30 years before Harry Gray was setting up in Cambridge, 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 which was later acquired by Grays as a sports shop and still operates to this day.
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. These early balls were larger and rounder than today’s ball and could be kicked a long distance. At that time, there was no fixed shape or size as this depended on the pig’s bladder used.
The story of Gilbert has been intertwined with Grays since Grays first established strong connections with Rugby School in 1868, when Joseph Gray was appointed as the first of three generations of Grays to act as rackets professionals there.
The fame and reputation of Gilbert balls had grown such that they won medals at the Great Exhibitions in London in 1851 and also in 1862. By now, James Gilbert (1831-1906) had served as an apprentice to William and was “much loved by the past and present Rugbeians of his time”. He was reputed to be “…a wonder of lung strength and blew even the big match balls up tight”. When William Gilbert died in 1877, his nephew James succeeded him and Gilberts were stitching 2,800 balls a year.
The sport witnessed major changes in the 1870’s. Rubber bladders were invented by Richard Lindop in Rugby and the modern shape evolved in 1875 to improve handling and passing following the abolition of the rule that a goal had to be kicked to win a game. The sport was formalised with the formation of the first unions, the first international matches were staged and the number of players was reduced from 20 to 15 a side.
As the game grew in stature so did Gilbert’s business. Gilbert started exporting balls to Australia and their export business grew rapidly. In 1890 the first rules specifying size and weight were introduced and at the same time, in Cambridge, Grays also produced rugby balls – primarily for the university who had taken up the game in 1839 on Parker’s Piece.
In 1906 just as the RFU were purchasing a plot of land at Twickenham, on the death of James, his son James John Gilbert (1856-1917) took over the family business. As well as his involvement in manufacturing the balls, James John was also an enthusiastic player in Rugby and a keen follower of the game, as was Douglas Gray in Cambridge.
Following the death of his father in 1917, the last Gilbert to be involved in the company, James, returned from the war to run the firm. James 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. By now, each nation had its own preferences with Australia and New Zealand favouring the pointed (Torpedo) shape and South Africa the 8-panel which offered better grip. In Britain, Ireland and France, most balls were now of 4-panel construction but 6 panels were still in use. Player pressure resulted in the balls being reduced in size by one inch by Gilbert, which subsequently lead to a change in rules in 1932.