Black History Month

Black History Month: Who Was Walter Tull?

A look at the remarkable life of the military and footballing trailblazer who played for sides including Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers.

Walter Tull was a serviceman and talented athlete, but also a history-maker.

He was born in Folkestone, Kent, on 28 April 1888, to an English mother and Barbadian father.

Losing his parents at just nine years old, he and his brother were brought up at an orphanage in Bethnal Green, east London.

Tull made huge strides in British football and served his country at war, fighting in the Battle of the Somme.

Pioneering footballer

Tull's athletic ability was noticed and in 1908, he played for Clapham FC before being signed by Tottenham Hotspur the following year – becoming the second person of African-Caribbean mixed heritage to play in the top division of the Football League.

Tull, who played as a forward, is regarded as the first black outfield player to appear in the Football League.

After two goals in 10 appearances for Spurs, he moved to Northampton Town in 1911.

He then signed for Rangers - the Glasgow side's first black player - but was killed on the battlefield during the First World War in 1918, aged 29.

Northampton Town went on to build a memorial to Walter Tull outside their Sixfields Stadium (Picture: PA).

Military trailblazer

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Tull joined the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment as a Lance Corporal.

An encounter with shell shock the following year landed him in hospital, before returning to action in September 1916, fighting in the Battle of the Somme.

After a period of training as an officer in Britain, Tull returned to the frontline in 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

Army regulations of the time prohibited a 'person of colour’ from being commissioned as an officer, but Tull was promoted to Lieutenant in 1917. He is widely considered the first man of African-Caribbean mixed heritage to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army.

He also became the Army’s first black officer to command white troops.

Walter Tull fought in battles, including the Battle of the Somme and at Ypres, and was mentioned in dispatches for leading his company of 26 men on a raiding party into enemy territory in Italy.

He was killed in action leading his men into battle on the Western Front in 1918.

The Commanding Officer of the 23rd Battalion recommended him for a Military Cross for bravery.

As part of Black History month 2020, a postbox was painted black in Glasgow, with a biography and photograph of Tull.

His name was also lent to Walter Tull Way in Folkestone, Kent – the town in which he was born.

Cover image: Walter Tull in military uniform (Picture: PA).