Walter Tull was one of the earliest black professional football players in Britain and the first black officer in the British Army. He played for Northampton Town Football Club for four years.
Walter was born in Folkestone in 1888. He was one of six children in a Methodist family, born to a father from Barbados and a mother from Kent. Sadly, both his parents died when he was a child. Just before his 10th birthday, Walter and his brother Edward were sent to an orphanage in London. Walter played for the orphanage's football team throughout his time there.
After Walter left school, he became an apprentice at a printing works and began playing for Clapton Football Club. Walter was an excellent player and the Football Star newspaper described him as the “catch of the season.” He was soon scouted by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Walter was signed to the team for the maximum fee of £10 and became the second black professional football player in British history.
Walter started off well at Tottenham. However, in a match against Bristol City Football Club in October 1909, he was racially abused on the pitch. Shortly after, he was demoted to the reserve team. Historians believe this was due to racism and social pressure. Tottenham were worried that a black player would discourage supporters and ruin team morale. In 1911, Walter was transferred to Northampton Town Football Club (commonly known as the Cobblers).
Walter played 110 matches for the Cobblers and was one of the team’s most popular players. He lived in Rushden and became well known in the town. Encouraged by the team mate he lived with, Walter also joined local amateur cricket clubs.
When the First World War started, professional league football was suspended. The Football Association encouraged all unmarried players to join the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. Walter was the first Cobblers player to join the ‘Football Battalion’. After fighting at the Battle of the Somme, he was sent for officer training. Despite military regulations that only allowed white, British-born men to become officers, Walter was made 2nd Lieutenant in 1917. He was the first black officer in the British Army.
His service was not without hostility however. In a letter to his brother in August 1917, Walter said that he planned to apply for a transfer to the British West Indies Regiment (a unit of black Caribbean soldiers).
However, he never completed the transfer. Less than a year before the war ended, Walter was killed leading an attack on German trenches in March 1918 in the north of France. His body was never recovered.
Writing to Walter’s brother Edward, 2nd Lieutenant Pickard described Walter as “brave and conscientious,” and “liked by his men.” Pickard said that he had been put forward for the Military Cross. However, the recommendation was rejected and Walter’s family never received the medal.
In 2006, writer Phil Vasili formally launched a campaign to claim back Walter’s Military Cross. It has been supported by the Northamptonshire Black History Association, Northampton MPs, and Northampton Borough Council. Local school children have also written letters to the Ministry of Defence. However, Walter has not yet been awarded the medal.