The life of Walter Tull

The Great War gives us so many stories of extraordinary people, and it’s difficult to highlight individual cases, but the story of Walter Tull has interested me for a long time and I’m pleased to be able to remember him through the Tommy’s War range and pay testimony to his courage.

Walter Daniel John Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent on the 28th April 1888, the son of Barbadian carpenter Daniel Tull and Kent-born Alice Elizabeth Palmer. His paternal grandfather was a slave in Barbados. He began his education at North Board School, now Mundella Primary School, Folkestone.

In 1895, when Tull was seven, his mother died of cancer. A year later his father married Alice’s cousin, Clara Palmer. She gave birth to a daughter Miriam, on 11 September 1897. Three months later, Daniel died from heart disease. The stepmother was unable to cope with six children so the resident minister of Folkestone’s Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, recommended that the two boys of school age, Walter and Edward, should be sent to an orphanage. From the age of 9, Tull was brought up in the (Methodist) Children’s Home and Orphanage (now known as Action for Children) in Bethnal Green, London. His brother was adopted by the Warnock family of Glasgow, becoming Edward Tull-Warnock; he qualified as a dentist, the first mixed-heritage person to practise this profession in the United Kingdom.

Before the outbreak of the First World War Walter Tull was a professional footballer playing for the First Division team Tottenham Hotspur. Tull made his debut for Tottenham in September 1909 at inside forward against Sunderland, making him the third mixed-heritage player to play in the top division (after goalkeeper Arthur Wharton of Sheffield United and Billy Clarke of Aston Villa). He made his home Football League debut against FA Cup-holders, Manchester United, in front of over 30,000 fans.

His form in this opening part of the season promised a great future but Tull made only 10 first-team appearances, scoring twice, before he was dropped to the reserves. This may have been due to the racial abuse he received from opposing fans, particularly at Bristol City, whose supporters used language “lower than Billingsgate”, according to a report at the time in the Football Star newspaper. The match report of the game away to Bristol City in October 1909 by Football Star reporter, “DD”, was headlined “Football and the Colour Prejudice”, possibly the first time racial abuse was headlined in a football report. “DD” emphasised how Tull remained professional and composed despite the intense provocation; “He is Hotspur’s most brainy forward … so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football … Tull was the best forward on the field.” However, soon after, Tull was dropped from the first team and found it difficult to get a sustained run back in the side.

Further appearances in the first team (20 in total with four goals) were recorded before Tull was bought by Southern Football League club Northampton Town on 17 October 1911 for a “substantial fee” plus Charlie Brittain joining Tottenham Hotspur in return. Tull made his debut four days later against Watford, and made 111 first-team appearances, scoring nine goals for the club

After the First World War broke out in August 1914, Tull became the first Northampton Town player to enlist in the British Army, in December of that year. Tull served in the two Football Battalions of the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex) Regiment – the 17th and 23rd – and also in the 5th Battalion. He rose to the rank of lance sergeant and fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Walter Tull was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May 1917 and served with the 23rd Battalion on the Italian Front from 30 November 1917 to early March 1918. He was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” by Major-General Sydney Lawford, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 41st Division, having led 26 men on a night-raiding party, crossing the fast-flowing rapids of the Piave River into enemy territory and returning them unharmed.

Tull and the 23rd Battalion returned to northern France on 8 March 1918. He was killed in action near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais on 25 March during the First Battle of Bapaume, the early stages of the German Army’s Spring Offensive. His body was never recovered, despite the efforts of, among others, Private Tom Billingham, a former goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse to return him to the British position while under fire.

Tull is commemorated on Bay 7 of the Arras Memorial which commemorates 34,785 soldiers who have no known grave, who died in the Arras sector.

I’ve wanted to include a figure in remembrance of Walter Tull for some time, Nino has worked his magic as always and I’m delighted with the figure, you can see more about the figure itself, and buy, here.