Sometimes it seems like all rugby balls are called Gilbert. Are you watching an international match or a game of touch in the park? The rugby balls are likely to have Gilbert stamped on them.
Let’s get stuck into the reasons why!
Why Are Rugby balls Called Gilbert?
Gilbert is a brand name that is strongly associated with the game of rugby. Rugby balls stamped with the Gilbert name are made by a branch of Grays International, a British sporting goods firm.
Here is a typical modern Gilbert rugby ball:
Why Is Gilbert A High Profile Brand In Rugby?
The World Cup and the Olympics are two of the highest-profile tournaments in rugby. Although Mitre and Adidas would provide the match balls for the early Rugby World Cup tournaments, that was to change in 1995.
Gilbert has been the official supplier of match balls to every men’s rugby world cup since 1995. It has also supplied the match balls for every women’s world cup since 1991.
Rugby came back to the Olympics in 2016 in the form of the Sevens game. Gilbert supplied the match ball for the Olympics tournament too.
Who Owns Gilbert?
The Gilbert brand is currently owned by Grays International, a company founded in England in 1855. Grays originally specialized in racquets, hockey sticks, and cricket bats. The company purchased the Gilbert brand in 2002.
Gray-Nicolls was a longstanding prominent brand in cricket when the company purchased Gilbert. They could have folded the rugby assets under their existing sporting brands. But Gray has kept the Gilbert brand going strong. All their latest rugby gear and kit is branded under the name.
Where Are Gilbert Rugby Balls Manufactured?
Gilbert rugby balls are currently manufactured in India for sale worldwide. New prototypes are designed and tested in England in workshops owned by the parent company Grays International.
The original Gilbert company was founded by a cobbler (a leather boot and shoemaker) in the town of Rugby, England. William Gilbert supplied boots and balls to the local school in Rugby from the 1820s.
The balls were made by stitching leather panels around an inflated pig’s bladder. We have a full article on pigs bladders in early rugby balls. So, I’ll just say here that one of the jobs involved blowing through a pipe to inflate the ball. William Gilbert’s nephew James was renowned for his lung power!
Historic manufacturing In England
The Gilbert workshop was in the town of Rugby, very close to the school. So we can say that the original manufacturing was in Rugby, England. This continued up until the late 1970s. The company also had an operation in Australia for assembly and stitching.
By then, the sporting firm was called the James Gilbert Company. William’s nephew James had inherited the company, and his own son James took over in the 20th century.
Starting to manufacture in India
Up until the 1970s, the Gilbert leather rugby ball was the leader in tournament rugby. But the advent of synthetic materials challenged their position. The James Gilbert company went through difficult financial times.
At some point before 1978, the company started manufacturing in India as well as England. I can’t tie an exact date other than that it was before the sale of the company in 1978. That information comes from an interview by Will Kelleher in 2013 with the Chief Ball Designer at Gilbert (at this point owned by the current owners Gray). The interview was conducted for Kelleher’s graduate thesis.
Gilbert have always had a factory in India since it was purchased…from the original Gilbert family. At that time balls were being manufactured out of leather from the UK and it coincided with a change in manufacturing ability and techniques which were being pioneered in India at the time….Interview on FollowTheRugbyBall blog
Rodney Web purchased the company in 1978 from the Gilbert family. Webb had played international rugby for England, and also had a business pedigree.
Moving all manufacture to India
Webb kept the Gilbert brand name to the fore. But he shifted manufacturing into the new synthetic technologies of plastics and rubber. Here’s a quote from that same fascinating interview.
…and then gradually, from a cost point of view, all of the balls have gone out there [India]. But from a UK manufacturing perspective in between the 80s and sort of 2007/8 we’re only talking about a small percentage of balls that were manufactured in the UK. So it’s pretty much been predominantly an Indian based supply from the early 80s.Interview on FollowTheRugbyBall blog
Did Gilbert Make The First Rugby Ball?
I mentioned that William Gilbert was supplying balls to the famous Rugby School where the game originated. But that doesn’t mean that the Gilbert family made the first rugby ball.
Robert Lindon was a leather boot maker who supplied shoes and balls to the Rugby School. His cobbler workship was right beside the school. He took on an apprentice who was a fast learner. That apprentice was William Gilbert!
The apprentice left to set up his cobbler shop on the same street! William Gilbert was now an additional supplier of balls to the Rugby school.
Both companies were successful as a family business in the 19th century. It was actually Lindon who came up with the early innovations of an Indian Rubber bladder and a brass pump inflator. Read our article to learn more about this.
So, why did Gilbert become the household name (I mean houses with rugby fans!)?
The Lindon company passed on to Robert’s son, while the Gilbert company passed to William’s nephew James. James seemed to have been more successful in growing the Gilbert family business in the early 20th century.
When his son James took over, he partnered with a giant in football (soccer) manufacturing in the 1940s. Thomlinsons of Glasgow pushed the marketing and distribution of the Gilbert brand worldwide.
A Gilbert Rugby Timeline
There are quite a few dates and events throughout this article. I’ll tie them all together here in a brief timeline.
|1799||Birth of William Gilbert|
|1810s||William apprentices to boot and football maker Robert Lindon|
|1810s||William sets up his own company to supply Rugby school|
|1823||Gilbert trademark is registered|
|1877||William Gilbert dies, and nephew James Gilbert inherits company|
|1917||James Gilbert dies, and son James John Gilbert inherits company|
|1925||“James Gilbert Limited” company is incorporated|
|1946||Partnership with Thomlinsons of Glasgow for worldwide distribution|
|1978||Gilbert Company is sold to Rodney Webb|
|1995||Gilbert are official supplier to the Rugby World Cup for the first time|
|2000||Management buyout of company from Rodney Webb|
|2002||Gilbert Company goes into receivership|
|2002||Grays International acquires the brand and assets from the liquidator|
|2016||Gilbert are official supplier for sevens rugby in the Olympics|