FIRST IN 1823... FOREMOST EVER SINCE. RUGBY
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.
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.
In 1946 Gilbert formed a joint venture with the Glasgow based soccer ball brand Tomlinsons who were responsible for much of the distribution and marketing of the brand until the 1970‘s. The Gilbert Match remained the ball of choice for the majority of major matches during this time. Meanwhile, Grays took on the exclusive distribution rights for the well known rugby boot brand – Elmer Cotton – for a period.
With the advent of new materials and brands challenging Gilbert’s traditional leather business, the brand experienced difficult times and the Gilbert family decided to sell the business in 1978. Grays registered an interest at the time but decided against a purchase.
Gilbert passed through the control of 3 different owners through the 80’s and 90’s. During this time, the brand embraced and perfected the use of new synthetic technologies in its new Barbarian ball and expanded into wider areas of rugby equipment, footwear and clothing. It once again assumed its market leading position when it was adopted as the ball for the 1995 and 1999 World Cups. However, financial difficulties in 2002 led to the acquisition of the brand by Grays and by quirk of fate the brand returned to its birthplace at 19 High Street, Rugby.
Under Grays stewardship, Gilbert continues to lead the way in ball technology and design, and to maintain the high standards set by James Gilbert over 180 years ago.
The Virtuo ball delivers the best performance ever from a rugby ball and was used successfully throughout the 2011 World Cup. The Gilbert ball is now used by 8 of the IRB’s top 10 ranked teams and is the ball of choice of the Aviva Premiership, Super Rugby, Top 14, many Rabo Direct Pro 12 sides and the majority of elite teams worldwide. The Gilbert Virtuo ball was also used throughout every match of the British & Irish Lions’ 2013 tour to Australia.
Gilbert will again be the Official and Exclusive ball supplier to the Rugby World Cup 2015. Gilbert balls have been used throughout the last 5 World Cups and continue to be the most consistent ball available.
Not content to rest on its laurels, Gilbert have recently branched into Team wear and currently sponsor a number of teams globally, this includes Newport Gwent Dragons in the Rabo Direct Pro 12, Narbonne in France and The Lions in South Africa, as well as some of the games fastest emerging nations in Germany, Denmark and the UAE.