The hero that never was – Tottenham’s Walter Tull

Walter Tull was both a footballing and War hero

We often hear of cases when certain footballers are not recognised as much as they should be.  Whether it be for footballing feats or not being praised for their impressive season, nothing will beat the impressive story of Walter Tull.

Walter Tull was born on 28th April 1888 in Folkestone, Kent.  Tull was the son of Barbadian carpenter Daniel Tull and Kent-born Alice Elizabeth Palmer.  His father was the son of a slave (Grandmother Tull) in Barbados and moved over in 1876.  Unfortunately when Tull was only seven his mother passed away, two years later his father fell to the same fate. With his step-mother unable to cope with six children, Tull and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist based orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.  Brother Edward was quickly adopted, leaving Tull on his own.  Every morning before lessons he would have to wash in freezing cold water, clean at least 15 pairs of boots and scrub the floors on his knees.  Growing up in Victorian London wasn’t easy but luckily Tull had a gift on his side – football.

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Tull played for the orphanage side and quickly showed off his impressive skills.  Despite starting an apprenticeship as a printer, football always came first for Tull, it was the one constant in his life.  In 1908, following a successful trial, Tull signed for Clapton FC, a local amateur side, he played as an inside-forward.  In less than a year Clapton FC won every cup available to them, the FA Amateur Cup, the London Amateur County Cup and the London Senior Cup.  Following a hugely successful season, Tull was signed by Tottenham Hotspur for £10.  Tull became Britain’s first black professional outfield player and earned £4 a week, a top wage at the time.  Due to the sparse amount of black players, Tull was subject to severe racial abuse from the terraces.  In one famous match against Bristol City, Tull was subjected to so much racial abuse, a journalist from the Football Star newspaper who attended the game struck out:

“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.”

Tull played a total of 10 games and scored twice for Spurs before he was dropped.  In 1911, Tull moved to Northampton for what was reported at the time as a ‘heavy fee’.  Tull’s position had changed to half-back where he made 110 appearances, scoring nine goals.  All seemed well in Tull’s life until in 1914, when the First World War broke out.  Tull was the first of his team to volunteer and joined the Football Battalion 17th Middlesex Regiment.

Tull was promoted three times during his training period and was sent to France as Lance Sergeant near the front line in November 1914. In May 1915 Tull was sent back to England with post traumatic stress disorder.  Recovering strongly he returned to France and despite having been returned home, Tull fought bravely in the battle of Somme between October and November, 1916.  His courage and abilities impressed his superior officers so much that they recommended him for promotion.  Despite at the time there were military laws forbidding ‘any negro or person of colour’ being commissioned as an officer, Tull went back to England to train for the role.  In 1917, Tull was promoted to Lieutenant.  He was the first ever black officer in the British Army and the first black officer to lead white men into battle.  In the harsh winter of 1917-18 Tull twice lead his company behind enemy lines, across the river Piave on the Alpine Italian Front on a raid, and both times bringing his company back safe.  Tull was put forward for a Military Cross by his commanding officer, for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ under fire.  Unfortunately in March 1918 Tull was killed by machine gun fire while trying to help his men retreat.  His men tried several attempts to bring his body back to the trench, but it was never recovered.  Tull died selflessly still trying to help the men he led – he died a hero.

By making Tull an officer his superiors had thrown away the rulebook and went with their heart.  However when the war ended because Tull was not of a ‘pure european descent’ he was not rewarded the Military Cross.  A brutal and an unacceptable decision.

Tull was a hugely popular figure amongst all that knew him, it says it all when men were risking their lives to bring back his dead body.  Tull is just one of the thousands of victims from World War One who has no known grave.  He was honoured though in a different way, a statue of him was erected in 1999 in Northampton Town.  Thanks to a £49,000 lottery grant and future plans are now in place to celebrate his achievements.  Tull has also had a book published for him called ‘Walter Tull’s Scrapbook’ by author Michaela Morgan, to widely publicise the heroic figure.

Currently an ongoing campaign to reverse the decision about Tull’s Military Cross is gathering steam.  Northampton MP Brian Binley is supporting an online Number 10 petition calling for Tull to be awarded the medal, even after death.

If all modern footballers could learn a lesson from the hero Walter Tull, it would be a big wake up call for the modern game.  Maybe less diving and theatrics, less abuse and more respect towards referees and show that they have a cause to fight for, not just to earn £200,000 a week and act selfishly.  Walter Tull deserves to have his Military Cross, and his story deserves to be spread.