When the laws of Rugby Football were documented no provision was made for anyone to referee the game. Instead the two captains had the job of judging on issues that happened during the game. Obviously if they couldn't resolve the issue then the game couldn't continue. But rather like kids in the school playground playing the game was usually more important than wasting time arguing so it worked to a degree. Of course the more that was at stake the more disagreements would occur.
In 1875 provision was made for the appointment of an umpire, but this was optional.
The term referee was not used until 1885 when the Rugby Union Committee agreed to a draft of Regulations for the Guidance of Umpires and Referees. Now the presence of a referee and umpires was no longer optional.
In 1892 the touch judges were provided with flags (previously they had just used sticks). Unlike sticks, which were raised to indicate the fact that the umpire agreed with an appeal, flags were to be held up only when and where the ball went into touch.
A change was made in 1893, making it mandatory for the appointment of a referee and two touch judges. The referee was provided with a whistle and the laws specified the circumstances in which it should be blown.
Brief time line:
1866 Two umpires must be provided (Rugby School Laws)
1871 “The captains of the respective sides shall be the soles arbiters of all disputes” (RFU Laws)
1875 Umpires may be appointed if desired, otherwise as in 1871 (RFU laws)
1884 Scotland v Wales fixture: one referee but no umpires
1885 Two umpires and a referee required
1889 Two umpires or two touch judges and a referee required (RFU laws)
1893 A referee and two touch judges required.
- Article by World Rugby Museum Twickenham viewed July 2015