Few people will know the name Walter Tull, the inspirational footballer who became a true hero in more ways than one.
Walter overcame adversity at every stage in his life then made the biggest sacrifice of all to defend his country.
Born in Folkestone, tragedy struck at a very young age when he lost his mother to breast cancer aged seven and then his dad passed away from heart disease just two years later.
After losing both his parents, Walter and his brother Edward found themselves in a precarious and vulnerable position before being taken in by an orphanage in Bethnal Green.
But there was more heartbreak to come when Walter was separated from his brother, who was adopted by a couple in Glasgow, leaving him alone.
Walter was encouraged to pursue his love of football and started playing for amateur team Clapton FC, but soon he was spotted by the mighty Tottenham Hotspur, becoming one of English football’s first professional outfield players.
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At the age of just 21-years-old, Tull signed for Spurs in 1909 and soon found himself playing at White Hart Lane in front of crowds in the tens of thousands.
Tottenham’s club historian, John Fennelly, explains that youngsters are fascinated by Tull and want to hear about his impact on the club and footballer in general.
“At the time we was about the best going,” explains John. “Somebody everyone wanted. We were delighted to get him here.
“He remains an incredible hero to us all hero. He is massive in our history. The legacy is amazing.”
Tull was subjected to horrific racial abuse from the stands, with a newspaper reporting a “cowardly attack” on him during a match at Bristol City in 1909.
One newspaper report at the time described how, during a match at Bristol City in 1909, “a section of the crowd made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate”.
The reporter wrote: “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.”
When his career drifted at Spurs following the abuse he suffered, he signed for Northampton Town in 1911 for a “substantial fee”, but he gave up his football career at the outbreak of the First World War.
Tull’s life went down a very different path when he bravely enlisted with Middlesex Regiment, part of a ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ that drew professional players from a range of clubs, just four months after the war began.
He rose to the rank of lance sergeant and fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, then was sent home after suffering from shell shock.
While an officer cadet stationed in Scotland, he became the first black player to sign for Rangers FC and intended to play for them after the war.
At a time when only white British-born people could be trained as an Officer, Walter became an exception to the rule and started training.
Mediadrumimages / Tom Marshall)
He returned to the battlefront with a promotion, becoming the British Army’s first black officer and the first to command white troops.
Between November 1917 and March 1918 he served on the Italian Front and was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” by Major-General Sydney Lawford.
He led 26 men on a night raid against an enemy position across the cold River Piave and was recommended for the Military Cross.
Sadly, in March 1918 he was killed near a village in northern France during the First battle of Bapaume in the early stages of the German Army’s Spring Offensive.
As testament to how much he was respected by the men serving around him, they desperately tried to recover his body despite coming under heavy fire.
His body was never found but his life is commemorated at the Arras Memorial – and name engraved with 35,000 other soldiers with no known grave who died in the area.
A lasting memorial and remembrance garden in the shadow of Northampton Town’s stadium also remembers his life, as well as a postbox painted black in his honour in Glasgow last year.
During an ITV documentary in 2020, Spurs players Dele said he heard about Tull’s story when he first joined the club.
As part of the documentary, Alison Hammond: Back to School, the presenter headed to Spurs’ stadium to discover more about the inspiring figure with his great-nephew, Ed.
In a heartwarming moment, Dele made a surprise appearance to present Ed with a signed shirt that has his great-uncle’s name on the back.
What is Black History Month?
The UK began celebrating Black History Month, an idea first spawned in the United States and then also adopted by European countries including Ireland and the Netherlands, in October 1987.
Black History Month helps give context to modern life and the country’s history, while championing the experiences and celebrating the contributions of Black Britons here in the UK.
The observation was first organised through the leadership of Ghanaian-born analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. He served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council.
Consequently, Akyaaba created a plan aiming to recognise the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean people to the economic, cultural and political life in the UK.
The Spurs player said: “Ed this is for you. The Tottenham motto here is ‘To Dare Is To Do’. We believe Walter embodied everything is about.”
Alison sits down with Dele to discuss how the story of Walter has impacted his career.
“It’s a story I heard about when I first joined the club and Walter’s story really meant a lot to me and means a lot to many of us,” explained the England midfielder.
“It really inspires and motivates you to know you can make a change and to be brave and stand for what you believe is right. It’s crazy to think about what he had to go through.
“Now you look around our changing room there are so many cultures. It’s because of people like Walter we can do what we do today.”
The club had one final surprise for Ed, as they played an emotional video dedicated to Walter on the big screen, with the final caption reading: “Walter Died at The Somme fighting for his country. A true hero.”