I was contacted a few months ago by Nick King who was looking for information on his great-great grandfather Willis Bentley as part of his family history research. Willis briefly played for Chester during the 1891/92 season, the club’s second season in the Combination League, when they were based in Faulkner Street. Between us we managed to piece together some information on his time playing for the club and Nick has put together this interesting biography with input from me in the Chester section.
WILLIS BENTLEY (1860-1916)
Willis Bentley was born in Sheffield in 1860, and played mainly as an amateur back / half back for major teams for ten years between 1882 and 1892. He also played cricket in the summer months, mainly for his employers’ teams.
Willis lived in the northern industrial and terraced housing area of Sheffield all his life, and local sporting pages indicate that he started playing football as a teenager.
In the period 1878 to 1882, he played for local teams Walkley FC, founded by his father in the 1850s, and Owlerton FC. On the 1881 census he was a steel worker.
In 1882, Willis registered as a player for Sheffield Wednesday FC. He played several games for them commencing January 1883 with an F A Cup match against Nottingham Forest, with a brief pause from November of the same year when he fractured his skull during a regional match between Sheffield and Birmingham at Aston, Warwickshire. His final game for Wednesday was in 1885, with a letter in a local paper mentioning his health, and his registration formally ended in 1889.
Willis got married in 1887 and newspaper reports indicate that he played for Owlerton between the years 1886 to 1888. Around 1889, Willis found work as a (physical exercise) attendant at the Wadsley Asylum and formed a works team. Soon after, he played a single match as goalkeeper for Sheffield United FC in their founding 1889/90 season.
Whilst still employed by the Asylum, Willis joined Gainsborough Trinity for their 1890/91 season, in which they won the Lincolnshire Cup and Midland League medals. Unlike his service with previous teams, this presumably involved considerable travel on trains.
Willis started 1891 playing for Trinity but, for unknown reasons, moved to Chester where he participated in a trial match at the start of September. The match attracted a lot of local interest and Willis, who played as a forward, was picked out for his performance although the Cheshire Observer reported that he received little help from Newton, one of the other forwards.
He made his Chester debut in the second Combination fixture of the season, a home game against Denton at Faulkner Street which finished 3-3. In the next game against Stoke Swifts a “fearfully disorganised” Chester were heavily beaten 9-1. However Willis seems to have come out of the game with his reputation intact with the report stating that his play had greatly improved and that he promises to develop into a good back. He was again complemented on his performance in the friendly against Halliwell where it was mentioned that the club had finally secured his services.
After playing in both the league game and FA Cup tie at home to Wrexham he missed the league game against Everton Reserves through injury but returned for his final game, against Macclesfield in November. By the end of December Willis had returned to Gainsborough Trinity where he remained for a few more months.
After ‘retirement’ from playing, sometime after 1892, Willis coached junior teams and playing cricket for Neepsend Gas Works. From the late 1890s on, Willis worked as a gas stoker alongside celebrated Wednesday player Billy Betts, who had been active with the team at the same time as Willis.
Willis died from pneumonia in 1916. He had four children, but only one survived infancy.
‘Sheffield Wednesday FC: The Official History 1867-2017’ by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 9781445619538)
“The Origins of Sheffield Wednesday” by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 1445619709)
‘The Men Who Made Sheffield Wednesday FC’ 2007 by Tony Matthews (ISBN: 9780752441566)
‘Trinity Champions’ by Andrew Stothard.
‘On the Borderline: Official History of Chester City F.C.’ 1st Edition by Chas Sumner (ISBN: 9781874427520)