The Enduring Significance of Walter Tull To English Football

As well as serving with distinction in the First World War, Tull was one of the first black footballers to grace the top tier of English football. Though his life was cut short, his legacy is alive and well.

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12 June 2017, 11:06am

When it comes to making history, there are few footballers who could claim the same influence as Walter Tull. Not only was he a pioneering player and an icon on the pitch, he was the first black soldier to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army, this at a time when it was expressly forbidden for those who were not "of pure European descent" to lead men in battle. First through his deft touch in the midfield and attack, then in his courage in the face of the appalling odds of the First World War, he stood out not only for the colour of his skin but also, by all accounts, for his exceptional character and worth as a man. Though he encountered prejudice from the terraces and institutional racism at the hands of the army, he was irrepressible, and eventually both opposition supporters and his military superiors were forced to recognise his talents. It would be a long time after his death that football would finally move to actively combat discrimination on the terraces, but ultimately he set a symbolic precedent and challenged racial prejudices in this country, and so his legacy endures.

Born in 1888 to a Barbadian father and an English mother in Kent, Tull had a tough childhood. He had lost both his parents by the age of nine, after his father – a ship's carpenter and joiner by trade – died suddenly, leaving him and his five siblings to fend for themselves. Coming from a Methodist family, it was decided by local church officials that Walter and one of his brothers should be cared for in an orphanage, and so they were sent to a Methodist children's home in Bethnal Green. Having spent all his life in the rural climes of Kent, Tull was shipped off to East London, where he would have witnessed intense poverty, urban squalor and the harsh realities of working life in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

It was in East London that Tull would make his first real strides in the world of football, making his senior debut for Clapton Football Club in 1908. Now known for its raucous fanbase and well-trodden association with antifascist politics, the club was then one of the most famous amateur establishments in the country, and to play for them was a prestigious achievement. In the 1908-09 season, his first and only campaign with Clapton, Tull starred in a team which won an outstanding treble of the London County Amateur Cup, the London Senior Cup and FA Amateur Cup, this at a time when the amateur game was at its illustrious pinnacle. His pace and flair were enough to catch the eye of Tottenham Hotspur, with whom he signed in the summer of 1909, turning professional in the process.

Several months before he signed for Spurs, Tull was described by The Football Star as "the catch of the season", and there were clearly many who felt that Clapton had unearthed a hidden gem in the form of a cultured inside forward. Only 21 when he joined up with Tottenham, he had all the hallmarks of a prospective First Division star. Having taken part in a close-season tour of Argentina and Uruguay, his form in the early part of the season saw him earn admiration from fans and the press alike. In an article from the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, dated 2 October 1909, he was referred to as "subtle Tull, the West Indian", and praised for his incisive performances. Interestingly, the newspaper reported that Tull had "aroused interest on grounds in the north." What exactly they meant by fans' "interest" in him is unclear, though they may well have been alluding to more than innocent curiosity in the first black outfield player ever to feature in the top tier.

Precisely one week after that article was published, Tull was involved in a match away at Bristol City which would change his career, though not for the better. He was confronted with racial abuse from a section of the crowd which shocked many onlookers with its ferocity, and which helped to cow his side into an underwhelming 0-0 draw. The report from The Football Star referred to Tull being harassed with insults "lower than Billingsgate" – this a reference to the famous East London fish market and its crude language – while another journalist at the game wrote of a "cowardly attack" on Tull by some of the Bristol fans and added: "Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in his mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football, whether they be amateur or professional." Considering that many contemporary reporters used racial epithets for Tull freely and casually, the fact that the press were so disgusted by the abuse gives a clue as to how vicious it must have been.

Tull made an unwanted piece of history in that fixture at Bristol City, in that it may well have been the first time that racial abuse featured in post-match reports of a football game. According to an article written by Peter Daniel and researched by Tull biographer Phil Vasili called Colouring Over The White Line: The Walter Tull Story, Spurs were deeply embarrassed by this incident, but rather than support Tull they instead shunted him to the sidelines and marginalised him even more. Though there is little evidence that his form was affected in the long term, nor that he ceased to merit his place in the team, he spent much of the rest of the season in the reserves, hidden away by a club hierarchy who would rather have appeased those who abused Tull than come out and condemn them. It was clear that Tull had no future at Spurs even as he continued to work hard and show his integrity, and so after a fruitless spell of attempting to win back his starting spot he was, in the summer of 1911, transferred for a considerable fee to Southern League side Northampton Town.

At the time of Tull's transfer, Northampton were managed by Herbert Chapman, the man who would go on to revolutionise English football in the twenties and thirties at Huddersfield and then at Arsenal. Chapman was also from a Methodist background, and he had no qualms about giving Tull a prominent place in his team. While there were no doubt other incidences of bigotry which he had to deal with over the next few years, he nonetheless became a club stalwart at Northampton, making 111 appearances and scoring nine goals over the course of four fruitful seasons. Then, in 1914, history would come between Tull and the career in football for which he had worked so tirelessly. When the outbreak of war with Germany was announced he – alongside hundreds of thousands of others – decided to enlist, and it was in December 1914 that Tull officially signed up and set himself on a path to the battlefields of the Western Front.

During the war, Tull served with the Footballers' Battalion of the Middlesex regiment, a pals battalion which included players from Clapton Orient, Woolwich Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, among others. He was sent to France in 1915 and later saw action at the Battle of the Somme, where a number of his fellow footballers would be killed and maimed. He suffered from trench foot and post-traumatic stress disorder, and was eventually sent back to England to convalesce. Determined to return to the front, he found the Footballers' Battalion much changed owing both to casualties and shortages of manpower elsewhere.

Rather than face more fighting in the following months, Tull received orders to head to Scotland and join up with the Officer Training Corps. Despite suffering with shell shock, his bravery at the front had made it impossible for his superiors to ignore his efforts, and so the rules were effectively bent to allow him, despite his ethnicity, to rise up the ranks. Despite facing further discrimination at the Corps, Tull left with the rank of Second Lieutenant, and was sent to the Italian front where Britain's beleaguered allies were battling Austria-Hungary. He became known for volunteering himself for dangerous missions, while he was also commended for his outstanding leadership qualities and the exceptional care he took for his men. He was recommended for the Military Cross, an accolade which he never received and for which it is suspected he was overlooked on account of race.

By 1918, Tull was back in France with the remnants of the Footballers' Battalion, and the war was almost at an end. That March, the German Army launched the Spring Offensive, a daring but ultimately doomed attempt to break the brutal stalemate of the trenches. Facing the full force of the initial onslaught, Tull attempted to lead his men in retreat from their positions at Favreuil. He was shot in the neck and face, and died in the arms of former Leicester City goalkeeper Tom Billingham. Despite the best efforts of his men to retrieve his body, they were forced to leave him behind under fire, and he is now one of the many casualties of the First World War who have no known grave.

Before he enlisted, Tull had been set to agree a move north of the border to join up with Rangers, which is indicative of how much further he could have gone in football. Despite his setbacks at Tottenham, he could well have gone on to become a leading light in Scotland, where the Gers had already won eight titles and established themselves as one of the biggest clubs in Britain. As it was, however, Tull was mourned at Clapton, Spurs and Northampton, with the Northampton Independent writing after his death: "Tull… will be greatly missed. He was a thorough gentleman and was beloved by all." Though it is impossible to know without even anecdotal evidence, one would like to think that news of his death may have caused some of those who once abused him at Bristol City a pang of shame.

As the first black infantry officer to see active service in the British Army, Tull has an indelible legacy in the military. Not only did he defy the explicit racial barriers of the armed forces, the nature of his upbringing meant that he surely had to deal with barriers of class and wealth as well. That said, in an organisation which has been plagued with accusations of racism right up until the present day, the matter of the Military Cross which Tull never received is still controversial. Speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Phil Vasili said: "His full recognition will only occur when he is awarded his Military Cross and a full explanation is given as to why he was refused. There are politics behind the decision not to award him his medal and this further compounds the injustice." Thankfully, Tull has received wider recognition from the rest of society in recent years, with documentaries, literary tributes and commemorative gestures made in his name.

In the world of football, Tull's legacy is celebrated even more widely. There is a memorial to him at Northampton's Sixfields stadium, while the street outside the ground is called the 'Walter Tull Way'. There is even a nearby pub named after him, which considering that the Methodist and temperance movements were closely linked might be considered an uneasy tribute. Meanwhile, at the house where Tull lived during his time with Tottenham, there is a blue plaque bearing his name, with former Spurs forward Garth Crooks leading the commemorations at the unveiling. Crooks has also campaigned for Tull to receive his Military Cross, writing in The Guardian in 2013: "In life, I've always believed in the maxim that 'those who know better, do better', and on that basis we must ask the military establishment and our prime minister to hand Walter Tull the Military Cross for which he was originally recommended."

Over at Clapton's Old Spotted Dog Ground, an unofficial blue plaque memorialising Tull was erected by fans a couple of years ago, though it was unfortunately taken down on account of an internal wrangle between supporters and ownership. Nonetheless, the club has commemorated him in others ways, while Tull is clearly remembered and cherished by Clapton fans long after the death of the last spectator to see him play. Speaking to Andrew Barr, secretary of the The Real Clapton FC, Tull's symbolic importance to supporters becomes apparent. "In 2017, for a small club like Clapton – though it wasn't such a small club at the time – it's marvellous to look back and think that a player like Walter Tull once played for us," he says. "There's a lot of romance about Tull's ability, and what sort of player he was, but he was a big part of a very good team at Clapton, and having had the first black outfield footballer reach the heights with the club, that's something that as supporters of Clapton we can be very pleased and proud about."

Andrew talks about Tull as one of the first in a long line of breakthrough black players in Britain, with the likes of Brendon Batson, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson taking up the baton in the seventies and eighties. Were Tull to have survived the First World War and gone on to take his place at Rangers, it's hard not to think that the stigma faced by his successors might have been that much less. Speaking about the discrimination Tull faced in his playing days, Andrew tells me there are no recorded incidents of racial abuse from his amateur career, though it is possible that such an occurrence would have gone unacknowledged. That said, Andrew has evidence which suggests that Tull was given equitable treatment at Clapton. "I have some of the minute books from Clapton Football Club at the time that he was playing between 1908 and 1909, and Tull's name appears just like any other player," Andrew says. "If you didn't know who W. D. J. Tull was, you wouldn't know that this was a black footballer. He is presented simply as a member of the club, who's paid his subs, who lives in Hackney and who has been picked for the first team or the 'A' team on any given week."

As to Tull's broader significance to English football and more generally, Phil Vasili put it best when he wrote: "Walter Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality." Though those barriers remained largely intact until long after Tull's death, he put the first few cracks in their facade with his resilience, skill and determination. His life stands as a testament not only to progress in sport and society, but also to an individual's ability to stand up to arbitrary power and established prejudice. Tull is an emblematic figure, and that is why he is commemorated by football clubs, players and fans today.

@W_F_Magee