Walter Tull Biography
Despite being orphaned as a young boy and dying at only 29 years of age, Walter Tull lived a truly fascinating life which was simply full of firsts. Perhaps his most well-known achievement was the fact he was the first black officer to command white soldiers in the British Army, but there were plenty of other notable firsts throughout his short life.
For a start, Tull was one of the first black players to play professional football at the top level in England and was Tottenham Hotspur’s first ever player of colour. He was also the first mixed-heritage professional footballer to play in Latin America, during Tottenham’s close-season tour of Argentina and Uruguay, in the summer of 1909. And it is worth noting that after Tull was transferred from Spurs to Northampton Town, in 1911, that he was the first footballer at the club to volunteer to fight the good fight, once World War One began.
Walter Tull was also the first player of African descent to be signed by Glasgow Rangers, in Scotland, possibly so that following the war he would be closer to his brother, Edward, who had been adopted by a Glaswegian family during the siblings’ time at the orphanage. Unfortunately, Tull would never get the chance to play for the Scottish side; as he was killed in action during the Spring Offensive, on the 25th March 1918.
The following article takes an in-depth look at Walter Tull’s life, covering his childhood, his professional football career, his exploits during the First World War and his legacy today.
Walter Tull’s Childhood
Walter Daniel John Tull was born on the 28th April 1888 in Folkestone, Kent, to a Barbadian, Daniel Tull, and Alice Elizabeth Palmer, a Maid of Kent. Sadly, Walter’s mother died of breast cancer when he was only seven, and the following year his father married Alice’s niece, Clara Palmer.
Unfortunately, the family would suffer a further loss when Walter’s father had a heart attack, only three months after the birth of his baby daughter, and sadly passed away in 1897, leaving Clara alone to raise his five children and their newborn baby.
Struggling to make ends meet, Clara had a difficult decision to make, as it was no longer possible for her to feed all six children now that her husband was dead. With the help of her church, Clara was able to place the two children of school age, Walter and his brother, Edward, to an orphanage in London. The plan was that the remaining siblings would either work or help their step-mother with household chores and looking after the baby.
Life was suddenly very different for the two young boys in the Children’s Home and Orphanage, in Bethnal Green, but fortunately they were allowed to keep in touch with the rest of their family back in Folkestone and occasionally visit them on holidays. However, Walter would again face further heartache two years, when Edward was adopted by a family in Glasgow, thus leaving him all alone in the orphanage.
Walter had certainly faced more than his fair share of tragedy for someone so young, but fortunately he could turn to sport to help lift his spirits, and his love of football was especially encouraged by the staff at the orphanage—something that would hold him in good stead in the future after he had completed his schooling.
Walter Tull and Football
Walter Tull’s love for football continued in 1908 when, at the age of 20, he started playing for London amateur side, Clapton F.C. He certainly impressed in his one and only season for the East London side, helping the club win three trophies, and attracting the attention of several professional football teams, including a certain Tottenham Hotspur.
Tottenham Hotspur F.C.
Spurs invited Tull to join them on their pre-season tour of Uruguay and Argentina. The young forward played well on the tour, scoring in his first game, and soon ingratiated himself with both his teammates and the South American crowds who watched him. On their return to England, Tottenham signed him up on a professional contract, which meant that Tull had become only the third footballer of mixed-race to play in the top division of the Football League.
His career at Spurs began where it had left off in Argentina, with his impressive form promising a bright future with the club. However, after 10 games, he was unexpectedly dropped from the first team, which was almost certainly down to the racial abuse he had been suffering from opposition fans.
Racism was systemic at the time, with Walter often being described in the press as “darkie Tull’. However, there were some incidents of sickening racial abuse by some sets of fans when Tottenham visited their opponents’ grounds, including a particularly nasty experience away to Bristol City. Such was the torrent of racial abuse thrown at Tull by the City fans that day, the headline of the match report in one paper read, “Football and the Colour Prejudice”, which is believed to be the first time racial abuse had ever been acknowledged in a football report.
Despite the insults and racial slurs, Tull was said to have remained “professional and composed throughout the game”, with one reporter stating that Walter Tull should be seen as “a model for all white men who play football”. Nevertheless, the constant abuse from the opposing fans clearly took its toll on Walter, who struggled to regain a regular starting place in the team. And he eventually dropped a division when he was signed by Herbert Chapman to play for Northampton Town in 1911, supposedly for a “substantial fee”.
Northampton Town F.C.
The move to the Cobblers would prove to be a great one for Tull’s footballing career. He simply flourished under Chapman, making over 100 appearances for the club in 3 years and becoming an integral part of the team. Again, Tull became a popular figure amongst his teammates, and a crowd favourite amongst the home fans.
However, Walter Tull would eventually leave Northampton Town in December 1914, when he volunteered to join the British Army and fight in World War One. We know from an article in the Daily Chronicle, entitled “Walter Tull Leads the Way”, that Tull was the first player from the Cobblers to answer the call and enlist in the new Football Battalion [17th (Service) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment], a fact which he was heartily praised for.
Early WW1 Recruitment Posters were aimed at entire football teams to enlist in the army and “Play The Game” in France and Belgium against the Germans. And it is quite possible the poster above may well have struck a chord with Tull personally, as it was specifically aimed at the footballers and fans of his former club, Tottenham Hotspur.
Whatever the reason, the inside forward for Northampton Town who had always shown incredible bravery to overcome whatever life had thrown at him, now risked life and limb for his country.
Walter Tull and WW1
First Football Battalion
Walter Tull enlisted in the British Army on the 21st December 1914, joining the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, a new regiment which had been formed on the 12th December. Although Tull was the first player from Northampton Town to join the regiment, by March 1915 122 professional footballers had signed up, which led it to be commonly known as the Football Battalion.
Tull began his training at the beginning of 1915, and by the time he was posted to France, in November of that year, Tull had already been promoted three times to the rank of lance sergeant. He would soon come face-to-face with the horrors of trench warfare and in May 1916, Tull was sent home to England suffering from shell shock, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Second Football Battalion
It was not until September 1916 that Walter Tull was considered fit to return to active service and he was posted to the the 23rd (Service) Battalion, which was commonly known as the 2nd Football Battalion and whose commanding officer was another former Tottenham Hotspur player, Haig-Brown.
During October and November 1916, Tull fought in the Battle of the Somme, where he showed great courage and leadership qualities; so much so that his superior officers recommended that Walter Tull train to be an officer. Towards the end of the year, he returned to England on leave.
Second Lieutenant Walter Tull
Following this period of leave, Tull travelled up to Scotland to undergo officer training; despite the fact that it was technically still illegal for men of mixed-race to become a commissioned officer in the British Army. However, just as he had overcome racial prejudices in the past, especially during his time playing for Tottenham, Walter Tull overcame these prejudices too, receiving his commission as an officer by the end of May 1917.
In late November 1917, Walter Tull was sent to fight on the Italian Front. And it was there that he took temporary command of his company, twice leading his men on raids and bringing them back safely on both occasions. This meant he had become the British Army’s first ever black officer to lead white troops into battle.
The Spring Offensive
By early March 1918, Tull was back fighting on the Western Front. Then, on the 21st of March, the Germans launched the Spring Offensive. They saw this as their last chance to win the war, as they knew American troops would soon be arriving in Europe.
Unfortunately, Second Lieutenant Walter Tull was killed in action on 25th March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive. He was only 29 years of age. And although his men attempted to recover Tull’s body for a proper burial, they were unable to do so. Instead, Walter Tull’s name is recorded on Bay 7 of the Arras Memorial, located in the Faubourg d’Amiens British military cemetery.
Walter Tull’s Legacy
Immediately following Tull’s death, his commanding officers wrote to his family to tell them that they had already recommended that Walter receive a Military Cross for his bravery on the Italian Front. At the time, the Military Cross was second only to the Victoria Cross in terms of awards for bravery, and was given out for “exemplary gallantry”. Unfortunately, Walter Tull never received his Military Cross and there is much speculation today as to the reason it was not granted at the time. There have been recent campaigns for Tull to receive his medal posthumously, but until now these attempts have been unsuccessful.
Not too much had been written about Walter Tull in the twentieth century, until the writer, Phil Vasili, began researching Tull’s remarkable life story in the early 1990s. Since then, interest in Walter has steadily grown, especially during events to mark the centenary of World War One.
The Royal Mint included a £5 coin honouring Tull in a six-coin set to mark the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the war, in 2014. While, in 2018, the Royal Mail produced a set of stamps, one of which featuring Tull, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.
In November 2018, a magnificent sand portrait of Walter Tull was created on Ayr beach, in Scotland, as part of a remembrance project by film director Danny Boyle. The Pages of the Sea Project took place on beaches up and down the United Kingdom and was a unique event to mark 100 years since the end of World War One. It paid tribute to the millions of brave souls who left Britain’s shores during the First World War.
In October 2020, the Royal Mail painted a postbox black in Glasgow to honour Tull, who had agreed to join Glasgow Rangers after the war, while he was up in Scotland undergoing his officer training.
A year later, and Tull was inducted into the National Football Museum’s English Football Hall of Fame. And on the 23 July 2022, Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers contested the second Walter Tull Memorial Cup, with Spurs winning the game 2-1.
The story of Walter Tull’s life is quite fascinating and is one that should be told throughout Britain and beyond. Walter faced personal tragedy and racial prejudice throughout his short life, but he always seemed to overcome the odds and achieve incredible firsts in both sporting and military walks of life.
Below are links to several FREE fun and educational resources (as well as a premium lesson plan for teachers), which are intended to help students get better acquainted with the extraordinary life of Walter Tull.
Test Your Knowledge of Walter Tull
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Please note that this Test Your Knowledge of Walter Tull exercise is now also available as a Premium Quiz Sheet for teachers to print out for their class and works well in tandem with the Walter Tull PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes.
WebQuest Worksheet, Quiz and Jigsaw
Click on the link for the FREE Walter Tull WebQuest Worksheet (Coming soon)
Click on the link to play the Walter Tull Quiz
Click on the link to solve the Walter Tull Jigsaw Puzzle and reveal the secret phrase.
Premium Lesson Plan (for Teachers)
Click on the link to view the Walter Tull Worksheet and Activity Packs (Coming soon)