Black History Month: Walter Tull
He was one of the first people of mixed heritage to play in the Football League’s top division, and the British Army’s first Black officer. Walter Tull exemplified heroism in both.
Walter’s early life
Walter Tull was born in 1888, in Folkestone, Kent, where his mother’s family were from. His father, Daniel Tull, was a carpenter from Barbados, where Walter’s grandfather had been a slave.
Walter’s early childhood was spent in Folkestone, where he started school. But when Walter was just 7 years old, his mother died. And, a couple of years later, when Walter was 9, his father died, too.
Daniel Tull had re-married, but Walter’s step-mother, Clara, found it difficult bringing up 5 young children on her own. Ministers from Clara’s church advised her to send the two oldest boys, Walter and his elder brother Edward, to an orphanage in East London.
Edward was adopted by a family from Glasgow, where he went on to study and qualify as the first mixed-race dentist in the United Kingdom.
A Black football pioneer
It was in East London that Walter signed his first football contract, joining the amateur club Clapton in 1908. He helped Clapton win three cups in his first year, and received many glowing reports. Just one year later, aged 21, Walter made the leap from amateur to professional football when he signed for Tottenham Hotspur in the First Division (what we now call the Premier League).
However, Walter soon became the target of racial abuse from some opposition supporters.
One report in the Football Star, headlined “Football and the Colour Prejudice”, is thought to be the first time racial abuse was mentioned in a football report. The story states that Walter remained professional and composed throughout the game while “a section of the crowd made a cowardly attack on him.”
The story describes Walter as “Holtspur’s most brainy forward” and states, “Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football … Tull was the best forward on the field.”
Even so, soon after this match Walter was dropped to the reserves, and found it difficult to get back into the first-team on a regular basis.
In 1911 Walter was signed up by the great manager Herbert Chapman to play for Northampton Town, where he went on to make over a hundred appearances.
The first Black officer in the British Army
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Walter joined the British Army.
Seeing action at the First Battle of the Somme, and on the Italian Front, he was praised for his “gallantry and coolness”. He rose through the ranks to become the first black officer in the British Army (even though Army rules at the time only allowed for white officers). He showed great bravery leading his men into battle behind enemy lines.
On 25th March 1918 Walter was killed in action in Northern France during the Second Battle of the Somme. Despite brave efforts from his men, his body was never recovered. He was just 29 years old.
His commanding officers wrote to his family to say that they had recommended him for a Military Cross.
Many years later it was revealed that, after the war, Walter had agreed to join Glasgow Rangers, one of the biggest clubs in Scotland.
“Walter Tull is a true British hero who overcame prejudices of the time to exceed in his sporting career and his army life. He, for me, sums up everything that makes me so proud to be British.”
— Nick Marr, WalterTull.org
A lasting legacy
Today Walter Tull is honoured and remembered in a number of ways, including Blue Plaques at his former homes in London and Rushden. A statue of him stands outside Northampton Guildhall, and in October 2020 the Royal Mail painted a postbox black in his honour in Glasgow for Black History Month.
Near Northampton Town Football Club’s Sixfields Stadium, both a road and a pub bear Walter’s name. A memorial outside the grounds states:
“Through his actions, W. D. J. Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly.”
— Phil Vasili, biographer
Connections to the curriculum and further learning
National Curriculum themes:
- The lives of significant individuals
- Events beyond living memory
If you want to learn more about pioneering black footballers, try researching:
- Robert Walker (of Third Lanark)
- Andrew Watson (thought to be Scotland’s first black international footballer)
- Arthur Wharton (Darlington, amongst others, thought to be the Britain’s first black professional footballer)
- John Walker (Hearts & Lincoln)
- Willie Clarke (Aston Villa & Bradford City)
- Edward & John Cother (Watford)
- Benjamin Odeje (England’s first black schoolboy international)
- Viv Anderson (Nottingham Forest & Arsenal. England’s first full-international black footballer)
Key points in the life of Walter Tull
- Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone, England, on 28th April 1888.
- He was one of the first black footballers to play professionally in Great Britain.
- He started his career with Clapton, East London (1908), before moving to Tottenham Hotspur (1909) and then to Northampton Town (1911).
- Walter Tull joined the British Army in the First World War (1914).
- Walter Tull was sadly killed in action on 25th March 1918.
Sources (and resouces):
- BBC Bitesize KS2: “Who was Walter Tull and what did he do in the war?”
- The Walter Tull Archive
- Tull100 – Football Remembers
- BBC Sport: “Walter Tull: The incredible story of a football pioneer and war hero”
- Wikipedia: “Walter Tull”
Note: The links below are from YouTube and may contain third-party advertising.
- BBC Sport: The story of Walter Tull the forgotten hero in football and world war
- Tull100: Football Focus feature on Walter Tull
- Walter Tull by Phil Vasili
- Walter Tull: Britain’s Black Officer by Off The Records
- Teachers TV: KS3 History – Walter Tull – Race, Football and Black Britain 1909
- Teachers TV: KS3 History – Walter Tull – the Pupils’ Perspective
By Craig Hatfield, Off the Page teacher