Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone on 28th April 1888. His father was a carpenter from Barbados who had moved to Folkestone and married a local woman.
By the age of nine, Walter had lost both his parents, and when he was ten, he and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist orphanage in Bethnal Green. His brother left the orphanage two years later, was adopted by a Scottish family and became a dentist. Meanwhile, Walter played for the orphanage football team, and in 1908, began playing for Clapton FC.
It has been widely, and mistakenly, reported in articles in both football and national press that Walter played for Clapton Orient (now Leyton Orient). Other reports state that Clapton FC were a local team and infers that the Tons were a mere ‘bunch of amateurs’. How wrong they are.
Amateurs they may have been, however the Clapton team of this era were one of the best non-professional outfits in England. Whilst playing for the Clapton FC, Walter Tull won winner’s medals in the FA Amateur Cup, London County Amateur Cup and London Senior Cup. He, and Clapton FC, were certainly no ‘bunch of amateurs’.
The Clapton team of 1909, winners of the FA Amateur Cup and London Senior Cup. Walter Tull is seated in the front row, one from the right.
However, Walter Tull had been identified as a player of great skill and, in March 1909, the Football Star called him ‘the catch of the season’.
In 1909 he signed as a professional for Tottenham Hotspur and whilst with the Spurs he experienced, for the first time, spectator racism when his team travelled to play Bristol City. According to one observer, ‘a section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate.’ The correspondent continued: “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 whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field”
In October 1911 Tull moved to Northampton Town where he played half-back and scored nine goals in 110 senior appearances. When the First World War broke out, be became the first Northampton player to sign up to join the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, and in November 1915 his battalion arrived in France.
The Army soon recognised Tull’s leadership qualities and he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. In July 1916, Tull took part in the major Somme offensive. Tull survived this experience but in December 1916 he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover.
Tull had impressed his senior officers and recommended that he should be considered for further promotion. When he recovered from his illness, instead of being sent back to France, he went to the officer training school at Gailes in Scotland. Despite military regulations forbidding “any negro or person of colour” being an officer, Tull received his commission in May, 1917.
Lieutenant Walter Tull was then sent to the Italian front. This was an historic occasion because Tull was the first ever black officer in the British Army. He led his men at the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his “gallantry and coolness” under fire.
Tull stayed in Italy until 1918 when he was transferred to France to take part in the attempt to break through the German lines on the Western Front. On 25th March, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was ordered to lead his men on an attack on the German trenches at Favreuil. Soon after entering No Mans Land, Tull was hit by a German bullet. Tull was such a popular officer that several of his men made valiant efforts under heavy fire from German machine-guns to bring him back to the British trenches. These efforts were in vain as Tull had died soon after being hit.
He was the first British-born black army officer and the first black officer to lead white British troops into battle.
In 1997 an appeal was launched in Northampton to recognise Walter Tull’s achievements, inspired by research undertaken by Phil Vasili and an enthusiastic local fan. In July 1999 a memorial to Walter was finally unveiled at Sixfields the home ground of The Cobblers, and the approach road to the stadium renamed Walter Tull Way. More recently, the offices of Probation Services in the centre of Northampton have been renamed Walter Tull House.
Walter’s status as a war hero should also be considered in the context of other un-named Black soldiers who fought for Britain in both World Wars and other battles across the world over hundreds of years.
So, journos, archivists, playwrights and the football world in general, please remember that Walter Tull first made his mark on the game of football at the Old Spotted Dog Ground and with Clapton FC.