Walter Tull

Football’s Pioneers: Walter Tull

In the latest part of's new series, Football's Pioneers, De Montfort University's Professor Matt Taylor recalls the story of Walter Tull, who started his Football League career as a Tottenham Hotspur player in 1911.
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Relatively unknown during his lifetime, Tull (1888-1918) has become a legendary figure in British black history for his achievements as a footballer and an army officer.

Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent, to parents originally from Barbados. At the age of nine, following the death of his parents, he was placed in a children’s home in Bethnal Green with his older brother Edward.

Playing football for the orphanage team, he was spotted by Clapton, a local amateur club. He made an immediate impact, helping them to win the Amateur Cup, the London Senior Cup and the London Amateur County Cup in his first season.

He was spotted by Tottenham Hotspur and was asked to travel with the first team for its 1909 summer tour of Argentina and Uruguay.

Tull was serving an apprenticeship as a printer but decided to sign as a professional for Tottenham.

He made his league debut for Spurs in their first-ever match in the First Division, a 3-1 defeat at Sunderland. His home debut, meanwhile, was against FA Cup holders Manchester United.

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Walter Tull, Tottenham Hotspur
Walter Tull, Tottenham Hotspur

Tull can be seen here on the second row up, second from the right.

Playing as an inside-forward, Tull’s display, one newspaper noted: ‘must have astounded anyone who saw it’. He was not particularly quick, but his timing and coolness on the ball were applauded.   

In 1911, after just 10 first team appearances and two goals for Tottenham, he moved to Northampton Town in the Southern League.

His new manager was Herbert Chapman, who had played for Spurs and went on to manage Huddersfield Town and Arsenal to considerable success.

Between 1911 and 1914, Tull made 111 appearances for Northampton Town.

Soon after the First World War began, Tull enlisted in the army and, after a series of promotions, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 1917.

It was then extremely rare for a black man to become an army officer. He was mentioned in dispatches for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ at the Battle of Piave in Italy in January 1918 and it has been claimed that he was recommended for a Military Cross. He was sadly killed in action in Favreuil, France in March 1918.

For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. This season, staff and students at the Centre will feature those players who were pioneers that contributed to the growth and development of the game. 

For more information about sports history at DMU, click HERE.

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