Every year, my family and I go camping for two weeks in the summer in the south of France. Last year we decided to stay in a campsite near the town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens, ten minutes inland from the Côte-D’Azur. We spent much of our time at the beach, by the campsite pool or exploring the coastal towns in Provence. One such town is the largely overlooked town of Menton. When talking about the French Riviera, people often think about Nice, Monaco, Cannes and St Tropez. The Guardian describes it as “The French Riviera’s unknown corner.” Menton is the last town in France before you cross the border into Italy and has, in fact, swapped between French and Italian rule for centuries, becoming finally French in 1860. This is not entirely true as it spent part of the Second World War under Italian occupation. The town is nestled in a cove between its idyllic port on the Mediterranean Sea and an alpine foothill. This gives the town a slightly crammed in feeling, as many of the buildings are several storeys high and the streets are narrow to maximise the use of scarce space. As well as being “The French Riviera’s unknown corner,” Menton has also acquired the nickname the “Pearl of France” due to its traditional Provençal beauty which has remained largely unscathed by the effects of modern tourism. On top of one of the two peninsulas, which form the cove within which Menton is situated, is the ancient Menton cemetery. It overlooks Menton town and the port. The cemetery contains the remains of many Russian and British aristocrats who built villas in Menton and lived there during the 19th century. It also houses the final resting place of William Webb Ellis.
William Webb Ellis is obviously the famous Old Rugbeian who caught the ball in his arms in a game of football, inadvertently starting the game of rugby. However, not many people know about his life after Rugby. After leaving Rugby in 1826, he studied at Oxford University and graduated with an MA in 1831. He was ordained into the Anglican church and served as the chaplain at St George’s Chapel in London, the rector of St. Clement Danes in the Strand and, finally, the rector of Magdalen Laver in Essex. After becoming rector at Magdalen Laver, much of the rest of his life is unknown. Many wealthy British people moved to Menton in the 1860s as it was believed that Menton’s fair and dependable climate helped cure people with respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. It would appear that Webb Ellis was among these Britons travelling to Menton, either to serve as a rector to the new British population in Menton, or because he himself had health problems. He died in Menton in 1872, at the age of 67, leaving no descendants, but an estate of some £9000, which is over a million in today’s money, to various charities.
Webb Ellis’s grave was only discovered in 1958, by Ross McWhirter, the co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, and was recently refurbished to accommodate the thousands of tourists that would visit it. The grave is now overwhelmed by messages, shirts and posters from rugby fans* who have come from all over the world to pay their respects to the legend of William Webb Ellis.