will later be revealed…