In 1971 the Rugby Football Union produced a promotional film detailing the history and culture of rugby union. It included the following re-enactment of the alleged moment that William Webb-Ellis ‘picked up the ball and ran’ at Rugby School in 1823.
Most people have heard the famous legend about William Webb Ellis but the reality is more complex. The story came to light in 1895 when the Old Rugbeian Society conducted an investigation into the origins of the game. The findings of the investigation were inconclusive. We know that Webb Ellis was a pupil at Rugby School in 1823 and that running-in (the act of running with the ball) was illegal in 1820. It seems likely that pupils such as Webb-Ellis and later Jem Mackie exploited a grey area in the rules, concerning how many additional steps a player was allowed to take after catching the ball, until the action became legal in 1842.
The timing of the investigation is also of interest. 1895 was the year that the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU) came into being. The NRFU introduced the professional rugby code that came to be known as rugby league. Question marks were inevitably raised regarding the legitimacy of both the professional and amateur codes. The investigation and subsequent plaque that was installed at Rugby School in 1900 served to highlight the evolution of the amateur game and solidify its reputation as the game for gentlemen.