Home » Blog » Walter Tull: football icon

Walter Tull: football icon

Emdad Rahman interviews author Dan Lyndon.

With October being Black History Month, it is perhaps appropriate to celebrate the life of a truly ground-breaking black football player. Walter Tull was a football pioneer who served as an officer in the Middlesex Regiments Football battalion during The Great War. In 1916 Tull also fought in the Battle of the Somme.

Tull was of mixed race. His grandmother had been a slave, and his father left Barbados to ply his trade as a carpenter in England. He settled in Folkestone, where he met Alice Elizabeth Palmer. Walter was born to the couple. He lost his mother to cancer when he was aged seven. His father married Alice’s cousin, but she found it hard to cope with the children and so they were sent to a National Children’s Home orphanage in Bethnal Green. Tull grew up to play for, among others, Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town and also signed up to become Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers’ first black player.

His brother Edward established himself as a dentist in Glasgow and was Britain’s first black man to practice the said profession. William Wilton signed Tull for The Gers after he was persuaded by Edward to join in 1917. Before he could make his debut at Ibrox, he was shot dead at the Somme in March 1918 – aged 29. Tull’s body was never recovered.

As a player at Spurs, Tull became the first black football player to tour South America. Despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding “negros” from taking command as officers, Tull became the first black infantry officer to lead white soldiers in the British Army.

Arsenal fan and teacher Dan Lyndon has authored Walter Tull: Footballer, Soldier, Hero – a book about the life of Walter Tull, published by Collins Educational. I caught up with him during an event to discuss Walter Tull’s life and achievements at Bethnal Green Library.

I asked Dan how relevant Walter Tull’s story is in the modern day. “I think Walter Tull is hugely relevant to modern football. He was someone who had to overcome real adversity on the pitch – such as the first recorded example of racism at a football match in Britain (maybe in the world!) when he was abused at Bristol City in 1909.

“He also had to deal with the fact that Tottenham didn’t really know how to deal with the situation and decided that the best course of action would be to drop him to the reserves, through absolutely no fault of his own. He also had to rebuild his career at Northampton, who were in a lower division – so that would have been a challenge for him too. Throughout all of these difficulties it seems that Walter just got on with it and didn’t whinge or make a fuss. A lot of footballers today could learn from his experience.” Glasgow Rangers were steaming ahead in Scotland in 1917. William Wilton’s men had won the league, Glasgow Cup and Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup Winners. Lyndon feels that in the modern game Walter Tull would most probably have fetched millions of pounds in transfer fees.

I ask if Tull was good enough to play for England at the time and if prejudices affected his chances of playing international games as part of the English national team: “Again that is a very difficult question to answer, says Lyndon. “We know that Andrew Watson, the first black footballer in Britain, who played for Queens Park in Glasgow, was capped a number of times for Scotland, and played against England a few times. That suggests that there wasn’t particular prejudice against black footballers in the 1870s, which is interesting. However we also know that it wasn’t until Viv Anderson was capped for England in the 1970s that a black professional played for England. I would like to think that Tull was good enough, but he probably didn’t have the same profile when he was playing for Northampton Town.” Lyndon strongly believes that the history of this country should reflect honestly the diversity of its inhabitants: “Britain truly is a ‘nation of mongrels’ or ‘a magpie nation’ which has taken elements of so many different cultures and merged them into what has become the dominant narrative. We know that there were Africans in Britain before the ‘Britons’ – Roman soldiers from North Africa arrived in the early part of the Roman conquest, long before the Saxons and Normans. We also know that there has been a settled African community since the Tudor period and a settled Asian community from the 18th century.

“You can study every period of modern British history and find a black presence, whether it was John Blanke at the Tudor court, William Cuffay the Chartist, Dadabhai Naoroji the first Asian MP. That history is there all around us. The tragedy is that it was hidden for so long, but now it is becoming much more present. If you look at my website you can find plenty more examples.” Lyndon was introduced to the Tull story many years ago when he did some work for the Northamptonshire Black History Association: “I fell in love with the story. I also have some weird connections with Walter: we share a name (Daniel), we share a birthday (28th April), my grandmother was born in Folkestone as Walter was, and my grandfather played for the same team (Clapton) as Walter did – albeit a few years later. I was very lucky to be given the chance to write the book Walter Tull: Footballer, Soldier, Hero in 2011 so I could share his story with a wider audience.

For more information about the role of black people in Britain’s history, go to Dan Lyndon’s website: www.blackhistory4schools.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *