In the beginning
William Gilbert (1799-1877) was the boot and shoe maker to Rugby School. He operated from a small shop in the town which was later acquired by Grays as a sports shop.
By 1823, Gilbert 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 original rugby balls were more plum shaped, however become more oval due to the use of a pigs bladder. Today, Gilbert rugby balls are made using synthetic bladders.
In 1842, William Gilbert moved his shop to St Mathews Street, Rugby, just a stone’s throw away from the school.
Gilbert’s reputation grows
By 1851, the fame and reputation of Gilbert Rugby balls was growing and medals were won at the Great Exhibitions in London in 1851 and 1862.
In 1875, the first rubber bladder was invented by Richard Lindop in Rugby and the modern rugby ball evolved to improve passing and handling.
When William Gilbert died in 1877, his nephew James succeeded him and Gilbert was stitching 2,800 balls a year. As the game grew in stature so did Gilberts business. Gilbert started exporting balls to Australia and their export business grew rapidly.
In Cambridge, Grays also produced rugby balls - primarily for the university who had taken up the game in 1839 on 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 firm. James Gilbert was meticulous in everything he did, checking and stamping every Gilbert match ball to maintain the company’s reputation for excellence.
In 1946, Gilbert formed a joint venture with the Glasgow based soccer ball brand Thomlinsons who were responsible for much of the distribution and marketing of the brand until the 1970s. The Gilbert Match Ball remained the ball of choice.
With the advent of new materials and brands challenging Gilberts 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 the purchase.
Grays of Cambridge Int Ltd acquires the brand
Finally, in 2002, Grays of Cambridge Int Ltd acquired the Gilbert brand which continued to lead the way in ball technology, design and quality. The launch of the new Xact ball delivered the best ever performance from a rugby ball and was used successfully throughout the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
In 2018, Gilbert released the new Sirius Match Ball in preparation for the Rugby World Cup 2019 hosted in Japan where Gilbert continue to be the official and exclusive tournament supplier.
Grays of Cambridge Int Ltd remain owners of Gilbert Rugby today.