Vale of the White Horse League: 120 years on

Monday 01 October 2018 - by Stuart Smedley (Updated on 01 October 2018 at 08:00)

120 years ago today, on Saturday 1st October 1898, a piece of Royal Wootton Bassett Town history was made as the club played its first ever competitive league fixture.

At home against Cricklade in the newly formed Vale of the White Horse (VWH) League, Bassett triumphed 4-0.

That season, Bassett would go on to finish fourth in a competition that featured eight clubs from in and around the Swindon area, of which three others – Highworth Town, Purton and Bassett's inaugural opponents Cricklade, would eventually go on to serve as important rivals in the Hellenic League.

The teams are now scattered around various competitions: Highworth's success last season saw them reach the Southern League for the first time in their history, while ground-grading issues served to spell the end of Hellenic football for both Purton and Cricklade, who now ply their trade in the Wiltshire League.

But their time together in the VWH League, which Highworth eventually won, was significant.

In Bassett's case, it was their first-ever exposure to competition on a league-basis and would serve as the initial calling post of a fast rise – and even faster fall – at the dawn of the twentieth century.

This is the story of that first campaign.

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While the Wiltshire Senior Cup had been established in the 1886-87 season, the final decade of the nineteenth century was a watershed moment for football in the county as league-based competitions were created.

However, early efforts to form leagues enjoy mixed success (the VWH League was no exception as it would last just a single season).

A Swindon and District League Cup had existed since 1891 and this moved to a league basis in 1894 before being dissolved three years later. More successful was the creation of the Wiltshire League in 1894. However, of its original teams, its most northerly participants had been Calne.

Finally, for those clubs based around Swindon a meeting held in July of 1898 would herald the creation of a competition of their own. It was Mr. H. Atkinson, captain of Purton, who appeared to have been the catalyst for ensuring the league took off. He would be appointed its honorary Secretary and was crucial in supplying information about the new league to the local media, which would eventually lead to a report in the North Wilts Herald on Saturday 7th October 1898 carrying details of not only its participants, but also results of the opening games.

Among them was Bassett's 4-0 triumph against Cricklade. Scorers from the game, unfortunately, are not known. But details of the team who played are. Lining up for Bassett were:

"E. Wallis, goal; F. Seagrim and F. Hunt, backs; H. Beazley, E.W. Smith (captain) and A. Spackman, half-backs; W. Boulter, C. Leighfield, F. Watts, J. Brown and P. Leighfield, forwards."

Catching the eye of those in attendance were Pat Leighfield, Boulter and Spackman, the trio being described by the Herald as being "conspicuous for the home side" as they cruised to victory.

Results elsewhere in the league that day saw Highworth get off to a similar flying start by defeating Lydiard United 4-0, Stratton Reform defeat Stratton Star 3-1 and Purton edge out a 1-0 victory against Haydon Wick United.

Bassett's second fixture pitted them against one of the opening week's winners in the form of Stratton Reform and, away from home, they would be defeated 4-0. They returned to winning ways though at home against Haydon Wick, with Hunt – the club's first known goalscorer in a competitive fixture – scoring the only goal of the game. While cementing his place in Bassett history, he would have been beaten to the punch had his teammate Brown not missed a first half penalty.

The team then made it two wins on the bounce when defeating Lydiard 3-0 at home. However, Bassett wound up falling afoul of league rules after it was found that one of the Leighfields had guested in a Wiltshire Senior Cup fixture for Swindon Victoria against Trowbridge Town the previous week.

This contravened league rule 15, adopted in a resolution that had not been communicated to Bassett, which stated that: "No player shall take part in a VWH League match, who has during the same season played for any other League whatsoever or for the Wiltshire Cup." They were spared a points deduction though given the failure to be notified of the rule.

However, the fallout appears to have negatively affected Bassett, whose league form dipped.

Their poor run started with a 2-0 loss away at Highworth, a match that was brought to an early end thanks to the fading light. Then a fortnight later, Bassett were thrashed 4-1 by Stratton Star.

Though their next fixture would not be until the turn of the year, those losses had Bassett in a funk. And in their replayed contest against Lydiard, a side who entered the game without a point and would eventually earn the league's wooden spoon, a contentiously disallowed goal and late Lydiard equaliser meant the spoils were shared.

After that disappointing outcome, Bassett redeemed themselves in their home fixture against Purton. Played in front of about 400 spectators, the game saw Purton go a goal ahead in the opening period before two goals early in the second half put the visitors in what should have been an unassailable position. However, Bartholomew scored to start a stirring comeback, which was completed by Dainton to claim a point.

The return fixture followed a fortnight later, and another Bassett comeback salvaged a 2-2 draw as Pat Leighfield – amidst rumours swirling that Swindon Town were interested in his services - scored twice.

A win remained elusive though, and would continue to do so. A weakened Bassett side shared four goals away at Haydon Wick, though it should really have been a victory but for the linesman's failure to spot a Bartholomew effort crossing the line; indeed, the hosts were even surprised at the decision not to award a goal.

Then, on a pitch so bad that the Swindon Advertiser reported the players spent 'an hour and a half…floundering about in the water and mud', Bassett succumbed to a heavy 5-1 defeat at Cricklade. That preceded dramatic defeats at home against Highworth, who found a late winner to triumph 2-1, and away at winless Lydiard, where the visitors threw away a 2-0 half time lead to lose 4-2.

Two tough final games awaited as the season wound down. A home game against Stratton Reform – who had recently been beaten by Highworth in a title-deciding contest in front of a 1,500 strong crowd – were next on the cards. Yet, despite facing the eventual runners-up, Bassett scored three without reply in a strong first half showing. Stratton grabbed a lifeline after the restart, but Bassett held out to prevail 4-2 in a game played in stormy weather.

Following that, Bassett ensured their first league campaign ended with consecutive victories as they won 3-0 against Stratton Star, with the points proving decisive in securing a fourth-place finish.

All in all, it had been a pleasing first season of competitive league football, a fact celebrated in their season ending dinner held at the Royal Oak Assembly Rooms on Wednesday 12th April 1899.

This dinner would stir some controversy though. At the event, club captain Mr. R.W. Smith made clear to point out how pleasing it was that Bassett had relied solely on players from the town, something that apparently was not the case for the teams at the top of the table, who had to draw upon support from Swindon-based individuals.

This rankled Highworth, with one of their number – Mr. H. Willis – writing to the Herald, suggesting Smith's words twisted the truth as Bassett had allegedly played a Day of Wantage at home against the Worthians. Willis also defended his club by pointing out that only a single member of their team resided in Swindon.

While the make-up of the competitions may have changed significantly in the twelve decades since, it is safe to say that disputes over players remain a feature of the local game in the present day!

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Wootton Bassett Town's results and scorers (where known), as well as the final league Vale of the White Horse League table can be found in our archive here.

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