Walter Tull

Walter Tull

Walter Tull, the son of joiner, was born in Folkestone in April 1888. Walter's father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Kent. Over the next few years the couple had six children.

In 1895, when Walter was seven, his mother died. Walter's father remarried but died two years later. The stepmother was unable to cope with all six children and Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a Methodist run orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.

After finishing his schooling Tull served an apprenticeship as a printer. Walter was a keen footballer and had a trial at Clapton, a East London amateur club. By the beginning of the 1908-09 season Tull was playing for the first-team. A talented inside-forward, he helped Clapton enjoy a successful season. They won the Amateur Cup, the London Senior Cup and the London County Amateur Cup. The Football Star praised Tull's "clever footwork" and described him as being the "catch of the season".

Walter Tull was invited to join Tottenham Hotspur and the club decided to sign this promising young footballer. It has been claimed that Tull was only the second black man to play professional football in Britain. The first was Arthur Wharton, who signed for Preston North End in 1886.

In May 1909 Tull went on a tour of South America with Tottenham Hotspur and played games in Argentina and Uruguay. In a letter he wrote to a friend he complained that he was suffering from "sunstroke and feeling very queer for a few days." He also complained that "none of the waiters spoke English".

On his return to England Tull joined Spurs for a £10 signing-on fee. It was agreed that he would be paid the maximum wage of £4 per week. Spurs had just been promoted to the First Division of the Football League. Tull made his debut against Sunderland. Spurs lost 3-1 and they suffered a second defeat against Everton the following week. They got their first point with a 2-2 draw against Manchester United.

Tull got considerable praise for these early performances. The Daily Chronicle claimed that "Tull's display on Saturday (against Manchester United) must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well."

Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull at Tottenham Hotspur

Tull scored his first goal against Bradford City a week later. The Daily Chronicle pointed out on the 4th October, 1909, that he was "a class superior to that shown by most of his colleagues". However, after playing just seven first-team games he was dropped and played the rest of the season in the reserves.

In the 1910-11 season he played in only three games. This included a goal against Manchester City. He also scored 10 goals in 27 league games with the reserves. Disillusioned by his lack of first-team appearances he was transferred for what was said to be a "heavy transfer fee" to Northampton Town in the Southern League. He was signed by Herbert Chapman who was later to become a highly successful manager of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. Chapman had originally played under Britain's first black player Arthur Wharton, when he was the coach of Stalybridge Rovers.

Tull scored four in one match while playing as an inside forward for Northampton Town. However, he played most of his 110 games for Northampton as a wing-half. Tull became the club's most popular player. Tull did not always get a good response from the fans of the opposition. The Northampton Echo reported on 9th October 1909: "A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him in language lower than Billingsgate... Let me tell these Bristol hooligans (there were but few of them in a crowd of nearly twenty thousand) 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 in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.''

Tull's ... display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time."

Other clubs wanted to sign Walter Tull and in 1914 Glasgow Rangers began negotiations with Northampton Town. However, before he could play for them the First World War was declared. Tull immediately abandoned his career and offered his services to the British Army. Walter, like many professional players, joined the Football Battalion. At the time it was commanded by Major Frank Buckley. 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.

Walter Tull became the first Black combat officer in the British Army. As Phil Vasili has pointed out in his book, Colouring Over the White Line: "According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line."

Lieutenant Walter Tull was 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. One of the soldiers who tried to rescue him later told his commanding officer that Tull was "killed instantaneously with a bullet through his head." Tull's body was never found.

Primary Sources

(1) Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians (1998)

Walter Tull's first match for Spurs was at their first division debut in 1909. The London team had crowds that numbered thirty thousand, and they thrilled to Tull's skills. He was an inside forward, with the role of supplying the winger with good passes. The Daily Chronicle observed that Tull was a class above many of his team mates. It was felt that had Spurs obtained a decent winger then the combination would have been the best in England. Newspaper reports of Spurs matches refer to Tull as "West Indian" and "darkie".

(2) The Daily Chronicle (9th October, 1909)

Tull's ... display on Saturday must have astounded everyone who saw it. Such perfect coolness, such judicious waiting for a fraction of a second in order to get a pass in not before a defender has worked to a false position, and such accuracy of strength in passing I have not seen for a long time. During the first half, Tull just compelled Curtis to play a good game, for the outside-right was plied with a series of passes that made it almost impossible for him to do anything other than well.

Tull has been charged with being slow, but there never was a footballer yet who was really great and always appeared to be in a hurry. Tull did not get the ball and rush on into trouble. He let his opponents do the rushing, and defeated them by side touches and side-steps worthy of a professional boxer. Tull is very good indeed.

(3) Northampton Echo (9th October, 1909)

A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him (Walter Tull) in language lower than Billingsgate...Let me tell these Bristol hooligans (there were but few of them in a crowd of nearly twenty thousand) 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 in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.

(4) Phil Vasili, Colouring Over the White Line (2000)

According to The Manual of Military Law, Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. During the First World War, military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that White soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should Black soldiers serve on the front line. Forty-four years earlier the War Office argued that the army should be wholly White, despite the presence of Blacks in the army since at least the sixteenth century, an African trumpeter being part of Henry VII's court in 1507. In fact Britain had been ruled by an African Roman, Septemius Severus, during the third century. In that century a division of Moors was stationed at Hadrian's Wall. While the Romans could accept a rainbow army, the British elite, sixteen hundred years later, could not. At the War Office in 1886, a veteran of the Anglo-Asante War of 1873-74, Lord Wolseley, pleaded: "Let us keep our British Regiments strictly British ... If ever we begin to fill our ranks with alien races our downfall will most surely follow." But Black soldiers did enlist and fight in the First World War. Laura Tabili, in We Ask for British Justice - Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (1994) has argued that there was a "Coloured" unit of UK Blacks in the British Army. Tull's brother William was a sapper in the Royal Engineers, the same regiment as Charles Augustus Williams, the Barbadian father of Doncaster Rovers centre-half Charlie Williams. Eugene and John Brown, the Nigerian father and uncle of Roy Brown, a club colleague of Stanley Matthews at Stoke City in the late 1930s, served in the 5th North Staffordshire Regiment while attending college in Britain. Eugene was killed in action, while John ended his war days in hospital. There were numerous other Blacks that also broke the colour bar. However, it was not until 1918, a time of severe manpower shortage, that the Army Council officially allowed British and colonial Blacks to sign up in the UK.

(5) The Guardian (25th March, 1998)

Playing at inside left, Tull's future looked bright. Then, in a game at Bristol City in 1909, he was racially abused by fans in what the Football Star called "language lower than Billingsgate". The incident was deeply traumatic for Tull and the club. The following season, he played only three first-team games; the season after, he was sold for "a heavy transfer fee" to Northampton Town. There, Tull flourished again, playing 110 first-team games for the club, mostly at wing-half. He was probably their biggest star. In 1914, he was on the point of signing for Glasgow Rangers. Then came war. It was perhaps inevitable, given the spirit of muscular Christianity in which he was raised, that Tull should make a swift transition from sport to war. What was less inevitable was that he should conduct himself with even more distinction on the battlefield than on the playing field. Yet he did. He enlisted in the 17th (1st. Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, alongside many other professional footballers. By 1916, he had been made a sergeant. Among other actions, he was involved in the murderous first battle of the Somme. We can only guess the horrors he endured, but they did not break him.

(6) In his book Goodbye to All That, Captain Robert Graves wrote about what happened when a popular officer was wounded in No Mans Land.

Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise. At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death.

(7) Walter Tull's commanding officer in the 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, sent a letter to Edward Tull after the death of his brother (March, 1918)

He was popular throughout the battalion. He was brave and conscientious. The battalion and company had lost a faithful officer, and personally I have lost a friend.

(8) Major Robin Wheeler, Army Legal Services, email to John Simkin (8th February, 2008)

Just to alert you to the fact that there were NOT military regulations ‘forbidding “any negro or person of colour” from being an officer.’ The Manual of Military Law 1914 (p.471) has regulations regarding aliens and their enlistment into the British Army, which prevent them holding any other than an honorary commission, but Walter Tull was not an alien, he was a British citizen. His father came to England from Barbados in 1876 and married a girl from Kent; Walter Tull was born in Folkestone in 1888. He was a British citizen entitled to hold an active commission, which he did. He did remarkably well to rise from private to Lt. in the space of 2 years – there was no military legislation to prevent him doing that.

(9) Phil Vasili, email to John Simkin (March, 2008)

I had a discussion with the people at the MOD last week about this. Quite simply they are wrong and thier legal department is quoting selectively. Tull was apponted to the Special Reserve of Officers. This is what their regulations in the Short Guide to Obtaining a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1912, stated:

[to qualify for a commission] a candidate must be of pure European descent, and a British born or naturalised British subject.

The Manual of Military Law (1914) authorised alien soldiers, including any negro or person of colour to hold honorary rank but they must not exercise any actual command or power. This rule created a contradiction because the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 affirmed the status of all those born within the British Empire as natural born British subjects. The act gave all peoples of Empire equivalent legal status to those born within the UK. However, if there was ambiguity as to the ethnic criteria needed to become an officer, this was spelled out on page198 of the Manual, confirming the regulation contained in the Short Guide of 1912, governing the Special Reserve of Officers (to which Tull was appointed to a commission in 1917): Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.

(10) Major Robin Wheeler, Army Legal Services, email to John Simkin (1st May, 2008)

It seems I may unwittingly have led you astray (though not on the facts as I was given them). We have been contacted by the MP for a Mr. Vasili, who claims that what I told you re Walter Tull was wrong, as he was not a Regular Officer, but on the Special Reserve of Officers (which it is true to say would not be unusual given the circumstances). I have seen no proof of this assertion, but he has read the information he has (I think a copy of the Service Record provided by the family) over the phone to the US of S to back this up. The MML of 1914 does state at p. 198 that "Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent."

That would logically rule out Lt. Tull as his father was from Barbados. I note that the wording being quoted before was from the part of the MML that dealt with the requirements for Regular Officers – I am a little suspicious that we have now shifted ground to where some racial prohibition did exist, and as I say I have not seen any proof myself – you would have to look at the Service Record in the PRO.

If you do find I have caused you to alter the website unneccessarily, I can only apologise. As you will appreciate, we do not have the time that Mr. Vasili has to comb the PRO!