Political Football: Walter Tull
Updated on 04 September 2007
Simon Kuper nominates Walter Tull, a black man who played for Spurs and became a WW1 army officer, to join our Political Football First XI.
On March 25, 1918, on the Somme in France, a British second lieutenant named Walter Tull led his men in an assault on a German trench. He died in No Man's Land. "A machine-gun bullet pierced his neck and came out just beneath his right eye," a newspaper later reported.
Tull's men tried to bring his body back to the trenches, and one dragged it hundreds of yards, but finally had to leave him behind. The body was lost, and Tull has no marked grave. Today he stares out at us from beneath a peaked cap in an army photograph: an elegant light-skinned man with an Errol Flynn moustache. He was forgotten for nearly 80 years until being discovered by Phil Vasili, the historian of black football.
For Tull was not merely the first British-born black army officer. He also marked football, as Britain's - and possibly the world's - first black professional outfield player. (Arthur Wharton, a goalkeeper with Preston who held a world record for the hundred metres sprint, had been the first black pro.)
Certainly the press routinely called Tull a 'darkie'. On the other hand, in that lilywhite Britain he may have been perceived more as curiosity than threat.
In recent years Tull has been rehabilitated. Various monuments to him have been proposed to add to the Walter Tull memorial garden outside Northampton Town's ground, and he is now taught in British schools. (A sample, half-witted question set for pupils: "How many matches did Walter Tull play for Northampton Football Club?")
All this tells us something about modern Britain. As part of the Tull revival he joins our previous picks Diego Maradona, Paul Breitner and Franz Beckenbauer in our political footballers' eleven. Tull will play at left-half.
He was born in Folkestone in 1888, the grandson of a slave, and son of a Barbadian carpenter and a white English mother. His mother died when was seven, his father two years later. Tull's stepmother, landed with six children, sent Walter and his brother Edward to a Methodist orphanage in Bethnal Green, London. Edward left the orphanage after two years, adopted by a Scottish family. He would become a dentist.
Walter, according to an orphanage logbook found by Vasili, was "a stoic, laid-back character, but single-minded". Indeed, he graduated from the orphanage team to local Clapton FC, and from there to Tottenham Hotspur (a club now being petitioned to erect a monument to Tull). A rare surviving reference to Tull's football career appeared in the Football Star newspaper in 1909. Reporting a Bristol City vs Spurs match, the paper said that "a section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate [London's fish market]".
The writer continued: "Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football..... In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field."
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Over the coming months Simon Kuper will be nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.
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This may be the first mention ever of racism at a professional football match, though other incidents probably went unreported. Certainly the press routinely called Tull a "darkie". On the other hand, in that lilywhite Britain he may have been perceived more as curiosity than threat.
The season after the abuse, Tull dropped to Northampton Town, for what was described as "a heavy transfer fee". He would play out his career - over 100 matches - in Northampton's midfield.
Just before he could join Glasgow Rangers, war broke out. Enlisting almost immediately, he sailed for France in November 1915. He fought in several battles, including the first Battle of the Somme from its first day, which after the orphanage and racial abuse would have capped a tough life.
The British army then had a regulation against "any negro or person of colour" becoming an officer. Nonetheless, remarkably, Tull was made one. This must have owed something to the depletion of the officer ranks by 1917, but also to the man's undeniable quality. "An officer and a gentleman, every inch of him," said one obituary. He was recommended for a Military Cross but never received it.
Tull has been feted in a BBC play, two biographies and the names of various Northampton buildings.
Tull, in short, was Britain's equivalent of the American baseball player Jackie Robinson, except that he integrated two white realms rather than just one, and the main two realms where British men are turned into heroes. Yet for decades Britain was not ready to rediscover him.
Even in 1961 the Army Council held that "the reliability of coloured soldiers is not certain and therefore too great dilution of British units would be dangerous". Even in 1993, watching an England-Holland match in a London pub, I endured a moron making nonstop racist "jokes" about England's John Barnes while his workmates chuckled.
The writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown attributes the rediscovery of stories like Tull's to the search for black heroes in Britain since the 1980s. That history is finally being claimed. Tull has been feted, among other places, in a BBC play, two biographies and the names of various Northampton buildings.
All these commemorations are statements of a new kind of British nationalism: they place the country with Walter Tull, and against those jeering Bristol fans, even though the fans would never have dreamed that a black man might be more British than they.
In Britain, Tull is now an obscure but consensual hero. In many other European countries, he still would not be.
Photographs courtesy Bruce Castle Museum, Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning Service
Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times.