Walter Tull was a talented forward who only played a handful of games for Tottenham but he holds a special place in the history of the club and English football. He died ninety seven years ago this week (March 25th). He was killed instantly by a shot to the head whilst leading his men forward while serving on the Western front during World War 1. We reflect upon the short life of this extraordinary man, the grandson of a slave and explore some of the myths that have grown up around him. The first myth is that there are only two photos of the man. I think this article debunks that one.
Walter was the grandson of a West Indian slave. His father had come to England in 1876 to work as a carpenter and lived in Folkstone in Kent. He married a local girl and the couple had six children, with Walter being born in 1888. He was seven years old when his mother died, his father remarried a year later and they had another child. Within a year his father also died. His widow unable to cope sent the two youngest boys Edward and Walter to a children's home / orphanage in Bethnal green only a few miles from Tottenham.
Here Walter learned to become a printer. His older brother, Edward, was in the choir and went on a tour to Scotland where he was adopted. He later became a dentist (its thought the first black dentist in the UK) and the local press in later life commented upon his beautiful voice.
Left is the Clapton team that won three trophies in the season Walter featured for their first team.
Spurs had just won promotion in their first season in the Football League. Walter made his debut on the opening day of the season in our first ever Division One game. This was a 1-3 defeat away to Sunderland.
Tottenham’s first season in the top flight was a tough start and we lost away at Everton before our first home game against Manchester United. In that game he was described as giving them ‘serious problems’ and he won the penalty that saw the game end 2-2 and our first point in Division one.
The Daily Graphic did a photo spread of that game with Manchester United, above. Pic 1 in the top left shows Tull on the attack.
Pic 3, top right shows him supporting the attack.
The Daily Chronicle's match report said “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.” It continued “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."
A week later he scored his first goal, it came against Bradford City, a heavy defeat. This time The Chronicle said he was “a class superior to that shown by most of his colleagues". On the Monday he was in the team for the London FA Charity Cup game which we won 9-0 away to Nunhead. Not everything went well however and he missed the next game, our first victory at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The following week he returned in the 0-0 draw at Bristol City. At this game he was subjected to severe abuse from the crowd. The press reported "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" (2).
He played in a win over Bury at home and then in The Charity Cup match away to Croydon Common in which he scored in our 7-1 win. His next appearance was a home defeat to Middlesbourgh in the league. With six points from eight games he was dropped and spent the rest of the season in the reserves. What evidence that is available doesn’t contain suggestions of a loss of form. It has been suggested that it might have been the Directors worried about the abuse he was receiving, although this isn't mentioned in any other of the match reports.
One of the sources that claim this as a fact also reproduce the Daily Graphic pic no 3 above as coming from the Bristol City game. When even without the Daily Graphic evidence it is clearly White Hart Lane. Tottenham finished the season in 15th place.
The following year, 1910-11, saw him play only three first team games. The first was on Christmas Eve in a win at Nottingham Forest. He missed the return game on Boxing Day and played on the 27th scoring our goal in a 1-1 draw at home to Manchester City. His last first team appearance came in the April. Tottenham struggling to come to terms with the top flight again finished 15th. With our regular center forward Percy Humphries scoring 10 in 24 games. That season Walter also played 27 reserve games scoring ten times.
He was then transferred to Northampton Tow, then in the Southern League for what was described as a ‘heavy fee’. Tull would play over a hundred games for his new club, many of these after dropping back to wing half. The Northampton Echo wrote ‘Tull has now settled in the half-line in a manner which now places him in the front-rank of class players in this position."
In 1914 Glasgow Rangers wanted to sign him and he wanted to join them so he could be closer to his brother. The outbreak of World War meant the transfer was never completed and Tull volunteered for the Footballers Battalion.(3)
During his training he was promoted to Sergent and then posted to France. In May 1915 he was sent home with Shell-shock. He returned in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme. Then in December 1916 he was sent home again suffering from Trench Fever. Upon recovery instead of returning to the front he was sent to the officer training school in Scotland and received his commission in May 1917 (4).
He was then posted to the Italian front and was mentioned in dispatches for his gallantry and coolness under fire. In 1918 Walter was posted back to France. Then on 25th March 1918 he was leading an attack when he was hit by a bullet in no mans land. His men reporting he had been killed instantaneously Walter had proved popular with is men and several attempts were made to rescue his body. These were beaten back and his body was never recovered.
A Lieutenant Pickard wrote to Walter's brother and said: "allow me to say how popular he was throughout the Battalion. He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross, and had certainly earned it, the Commanding Officer had every confidence in him, and he was liked by the men. Now he has paid the supreme sacrifice; the Battalion and Company have lost a faithful officer; personally I have lost a friend. Can I say more, except that I hope that those who remain may be true and faithful as he."
The Military Cross was not at first awarded, but a campaign was mounted a few years back to correct this (5) Two of the campaign’s leaders were Garth Crooks (6) and Michael Morpurgo (7) The medal was finally presented in 2012 (8).
In 2014 The Royal Mint announced that a special set of coins to mark the centenary of the First World War would be issued and one of the coins would feature Walter Tull. Walter is also remembered with a memorial at Northampton Town and the town also has a road, Walter Tull Way. A memorial blue plaque has recently been unveiled in Northumberland Park where he lived. Walter’s story was the inspiration for one of Robert Graves stories about WW1. There is also a stage play of his life and there are plans to make a film version.
Keith Harrison. HT44
t- Keith 16024542
f- peter shearman (old non de plume reserved for THFC matters)
Notes - 1 - The first was Arthur Wharton a goalkeeper with Preston and Rotherham
2 – Billingsgate is the main London Fish market
3 – The Footballers battalion is discussed in Hotspur Towers 23, You may also like to check Hotspur Towers 30 for more on this period and the effect upon THFC.
4 – One of the myths about Walter Tull is that he was the first Black officer to serve in the British Army. Some time ago I spoke to someone who enjoys Military history, although WW1 was a bit modern for him. He informed me several black officers severed in the Army in the 1800’s. Although they were it is believed these were all battlefield promotions. Walter was quite possibly the first to attend Officer training. He was also certainly the first black officer during that conflict.
5- Its been suggested that the regulations at the time stated no ‘negro’ could become an officer. The Army Legal Services have confirmed that the rule was no non-European. Walter the son of an Englishwoman born in England would have been fully entitled to become an officer. Even at a time when the Army was coming to terms with a whole new ‘rules of war’ a battlefield promotion would be possible, but for him to be sent to Officer Training College if it was against the regs would seem unlikely. It has also been suggested that the only reason that he did not receive a medal at that time was because of his colour. It is known that not all recommendations were acted upon. However it would have been unusually in the case of a fallen officer. Not for one moment would anyone suggest that he did not experience racial prejudice. Remembering the words of an old law professor you can look at conjecture and supposition but you must not mistake it for fact. You must weigh in the balance any such evidence. He would also often sing a few bars from 'It aint necessary so' by George & Ira Gershwin.
The word ‘negro’ is used here as that this the term quoted in several articles about Walter, but as previously stated some of the information in said articles is clearly flawed.
6 – Garth was Tottenham’s first Black captain
7 – Michael Morpurgo is the author of the play War Horse which deals with this conflict and indeed is himself a Tottenham supporter.
8 – I personally have not signed many petitions in my life but I’m pleased to say this was one of them.
main sources - Phil Vasli, The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Imperial War Museum, The National Archive, The Army Legal Services, The Independent, THFC.
t- Keith 16024542
f- peter shearman (old non de plume reserved for THFC matters)
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