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Born in 1799, William Gilbert was the boot and shoe maker to Rugby School in Cambridge, England. He operated from a small shop in the town which 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 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 1870s. 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. 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.

Following the death of his father in 1917, the last Gilbert to be involved in the company, James John Gilbert (1856-1917), 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.

During the 80s and 90s. Gilbert 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.

In 2002, Gilbert was acquired by Grays. 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. Gilbert has been the official match ball of the Rugby World Cup for the past 20 years, beginning in 1995. Gilbert will again be the Official and Exclusive ball supplier to the Rugby World Cup in 2019.