A turn-of-the-century football
player for Tottenham Hotspur
and Northampton Town
, Walter Tull was Britain's first black outfield professional footballer (coming after goalkeeper
Arthur Wharton) and, later, its first black army officer
Tull - whose grandfather had experienced slavery in Barbados - was born in Folkestone, England, in 1888. Both parents died within ten years of his birth and he was taken, along with his brother Edward, to an orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.
He played amateur football for Clapton and in 1908 was signed by Tottenham Hotspur. Things looked bright, but in 1909 during a match at Bristol City he experienced racial abuse so traumatic it affected him for the rest of his short time at Tottenham. He played only three games in the following season and was signed by lower-division Northampton Town in the season after that. There he became the club's star player, making a total of 110 appearances. In 1914 he was about to sign for high-profile Glasgow Rangers when war was declared.
He enlisted in the British army and by 1916 he had fought in the first battle of the Somme and been made a sergeant. In this year he was invalided home with trench fever, but on leaving hospital he went to officer cadet training school. That he was allowed to do this, despite the official ban on black men becoming officers, is a testament to his excellence as a soldier.
In 1917 he was dispatched to the Italian front as a second lieutenant and the following year returned to France to fight in the second battle of the Somme. On March 25 he was killed in no-man's land near Fevreuil. His men risked heavy machine gun fire in an effort to retrieve his body.
Tull was fairly well-known in his day but was gradually forgotten after the war. Interest in him was renewed in the mid-1990s, with radio talks, articles in journals, and eventually a Walter Tull Memorial and Garden of Rest created outside Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium. Among those who paid tribute to the man were newsreader Trevor McDonald and MP Bernie Grant.
The memorial at Northampton reads:
"Through his actions, WDJ Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries. His life stands as a testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles who sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived. It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly. This memorial marks an area of reflective space as a Garden of Rememberance."
Based on text at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ntfc/