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The history of sports manufacturer Gilbert

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Business stories, Historic records

With the 6 Nations rugby tournament in full flow, I was intrigued to see the number of companies advertising or involved with the event.

Now I confess, I’m not a rugby supporter. But, since moving to Wales over 20 years ago, I’ve been embroiled in the friendly rivalry that goes on during these 6 weeks. What I’ve noticed is, for all these years, the ball that’s fought and scrummaged over always seems to have the word 'Gilbert' emblazoned on the side.

Who is this Gilbert? Now, the only Gilbert I know is, Gilbert O’Sullivan – the 1970’s winner of Opportunity Knocks, and such hits as Clare and Get Down. Surely, it could not be him. I was right. It’s not.

Rugby player running with ball.

William Gilbert (1799-1877) was the boot and shoe maker to Rugby School. He operated from a small shop in the town at 19, High Street. By 1823, Gilbert was already supplying balls to Rugby School when William Webb Ellis first picked up and ran with the ball, and the game of Rugby Football began.

The Rugby Football Union was formed in London on 26 January 1871, originally made up of 20 clubs. When William Gilbert died in 1877, his nephew, James, succeeded him. By this time, Gilbert was stitching 2,800 balls a year. As the game grew in stature, so did Gilbert's business. Gilbert started exporting balls to Australia, and their export business grew rapidly.

The last Gilbert to be involved in the company, James John Gilbert, was meticulous in everything he did – checking and stamping every Gilbert match ball, to maintain the company’s reputation for excellence. He wrote countless letters to keep the Gilbert name at the forefront of the game, at the highest level around the world.

James Gilbert Limited was incorporated on the Companies House register on 2 December 1925, and later bought by Grays of Cambridge (International) Limited in 2002. The first Gilbert trademark was created in 1823 – the same year William Webb Ellis picked up the Gilbert football and ran with it at Rugby School.

Gilbert have been making rugby balls almost 50 years before the Rugby Football Union formed, and is still the match ball of choice nearly 200 years later. So, there you are – you now know the history of the Gilbert rugby ball.

If you want to find out more about the history of a company, our Companies House Service allows you to search company information for free. You can search for a company name, number or officer name, dating back to 1844.

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  1. Comment by HC posted on

    At last, Companies House getting into cultural history. Keep it up.

  2. Comment by Hugh Dean posted on

    Can you tell me if the rugby union football is different in size dimensions from the rugby league football and if it is, what are the sizes of each ball? Many thanks, Hugh Dean.

    • Replies to Hugh Dean>

      Comment by Gary Townley posted on

      We're not experts, but rugby league balls are slightly flatter and more pointed than rugby union balls. The laws of rugby union state the balls must be oval in shape and made from 4 panels. The length should be between 280mm to 300mm, the length circumference 740mm to 770mm and the width circumference is 580mm to 620mm.

      The laws of rugby league state the dimensions of the ball shall be those approved by the International Board, which are length 280mm to 300mm, width circumference of 610mm. Being slightly thinner, making them more pointed.

      We're sure a real expert may correct us.

    • Replies to Hugh Dean>

      Comment by Paul Read posted on

      Rugby union

      The rugby ball used in rugby union is a prolate spheroid essentially elliptical in profile. Traditionally made of brown leather, modern footballs are manufactured in a variety of colours and patterns. A regulation football is 28–30 cm (11–12 in) long and 58–62 cm (23–24 in) in circumference at its widest point. It weighs 410–460 g (14–16 oz) and is inflated to 65.7–68.8 kPa (9.5–10.0 psi).

      In 1980, leather-encased balls, which were prone to water-logging, were replaced with balls encased in synthetic waterproof materials. The Gilbert Synergie was the match ball of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

      Most of the professional leagues use Adidas, Gilbert, Mitre or Webb Ellis manufactured balls.

      Rugby league

      Rugby league is played with a prolate spheroid shaped football which is inflated with nitrogen.
      Traditionally made of brown leather, modern footballs are synthetic and manufactured in a variety of colours and patterns. Senior competitions should use light coloured balls to allow spectators to see the ball more easily. The football used in rugby league is known as "international size" or "size 5" and is approximately 27 cm (11 in) long and 60 cm (24 in) in circumference at its widest point. Smaller-sized balls are used for junior versions of the game, such as "Mini" and "Mod". A full size ball weighs between 383 and 440 g (13.5 and 15.5 oz). Rugby league footballs are slightly more pointed than rugby union footballs and larger than American footballs.

      The Australian National Rugby League use balls made by Steeden while the European Super League use balls made by Rhino Rugby. Steeden is also sometimes used as a noun to describe the ball itself.

    • Replies to Hugh Dean>

      Comment by Gary Townley posted on

      See we knew there would be an expert!

  3. Comment by Roger Dyer posted on

    Well done Companies House. A human side to a government department - please can you have a word with HMRC? But don't tell them I asked you!