Pioneering footballer who went on to become a hero

Walter Tull
Walter Tull

Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent, the son of a carpenter from Barbados and a Kent-born woman.

Despite being of mixed heritage, he was referred to as “black” and began his education in what is now Mundella Primary School.

Walter and Edward Tull.  Phil Vasili/Finlayson Family Collection

Walter and Edward Tull. Phil Vasili/Finlayson Family Collection

Following the deaths of his mother Alice in 1895 and his father Daniel in 1897, he was brought up in a National Children’s Home orphanage in Bethnal Green with his brother Edward.

Edward was adopted by the Warnock family of Glasgow, and qualified as a dentist, the first black/mixed heritage person to practise this profession in the United Kingdom.

Walter’s football career started at Clapton FC where he played alongside Clyde Honeysett Purnell and Charles Rance in the team that won the London Senior Cup and FA Amateur Cup in 1908-09 and, in doing so, became the first black/mixed race player to win a medal in English senior football.

At the age of 21, Tull signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1909, after a close-season tour of Argentina and Uruguay, making him the first black/mixed heritage professional footballer to play in Latin America.

The Royal Mint's �5 commemorative coin for Walter Tull, ex-Northampton footballer who lived in Rushden and who was killed in action in the First World War NNL-140807-163126001

The Royal Mint's �5 commemorative coin for Walter Tull, ex-Northampton footballer who lived in Rushden and who was killed in action in the First World War NNL-140807-163126001

Tull made his debut for Tottenham in September 1909 at inside forward against Sunderland, making him only the second mixed heritage player to play in the top division after goalkeeper Arthur Wharton of Darlington, but he only made 10 first-team appearances, scoring twice, before he was dropped to the reserves.

This may have been due to the racial abuse he received from opposing fans, particularly at Bristol City, whose supporters used language “lower than Billingsgate”, according to a report at the time in the Football Star newspaper.

Further appearances in the first team were recorded before Tull was bought by Herbert Chapman’s Northampton Town on October 17, 1911, for a “substantial fee”, plus Charlie Brittain joining Tottenham Hotspur in return.

Tull made his debut four days later against Watford wearing the number 9 shirt, and made in all 111 first team appearances, scoring nine goals for the club.

A Remembrance Service and wreath laying at the Walter Tull Memorial next to Sixfields Stadium, before the Cobblers match. 'NEWS, NICK. '091107SL28

A Remembrance Service and wreath laying at the Walter Tull Memorial next to Sixfields Stadium, before the Cobblers match. 'NEWS, NICK. '091107SL28

He lived in Rushden and at one time is known to have lived at 26 Queen Street.

When war broke out Tull enlisted in the Army, in December 1914, becoming the first Northampton Town player to do so.

It was reported in the Glasgow Evening Times in 1940, in an article about Tull being the first black infantry officer in the British Army, that he had signed to play for Rangers once the war was over.

During the First World War Tull served in both Footballers’ Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment, 17th and 23rd, and also in the 5th battalion, rising to the rank of sergeant and fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

When Tull was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on May 30, 1917, while still in the Middlesex Regiment, he became the first black/mixed race combat officer in the British Army, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding such individuals from exercising actual command as officers.

Tull fought in Italy in 1917 and 1918 and was cited for his “gallantry and coolness” by Major General Sydney Lawford, commander of the 41st division, having led his company of 26 men on a night raiding party, crossing the fast-flowing rapids of the River Piave into enemy territory and returning them unharmed.

Soon after he was recommended for a Military Cross.

He returned to northern France in 1918, and was killed in action on March 25 during the Spring Offensive, near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais.

His body was never recovered, despite the efforts of a Private Billingham to return him while under fire.

Tull is remembered at the Arras Memorial, Bay 7, for those who have no known grave.

He fought in several major battles. The first was the Battle of Ancre in November 1916, which was also the first Battle of the Somme.

He then went on to participate in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and the third Battle of Ypres from July to August 1917, which included Passchendaele and Menin Road Ridge. He also fought in the Second Battle of the Somme and Battle of Bapaume.

Campaigners have called for a statue to be erected in his honour at Dover and Northampton South MP Brian Binley and Phil Vasili have begun campaigning for Tull to be posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

However, as the Military Cross was not authorised to be awarded posthumously until 1979, and the change did not include any provision for retrospective awards, this would not be possible without a complete change in the rules for awarding that medal.

Locally, on Sunday, July 11, 1999, Northampton Town FC unveiled a memorial to Walter in a dedicated Garden of Remembrance at Sixfields Stadium.

The epitaph, written by Phil Vasili, the author of Colouring Over the White Line: History Of Black Footballers in Britain and Walter Tull, 1888–1918, Officer, Footballer. All the guns in France couldn’t wake me, reads: “Through his actions, 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.”

The road which runs behind the North Stand (The Dave Bowen Stand) at Sixfields Stadium is named Walter Tull Way.

Ten years ago Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers contested the Walter Tull Memorial Cup.

In January 2009, plans were announced in the media to construct a statue in memory of Walter outside the proposed new Tottenham Hotspur ground.

Plans to erect a bronze memorial statue of Walter in the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park which lies within the grounds of the Imperial War Museum had reached the stage of formal consultation with local residents.

Permission for the statue was later refused by Southwark Council.