The Tribune - Spectrum


, July 28, 2002

A town in which the archaic and modern meet
Mohan Bhatt

A view of Rugby School
A view of Rugby School

RARELY does one come across a town, steeped in history, where a conspirator's action is observed annually by a display of fireworks and setting his effigy on fire. One such town boasts of not only one of England’s finest public schools but is also associated with a game played mostly in western Europe, the Americas and Australia-New Zealand.

This town is Rugby in the Midlands, and it is situated about 80 miles north of London. In the centre of this town is a long fenced strip having half a dozen flowerbeds. The pathway meandering through the lush green lawns is a riot of colour; there is one flowerbed whose flowers have been patterned in such hues that they appear in the form of the Union Jack with crosses of St. George, St. Andrew and St. Patrick. This is Caldecote Park.

This quaint town, on the Avon in Warwickshire, is just 10 miles from the city of Coventry and about an hour’s drive from Leicester. It has one of the best schools for the elite — Rugby School — from which the town perhaps derives its name. This school, comparable to Eton and Harrow, was founded in 1574 as a sequel to the will of a wealthy businessman, Laurence Sheriff, but it was only in 1777 that it got royal recognition. The school attained eminence under the tutelage of Thomas Arnold, headmaster from 1828-1842.The novel ‘Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes was based on the school in that period. Rugby School has produced several VIPs, notable among them being the famous writer Salman Rushdie.

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Caldecote Park has flowers forming the pattern of the Union Jack
Caldecote Park has flowers forming the pattern of the Union Jack

Another event connected with the school is the game of rugby. In 1823, when a game of soccer was in progress, a lad picked up the football in his hand and started running with it. When he succeeded in dodging the defenders and reaching the goalpost on the other side, he was considered the"real" winner. This was the genesis of the game rugby which arose from a violation of the soccer rule by this lad, William Webb-Ellis. This student, who may have been playing a prank, is now treated as a hero and his statue adorns the square in front of the school. There is even a pub and a road named after him in the town.

Later on, players of this new game adopted an oval-shaped ball for a better grip and to facilitate carriage and passing. This game has evolved into two types—Rugby Union and Rugby League; the former has 15 players each and is played mostly in the USA, Russia, South Africa, Argentina and about 50 other countries.The latter involves 13 players, all professionals, and is played in the UK, France, Australia/New Zealand and a number of other east Asian nations.

Cheek-by-jowl to the school is the Museum of Rugby which has exhibits how the game evolved over the years and next to it is the House of Gilberts, famed for making rugby balls and supplying to clubs all over the world.

Rugby has, on its outskirts, the hamlet of Dunchurch, associated with Guy Fawkes, known as the Conspirator who carried out the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes, a Protestant by birth from Yorkshire, later became an orthodox Roman Catholic. As the King, James I, and his Parliament were following pro-Protestant policies detrimental to the Catholics, he was involved in a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the king. The plot leader, Robert Catesby, hired a cellar below Parliament and stacked it with gunpowder. Fawkes, who was to have lit the fuse, was caught and the plotters sentenced to death. The day the plot was executed and Fawkes caught (November 5) is known as Guy Fawkes Day and is observed at Dunchurch and Rugby with fireworks and burning of Fawkes effigy. He was executed on January 30, 1606, ending a gory chapter in English history.

A visit to this English town is a mine of information as it straddles a not-too-known period of history. Nowadays, traditional buildings are replacing plush structures in the town centre, making it a unique tapestry of the archaic and the modern.