Walter Tull; a name that should be echoed throughout football grounds with every player and fan knowing precisely who he is. The sad reality is that not many know this incredible man’s contribution both to football and society. He was one of a kind, but what exactly did this one man do? This is the story of Walter Tull, a true pioneer.
Tull was one of the very first black footballers to compete at the highest level of English football, the first outfield black player in fact. He was also the first-ever black officer to command white troops in the British Army. How do you go from playing football to controlling forces in the British Army? Tull’s story is one of tragedy and hope, of accomplishments and disaster. His story has only received media attention in recent years and only now is he getting the accolades he deserves, 100 years too late.
Born in Folkestone, Kent, England in 1888, Tull grew up an orphan from the age of nine after both his mother and father died when he was young. He came from a mixed-race family with his father coming from Barbados and mother a local woman from Folkestone. She died of cancer when he was just seven, and his father died of heart disease two years later. He and his brother both moved to an orphanage in East London after their parent’s deaths. The move from the countryside to the city was a significant change for both of them. “Walter and Edward found themselves in the most precarious and vulnerable position,” said a staff member from the orphanage.
It was here that Walter was encouraged to play football and also what shaped him to be a leader in life. He was hit by another upset when he and his brother were separated as a family adopted Edward in Scotland. Edward would go on to become the first black dentist to hold the licentiate in dental surgery. All alone in the orphanage, he set his attention to football. He started with an amateur football club named Clapton FC in 1908. This was where he was making a name for himself an ended with him being picked up by Tottenham Hostpur. From playing at an amateur ground in front of dozens to playing in White Hart Lane in front of thousands, in just one year, this was the dream. At the time, he was one of the first black footballers in the game, which was new to fans at a time where racism was very relevant in society.
Sadly, because of this, he was subjected to terrible racist abuse every time he took to the pitch. One match against Bristol City, in particular, is highlighted due to a large section of the crowd berating him all game with language not fit for public use. One reporter at the time condemned this and even went as far as to say “Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football.” He even described Tull as being “the best forward on the field” at the time due to his ability. During Tottenham’s pre-season in Latin America, he was the first mixed-heritage player to play there.
Despite all of his ability on the pitch, the abuse was continuous and hindered his playing career. He was eventually dropped to the reserves and sold after making just ten senior appearances for the club, scoring two goals. His demotion was believed to be due to the racist abuse that he was receiving at each game. Northampton Town would be his next destination, where he would go on to make over 100 appearances for them. It’s crazy to think that this kind of abuse is still happening in the game nowadays, over 100 years later. Generations apart, he is one of the leading figures in football in inspiring black footballers to take to the pitch now. Without Tull, we may not have seen the likes of Pelé, Eusébio, Kylian Mbappé or Raheem Sterling.
There has never been more attention to this problem both in football and society than now. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that has taken the world by storm finally seems to have made some headway in their goal. In 2020, it is almost shameful that black people need to protest just to have the same rights as white people. They have been oppressed for thousands of years, fighting for their rights in every decade and generation to exist so far. Yet it is only now, at the turn of a new decade, that they see real progress. Their cause can no longer be ignored; they deserve this more than anything we have ever earned. They simply want the chance to be equal in the eyes of society away from discrimination. We need to give them this.
It is great to see football not shying away from this, but instead embracing it and dedicating their resources and time to help promote the movement. Each match since the return has seen players, management and officials all take a knee in solidarity for the movement before kick-off. There is also the planned new scheme; BAME, where the aim is to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic players moving into full-time coaching roles in football. This is jointly funded by the Premier League and the PFA who will provide a bursary to participants who are placed in the system. With only six of the 91 Premier League and EFL coaches or head coaches being BAME, this is a very encouraging step forward in tackling racism in sport and providing equal opportunities.
This is something that Walter Tull would be particularly pleased to see, as racism in the sport is what drove him out of the game and tarnished what looked like a promising career. After his spell with Northampton, he enlisted in the British Army after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He signed up, along with fellow footballers, to the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He also served in the 23rd Battalion, both of which were Football Battalions of the Duke of Cambridge’s Regiment. His leadership qualities were transparent, and he was put forward for promotion quite early on. At this time, any person of colour was forbidden from being an officer. Despite this, he trained hard to become a commissioned officer in 1917, and he went on to become the first British-born black officer in the British Army.
Tull was now the first outfield black person to play in the English First Division and also the first black officer in the British Army, incredible! He was a courageous and determined soldier, something that he learned was in him while playing football. He was highly praised for his role in battles. He fought on the Italian front where he led 26 men on a night raid against an enemy position. He and his men crossed the river under heavy fire and returned unscathed. He gained massive respect for this bold move. He was put forward for a military cross for this display of bravery, but to this day none has been placed on his name, his family are still awaiting one.
In March 1918, Tull and his men led an attack on German trenches. This was the sight of ‘No Man’s Land’, an open ground which was under heavy fire from German troops. This was the early stages of the German Army’s Spring Offensive which made Allied forces consider falling back. They were under immense pressure, and there was a growing number of losses of life. On 25 March, Walter Tull was shot and killed on the battlefield aged just 29. His body was never recovered despite multiple efforts. He was among the 250,000 British and French casualties during this attack in which they eventually came out on top after Germany’s loss of momentum. His body lay in the soil in Northern France, among his fellow piers, never to grace home soil again. A truly tragic end to a tragic life, but one that was not meaningless. His death was not to be the end of his impact on British society.
Commemorated at the Arras Memorial, Tull joins the 34,785 other soldiers who died in the area with no known grave, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves. His name is spread across multiple memorials through Britain, especially in his hometown Folkestone. A Nubian Jak Blue plaque was unveiled in 2014 in memory of him in Tottenham. He is also remembered in the shadows of Northampton Town’s stadium in a lasting memorial and remembrance garden. In 2007, a metal sculpture of him was also unveiled in Tottenham in Downhills Park, alongside two other local heroes. An exhibition was held for him in Bruce Castle Museum in 2009 to mark 100 years since he joined the club. He is fondly remembered at Tottenham as they see him as one of their own.
Northampton have done their part in remembering their former player by naming a road behind the North Stand the Walter Tull Way, as well as a pub bearing his name also in the area. He has a memorial wall dedicated to him at Sixfields Stadium. In 2004, Tottenham and Rangers contested the “Walter Tull Memorial Cup” in his memory. He was also honoured on a £5 coin by the Royal Mint in an introductory First World War six-coin set in 2014. Royal Mail followed in 2018 with a set of stamps that featured Tull to mark the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Media outlets have been preaching his name and spreading his story for quite some time now to make more people aware of this unknown pioneer and hero. There have been books, dramas and a biography done on the great man, but what his story deserves is an Oscar-worthy film to be produced on his life.
Walter Tull was the definition of a pioneer in every sense. To go from being the first black outfield footballer to play in English football to becoming the first black officer in the British Army is nothing short of inspirational. He laid the foundations for more black footballers to step into the game and for black people in society to have the confidence to strive for more. He battled on through the hate that was thrown at him and achieved things that many white people could only dream of. This is how he made his mark on society and deserves to be more than just another name lost in history. He is an inspiration, role model and pioneer for every young black person trying to make their way in life.
I hope this story will bring just a few more people’s attention to who this man was. He is someone who should be known by all in football and society for what he did for his country. He faced adversity and obstacles at every stage of his life, which he overcame and didn’t let define him. Remember the name Walter Tull, a pioneer, a hero.
If you enjoyed this read then you should check out The Football Pink Podcast, featuring an episode on Walter Tull here. Available on Apple, Spotify, and all major podcast outlets.