Today (5th November 2019) is the 100th anniversary of ‘day one’ for one of the greatest players in Rovers’ history, as it marks the centenary of unsung hero Jesse Whatley (1895-1982) signing his first professional contract with the club.
Perhaps the outstanding player during Rovers’ first decade of League football, and arguably Rovers’ greatest goalkeeper of all time, Jesse was a tall, agile, determinedly dependable custodian.
Born in Trowbridge, Jesse played Army football with the 1st and 4th Wiltshire Battalion in the Far East and India and played for the Egyptian Army XI against both Belgium and France. Whatley began the 1919/20 campaign in the Wiltshire League with Trowbridge Town, but soon made a slightly perplexing Southern League début for Rovers against Norwich City in November; ‘perplexing’ because he saw the ball go past him on five occasions.
Saving penalties against Gillingham and Luton, he played 14 times that inaugural season, often remaining the deputy behind Harry Stansfield, who subsequently appeared in Rovers’ first three Football League encounters.
‘Gentleman Jesse’ was to retain a positive reputation from penalties in the League, notably saving a last minute penalty from Bertie Menlove as Rovers beat Crystal Palace 2-1 in October 1920, another from Bristol City’s Laurie Banfield as Rovers won the first League derby 1-0 at Ashton Gate in September 1922 and most impressively, from Gillingham’s Jock Henderson in August 1923, who had apparently scored from all ten penalties awarded to his club in the previous campaign.
Having dislodged Stansfield, Whatley proved almost immovable himself, playing in all the remaining 39 League games in 1920/21 and then playing in 246 consecutive League matches between August 1922 and April 1928, when he voluntarily stepped down to allow Bert Densley a run in the side.
This impressive run was a Football League record until 1953 and remains a Rovers club record tally. It included five seasons as an ever present, which is a club record equalled by Ray Warren but never beaten.
In the 1922/23 campaign, Whatley kept 21 clean sheets in 42 League games and consistent form over several seasons earned a call up for the prestigious South v North trial game at Stamford Bridge in January 1925; effectively an England international trial fixture.
For his service Jesse was awarded a benefit game against Portsmouth in April 1925, plus a £500 cheque, and continued to represent Rovers until the decade was out.
Jesse married in 1923, with a son Keith arriving in 1929 and the family settling down in Overndale Road, Downend. Goal stopping must have been in the blood, as he was uncle to Ralph Whatley, Trowbridge Town’s goalkeeper between 1935 and 1938.
After football Jesse worked at Manor Park Hospital from 1931 until 1960, was a bowls player, a coach at several clubs, Club President of Bristol Corinthian Club, and in 1965 was the founder chairman of the Rovers’ Ex Players’ Club, a post he held for eight years.
Jesse lived in retirement at Leigh Farm, Westerleigh, before passing away at the ripe old age of 87.
By Stephen Byrne and Martin Bull
JESSE WINTER WHATLEY
• Born: 20.01.1895, Trowbridge
• Died: 19.03.1982, Chipping Sodbury
• 6’ 1”; 11 st 9 lbs Goalkeeper
• Football League Début: 09.09.1920 v Newport County
Career: Army representative football; August 1919 – Trowbridge Town; 27.10.1919 – Bristol Rovers (Professional, 05.11.19) [371 appearances, 0 as sub]; August 1930 – Stapleton Institute (Contract, 14.09.31); 1930-32 – Mental Institution Club; 1937 – Fry’s Cocoa Tree Boys (coach); 1940 – Downend (manager); 1943 – Soundwell (coach).