An inside forward with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, Walter Tull was just the third player of mixed-race heritage to play in the top tier of the Football League, and the first black officer to command white soldiers in the British Army.
Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone, the son of a Barbadian carpenter and English mother. Before he was nine years old, Walter had lost both his mother and his father. When his stepmother could not cope, Walter and his brother Edward were taken in by an orphanage in Bethnal Green.
Within two years, Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian family. Alone in London, Walter channelled everything into his football. Having played for the orphanage’s own team, he signed up with amateur outfit Clapton at the age of 20.
In his one full season at the club, Tull helped the side claim no fewer than three honours: the London Senior Cup, the London County Amateur Cup, and, most significantly, the Amateur Cup. The forward played his part in a 6-0 drubbing of Eston United in East London, helping Clapton clinch their second Amateur Cup in three years.
Tull’s performances caught the attention of Football League new boys Tottenham Hotspur, who had won promotion to the First Division in their debut FL season. Having featured on a tour of South America, Tull was thrown straight into the first team for Spurs’ first top-flight fixture, a 3-1 defeat at Sunderland.
His progress was stymied by the racial abuse he received from the terraces, with one newspaper report claiming that Bristol City supporters used language “lower than Billingsgate” to harangue the forward in one October fixture, though that same report praised Tull’s performance and dignity in the face of such verbal abuse.
Tull was unceremoniously dropped to the reserves soon after, and only made a smattering of first-team outings during the rest of his time at White Hart Lane. At the age of 23, Tull was moved on to Southern League side Northampton Town for a “substantial fee”, with Charlie Brittain going in the other direction.
Up in Northamptonshire, Walter found the footballing action he had initially sought in the capital, making over 100 appearances for the Cobblers over three seasons. However, just as Tull was approaching a prime point in his career, the First World War broke out across Europe. Walter was the first Town player to enlist, serving in the two so-called ‘Football Battalions’ of the Middlesex Regiment.
Rising through the ranks, Tull fought at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme, returning home to convalesce after suffering from shell shock and trench foot. Once recovered, he rejoined the army on the continent. He would soon be sent for officer training in Scotland – a controversial move, given the British Army’s regulations stating that those not of “pure European descent” could not become officers.
Despatched to Italy, Tull was awarded his groundbreaking commission in May 1917. His coolness, courage and strong leadership – all qualities that had served him so well on the football pitch – earned him plaudits on the battlefield. Sadly, with the war’s end just months away, Tull was killed in action in Favreuil, France, while attempting to help his men retreat from the advancing Germans.
In no small part due to his courageous actions in both Italy and France, Walter Tull was reportedly recommended for the Military Cross, though he did not receive one posthumously.
Nevertheless, his legacy is one of bravery, determination and unrelenting courage in the face of adversity, be it volleys of racial abuse from the touchlines, or mortar shells from across the battlefield.
Principal clubs: Tottenham Hotspur, Northampton Town