Tre Ventour examines the life and times of Water Tull…
Today, there are numerous black footballers being adored by fans and earning millions of pounds in the British Premier League. But when the game began, it was more or less exclusively white. Well, until one Black Briton had the courage and candour to cross the white line.
Nearly one hundred years ago, he was one of the first, black professional footballers. He was playing at the very highest level. You’d think that swimming among with the sharks would guarantee him his place in the history books. But he has been lost to history. Not only was he a sporting hero, he was the first black officer in the British Army – an institution that referred to black people as “woolly-headed niggers” on official correspondence.
Yet, he still fought and died for his country, this country. His name, Walter Tull.
Modern, British society has perpetuated the idea that Black British History begins and ends with slavery, and Windrush. But it isn’t so. Walter Tull is proof of that. There are pioneers out there, many of whom have been lost to history.
In order to understand the story of Walter Tull, one must know where the Tulls came from.
Born in Barbados in 1856, his father Daniel Tull was the son of slaves Anna Lashley and William Tull. Daniel was a carpenter and he could read and write – a rare thing for a person of colour in Victorian times, times where education for non-whites was illegal. By 1876, Daniel had migrated to England, decades before the Windrush.
England was a magnet for colonists looking to make better lives for themselves. Whilst the Irish looked to the United States, the West Indians looked to England. There were as many as 20,000 black slaves in London in 1787. Immigration is as British as apple pie is to the United States.
In late-Victorian England, Daniel Tull would meet Alice Palmer at Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel in Folkestone (Kent) – a white, English woman who wasn’t in the least bit prejudice or racist. They married, and had six children: Bertha, William, Edward, Walter, Cecilia and Elsie. However, their happiness was short-lived, as Breast Cancer would kill Alice. The children needed a mother and Daniel married Clara, Alice’s cousin. He would then die from heart disease on 10th December 1897. Alice’s parents were dead and her extended family were poor working-class people with families of their own.
With no money to feed the children, they were now devastated and destitute. Not even Charles Dickens could rival this. The workhouse clawed at their minds. They were prisons for the poor and a spectre that haunted working-class families. It stopped them rising above their position and kept them in their place. The British working-class population would do anything to avoid it.
But there was a light. Bonner Street Children’s Home in Bethnal Green (London) would take Walter and Edward Tull. Here, there were three hundred and forty tough, city street kids.
It’s dawn. The boys in their rooms rise from their beds and get dressed. Being the new kids, they start at the bottom, in the gutter. They cleaned the shoes and boots of the household. Not simply one pair but all the pairs of the orphanage, the sisters’ especially. Having finished scrubbing fifteen pairs of shoes, an inspection by the sisters is enacted. If positive, they are put away in various lockers. Breakfast arrives like a happy release.
The Tull brothers were orphans and that connotes a lacking, of: joy, hope and happiness. Misery and disadvantage would follow them wherever they went. And being of mixed-race, they would be marginalised within society. In 1900, Edward Tull was adopted by a Glaswegian family. Walter was now alone.
Walter found a release in football. He was exceptional and at age twenty, he was playing for Clapton Orient. In 1909, he was spotted by Tottenham Hotspur F.C. He was their star player – young, handsome and the world was his oyster. He was in his prime at the height of football in Edwardian Britain and was one of the most high profile black men of the time, shamelessly nicknamed “Darkie Tull” because of his skin colour.
Racism to British society was as valuable as a battleship. These colonial values put white on a pedestal and people of colour in the gutter. It was done on the street level. It was done via organised religion. It was done via missionaries and popular culture. Racism was not illegal in Britain until 1965. The arguments against it were moral and ethical, not legal. These racist values said to Black Britons that “You may be born here but this is our patch and you are not going to come here and do well.”
On 2nd October 1909, Tottenham’s bout with Bristol City would see the end of Walter Tull’s career at Tottenham. It was over before it had barely started. A mob of 20,000 football fans abused him through ruthless racist chants and Spurs weren’t prepared to stand up for their player. He was pushed from the first team and into the reserves. Simply, the club believed it was too much hassle. It wasn’t good for business.
A report from the game stated:
“Let me tell these Bristol Hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method, as to be a model to all white men who play football. Tull was the best forward on the field.”
Like many players since, Tull didn’t react to the racist abuse. He rose above it and that truly showed the measure of the man. Despite everything, he persevered and soldiered on. He had great composure, courage and resolve, all qualities he’d take to the Western Front. He had to be brave, even at home where he fought a war every day.
The racism through these vessels was a metaphor for colonialism. It was upholding the British Empire at home as well as abroad. Walter was British but he was black. Bristol’s colonial history runs deep. Deep like the scars of slavery that visible in the West Indies, even today. You can see the very same scars in England as well. Whether we’re talking street names or stately homes, the British Slave Trade made its mark and Walter Tull is a product of that. Cities like Bristol were slave ports during the times of import and export of human cargo. And into the 1970s and 1980s, the Windrush Generation suffered. Black neighbourhoods were set ablaze, a fire that Walter would have seen on the football field.
1901 saw the death of Queen Victoria, a motif of imperialism that lasted decades. Her death did not bring an end to imperial rule. The Empire was still vast. It didn’t have the tagline where the sun never set for no reason and Britain continued to rule with bureaucracy. Though, in the early 20th century, football was leaving its private school origins. Its spectators were heavily made up of the working-class. And due to leaving those origins behind, men like Walter were given a chance. This was his chance to prove that he was more than a “woolly-headed nigger”, as he (and others like him) were branded in the British Army.
And by 1911 he was playing at Northampton Town, a small industrial settlement in the East Midlands. It wasn’t cosmopolitan like London. It was the sort of place, like Folkestone, where nobody would have seen any black people before. Nonetheless, at Northampton, Tull was on top of the world – scoring goals and thriving. And that was a form of protest against the white fear and prejudice that followed him.
After a tragic childhood, it looked like he was winning. He was doing what he loved, playing football. He was respected by his team mates. Then the war came and football was labelled as a distraction. Conscription was not mandatory in 1914 but Walter volunteered to fight. On 21st December 1914 he went to London to present himself at the recruitment office. He was ready to fight for the nation that he was born in. The nation he was raised in – the same nation that had shown him contempt and disrespect in his footballing career. And the British Army showed much of the same.
The 1914 Edition of The Manual of Military Law states:
“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”
The same Manual of Military Law states:
“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”
These quotes speak volumes. Legally, he should not have succeeded, but Walter Tull was not an unknown black man in England. He was one of the most high profile black men of the time and a famous name in sports, up and down the country. He was physically fit and in the best condition he could be. The British Army could not turn him away like they did with lots of Black Britons (who were not of European descent). But this was Walter Tull. He got on with the job and put his head down.
He fought in battle after battle. He was respected by his peers and his superiors. He had the leadership qualities every officer should have. His only “disadvantage” was that he was “of non-European descent” (black). However, he was recommended for officer training in late 1916. How? Surely, it was illegal. Maybe it was mixture of luck, circumstance and skill that allowed Tull to be put forward. Among the 17th and 23rd Footballers’ Battalions he was able to himself. The men were players who all knew each other. They could be men, footballers and soldiers.
On 25th March 1918, a German soldier fired his gun at 2nd Lieutenant Walter Daniel Tull. He was hit in the neck. He fell to the ground, face forced into the mud in Pas-de-Calais in France. He didn’t get up. But he accomplished so much. He led white men into battle, something an “alien” officer isn’t lawfully allowed to do. He broke the colour bar and the white line.
The story of Walter Tull is the sacrifice of a generation – a generation of men who should be remembered. Men from the colonies (and their descendants) who gave their lives have just as much right to be remembered as the white Europeans men who are remembered every year.
From slavery to football to the war, the Tulls had done well. 2nd Lieutenant Walter Daniel Tull was good at his job. He was a friend, a brother, a soldier and above all, a down to earth human being. His life is an example of the extremities of tragedy and heroism. It’s a lesson to those dishing out prejudice today, no matter if we are white, black, a president or a student.
No matter our colour or creed, it is possible to defy expectations. We remember Frederick Douglass and Dr Martin Luther King. I grew up reading about them but Black History is not just American history. It did not begin with Christopher Columbus in 1492. The roots are way deeper. We must look at the Arawaks and the Maroons. We must look at the black people who came with the Romans from North Africa. We must remember the Black Georgians like Francis Barber, and the Black Tudors like John Blank. And we must remember Walter Tull who is special to Northampton, a town rich with history and community. His story resonates with me because I am a Black Briton like him. His story could have been mine had I been born in the 1880s instead of the 1990s. And it truly shows that most of our ancestors did not wear crowns but were more simply working people, slaves and peasants.