From an early age, Walter Tull had a flair for playing football and as he grew up, his single-minded determination helped him excel at his chosen sport. Despite the obstacles put before him, he made a successful career out of football as one of the first ever black professional football players, until it was cut short, when he decided to join the army to fight in World War One. He lost his life defending his country and soon after fell into obscurity but in recent years his life story has been rediscovered.
Born in Folkestone on April 28, 1888, Walter Tull was the grandson of a slave and the son of a Barbadian carpenter who married a white British woman. His mother died when he was seven years old and he lost his father when he was nine, so he and his brother were raised in a Methodist orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.
Tull loved playing football from a young age and played for his orphanage side. According to an orphanage log-book, Walter was “a stoic, laid-back character, but single-minded.” After completing school, he started an apprenticeship as a printer and in 1908, was signed by a local side called Clapton FC, where he played inside-forward.
Over the next year, Tull’s career took off as he won the FA Amateur Cup, the London Amateur Cup and the London Senior Cup. Soon after, he was signed by Tottenham Hotspur, becoming only the third known black footballer at the top level.
Despite his talent, Tull, was subject to racial abuse from the terraces. After a match between Bristol City and Spurs in 1909, a journalist for the Football Star Newspaper reported;
“A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate [London’s fish market]”….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… In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.”
It is difficult to tell how much racism he had to put up with from rival fans but considering he was routinely called “darkie” by the press and the times he lived in, it can be speculated that he would have suffered a considerable amount of abuse.
In 1911, Tull signed for Northampton Town, scoring nine goals in one-hundred and ten appearances from the half back position. However Tull’s career came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War One when he joined the Seventeenth (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. In 1915, he arrived in France with his battalion and fought a number of battles and was involved in The Battle of the Somme from the first day.
Although army regulations of the time forbade non-whites becoming officers, Tull’s leadership qualities were utilised by the army and by 1917, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant after attending the officer’s training school at Gailes in Scotland.
On March 25, 1918, when he was 29 years old, Tull was leading his men in an attack on a German trench on the Somme in France. While in ‘no man’s land’, he was hit by a machine gun bullet that pierced his neck and exited just under his right eye. His men were unable to recover his body and today he has no marked grave. After his death, he was recommended for a Military Cross but never received it, one obituary said of him, “An officer and a gentleman, every inch of him”.
Tull’s story was forgotten for nearly eighty years until brought to light by football historian Phil Vasili. More recently, he has had a BBC play made about him, two biographies written about him, had various Northampton buildings named after him, a memorial garden has been built outside Northampton Town FC’s ground and his career is now being taught in schools.
Although Tull showed the skills he needed to become first a successful footballer, then an officer in the British army from a young age, his future was by no means certain. The fact that a working class boy raised in an orphanage managed to achieve so much, shows the level of character he had. The fact that he did it as a black man, in arenas usually exclusively for white men shows that he is a forgotten hero of black, football and military history and deserves the attention he is now receiving.