The origins of rugby league in Great Britain go back long before the creation in 1895 of the Northern Union. To understand the history of the game, requires an appreciation of the shared "rugby" history before the split and the factors which brought about the creation of the two rugby codes.
In 1800's formalities were introduced to football rules in the seven major public schools of England. Six of the seven schools were largely playing the same game (including Eton, Harrow and Winchester) - while the seventh, Rugby School (founded in 1567) at Warwickshire, was playing a markedly different version of football.
The other schools moved ahead refining their rules and eventually their game became known as "association football" - soccer. How the Rugby School's game developed differently is lost in history and the true story is unlikely to ever be known. The Rugby Football Union's (RFU) much revered tale of how in 1823 the young Rugby School student, William Webb Ellis, "in a fine disregard for the rules" picked up the ball and ran with it in a defining moment in sports history is now accepted by sports historians as being fanciful and a gross distortion of what is known.
There is no doubt that Ellis was a student at Rugby School from 1816 to 1825, but he was never mentioned by anyone as having done the actual deed ascribed to him. The first reference to Ellis appeared in a Rugby School magazine in 1875 (four years after Ellis' death) by an Old Rugbeian, M. Bloxham, who was endeavouring to refute claims that rugby was an ancient game.
Bloxham's story has always been in doubt because of the time that had passed since Ellis supposedly ran with the ball. Bloxham himself wasn't there and no living person could corroborate his version of events. In addition, examination of existing records and documented recollections does not show that the Rugby game dramatically changed after one event (i.e. Ellis or anyone else deciding to run with the ball).
Handling the ball was permitted in football in the early 1800's when players were allowed to take a mark and then a free kick, long before Ellis arrived at Rugby. In fact, most of the public schools allowed forms of handling the ball right up until the formation of the Football Association in the 1860's. The Association even considered whether to allow its continuation, before eventually deciding to outlaw it. The reverse picture that the RFU has painted that the rugby game was born from soccer the moment Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it is clearly, even with very little examination, false.
What is known is that at Rugby School by the 1830's running with the ball was in common use, the goal posts had been extended to 18 feet high (with a cross-bar at 10 feet above the ground) and there were forms of scrummaging and line-outs. The inclusion of the cross-bar was accompanied by a rule that a goal could only be scored by the ball passing over the bar from a place kick or drop kick. Apparently this was done to make scoring easier from further out and also to avoid the horde of defenders standing in the goal mouth.
Players who were able to "touch-down" the ball behind the opponents’ goal line were awarded a "try-at-goal" - the player would make a mark on the goal line and then walk back onto the field of play to a point where a place kick at the goal was possible (a conversion). There was also an "off-your-side" rule used to keep the teams apart and passing the ball forward was not allowed. The rules were first seriously agreed upon and documented when former Rugby students and clubs wanted to commence formal competitions outside of the Rugby School in 1862. Many of the clubs that formed around this period would later become rugby league clubs.
From 1875 when games finished without any goals being scored, the team which had the most "tries-at-goal" was awarded the win. From 1886 three "tries" equalled one goal in points, before the balance finally moved to giving more value to the scoring of tries. By 1893 the scoring was much closer to what we know today - a try was worth three points, a converted try five points, three for a penalty goal and four for a field goal. However, the rugby game was still very brutal and raw with 71 deaths recorded in English rugby from 1890 to 1893 alone.