As England prepare for a Rugby World Cup semi-final tomorrow (Saturday October 21), Karl Quinney visits a new exhibition at Twickenham’s World Rugby Museum to explore the game’s history, and the stories of two famous former Rugby School pupils.
Soon after I visited Rugby School, the birthplace of rugby football, and explored the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum – I then received an invitation. A special one too.
To visit Twickenham, the home of England Rugby. More specifically, to attend the launch of a new exhibition – Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story – about the infamous pioneering figure of rugby football, William Webb Ellis, who it seems still very much divides opinion as to whether his actions are legendary or just a myth.
The World Rugby Museum is a proverbial treasure trove, and an extensive collection of rugby football memorabilia. There are over 41,000 recorded objects, 16,500 pieces of archival material and over 11,000 photographs. The archive material here dates from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day and spans the history of rugby right from its origins through to the present day.
Rugby and Rugby School can take a bit of credit for some of its most important items. They include the game’s first written laws which, together with the RFU’s minutes, date from 1871. Where photography is concerned, it holds the first known photograph of the sport ‘A Bigside at Rugby’ which dates from 1860, with further nods to the game’s birthplace with a Pierre De Coubertin-era French jersey and some early examples of caps again originating from Rugby School.
However, of all the numerous exhibits and quite fascinating material, interactive screens and even some hands-on games and challenges, one exhibition area in particular really caught my attention – Wartime. It features a poignant display of memorabilia and video reels and footage from the First World War, including honourable mentions to the Reverend Rupert Edward Inglis and Ronald William Poulton Palmer, both former pupils at Rugby School.
It made me wonder what Rugby the town has missed out on. It really has missed a trick. For the town to not have a permanent venue celebrating everything about the worldwide sport is nothing sort of a travesty.
Having navigated my way around the Museum, I embarked on the Stadium Tour, the chance to see behind the scenes and visit exclusive areas of Twickenham. It begins with the Rose and Poppy Gates, before visiting the hospitality suites and taking a seat in the Royal Box for a view that members of the Royal Family and other VIPs get on match days.
We pass some elegant pieces of artwork, one of which in particular stood out. Simply titled ‘Forever England’, this painting by artist Shane Record is based on a photograph of the England 1914 Grand Slam winning side in Paris on the eve of their final game of the season. It would be their last game of rugby together before the First World War broke out, with five players from that England team making the ultimate sacrifice.
Pitch side, seeing the enormity of the biggest rugby playing stadium in the world from ground level really hits you. It is immense, and that’s when it is empty. Imagine what it must feel like for a player with over 80,000 rugby fans inside watching your every move.
Before we exit the pitch and head down the Player’s Tunnel, we are drawn by our guide to a patch of turf with a white background, a red rose and beneath it the words Ronnie Poulton 1889-1915.
Ronald William Poulton was a pupil at Rugby School, with his name etched into the walls of the school’s Memorial Chapel. He excelled in the rugby 1st XV and even played alongside Rupert Brooke.
Considered by many as the greatest-ever attacking rugby union three-quarter and the best player of his day, Poulton played 17 times for England, including against Wales in the first international at Twickenham in 1910, and was captain of the 1914 Grand Slam winning team. The last international rugby match to be held before the First World War was that 1914 fixture between England and France, at Colombes on 13th April 1914. During England’s 39-13 victory, he set a record for scoring the highest number of tries – four – in an international match, which remained until 2011.
In the spring of 1915, he was at the front in Flanders, where he was to play his final game of rugby, captaining South Midland division. It was whilst supervising engineering works in a trench just north of Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium he was shot by a sniper on 5th May. Lieutenant Ronald William Poulton is buried in the Royal Berks Cemetery, Hyde Park Corner, in Belgium and would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross for bravery. He was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2015. His last words were reputed to be: “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
A piece of hallowed ground from the home of England Rugby will forever mark his grave, while a piece of the country he died defending lies at Twickenham. Ahead of the annual Army v Navy match at Twickenham in 2018, which fell on the 103rd anniversary of Poulton’s death, soil taken from around his headstone was buried beside the pitch, over which players run for every match. The soil was buried by former England player and the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) Great War Ambassador Lewis Moody. The week previous, Moody had visited Poulton’s grave in Belgium, where he placed soil from the Twickenham pitch.
Bringing us back to the modern day, the tour then takes us to the England Changing Room to see and learn about the match day preparations and routines of the players – physio tables, ice baths, bath tubs and all.
And so to the centrepiece of my visit – the special pre-launch of the exhibition Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story.
Curator Phil McGowan told me they had been looking to do a dedicated exhibition on Webb Ellis at the World Rugby Museum for some time, to coincide with his famous act 200 years ago.
The myth and legacy of Webb Ellis has always divided opinion and still does. The whole purpose of the exhibition is to highlight his legacy -asking who was Webb Ellis, did he really invent the game, and what did he do next?
It does just that, examining in great detail his life before, during and after his time at Rugby School, as well as displaying some of his personal effects including a silver snuffbox.
There is information about the origins of the game and timely details about the 1923 Centenary Celebrations at Rugby School, along with some very interesting artefacts on loan from the School, notably what is believed to a top hat of Mathew Bloxam, the Rugby School old boy and benefactor who named Webb Ellis as the boy who first caught the ball and ran with it.
The exhibition poses some thought-provoking questions, particularly from Webb Ellis himself on the back of his own diary notes during his later years as an Anglican clergyman before his death in 1872. It is best to visit the exhibition and draw your own conclusions about which side of history you believe.
This visit to Twickenham provided a chance to follow the stories of two former pupils of Rugby School who, having both graced the hallowed turf of The Close in their youth, made their own mark on both the birthplace and the home of rugby.
Enigma: The William Webb Ellis Story runs at the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham until March 2024.