William Gilbert (1799 – 1877) was a shoe manufacturer for the Rugby School. He operated from a small store in the town which was later acquired by Grays as a sports store. In 1823 Gilbert was already supplying balls to the Rugby School when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, giving birth to the game of Rugby Football. The original rugby balls were plum shaped, but the use of pig bladders soon gave them an increasingly oval shape. Today, Gilbert rugby balls are made from synthetic bladders. In 1842, William Gilbert moved his store to St Mathews Street, Rugby, right next to the school. In 1851 Gilbert Rugby’s fame and reputation grew significantly. Gilbert Rugby won medals at the Great Exhibitions in London in 1851 and 1862. In 1875, Richard Lindop invented the first rubber bladder in Rugby and the modern rugby ball evolved to improve passing and handling.
When William Gilbert died in 1877, his nephew James succeeded him. Gilbert sewed 2,800 balls a year. As the game grew, Gilbert’s business expanded. In Cambridge, Grays also produced rugby balls – primarily for the university, which played the game in 1839 with Parkers Piece. In 1917, following the death of his father, the last Gilbert to be involved in the company, James Gilbert returned from the war to run the business. James Gilbert was a meticulous man, checking and stamping each Gilbert game ball to maintain the brand’s reputation for excellence. In 1946, Gilbert formed a joint venture with Glasgow-based football brand Thomlinsons, which was responsible for much of the brand’s distribution and marketing until the 1970s. The Gilbert match ball remains the ball of choice.
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