SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 219 June 2018

On the racism frontline

Walter Tull: 1888 to 1918, footballer and officer

By Phil Vasili •London League Publications, 2018, £14.95

Reviewed by Kevin Parslow

This book is not in the style of the usual biography or ghost-written ‘autobiography’ of a modern footballer on tens of thousands of pounds a week, who has been only briefly famous, cashing in on his fame. Walter Tull was a footballer and a soldier whose class and race impacted profoundly on his life and yet he surmounted obstacles to be an example to millions of others.

That he is not better known is largely due to those in power not wanting his record to be publicised. Thus Phil Vasili has done a great service in bringing Walter’s life into print and to give it some perspective.

Britain at the time of Tull’s birth in 1888 had a vast empire spanning the globe and built on gross exploitation and plunder. Slavery had been used to enrich this empire and Walter’s paternal grandparents had been born into slavery in Barbados. His father, Daniel, trained as a carpenter and chose to travel to seek his fortune. He decided to sail to the ‘mother country’, England, and located to Folkestone where he found work and love through his Wesleyan church.

Walter’s mother, Alice, was a local girl from a family of farmworkers. They had a number of children before Alice died through breast cancer in 1895. Daniel remarried one of Alice’s cousins but passed away himself in 1897. Unable to cope financially, Walter’s stepmother, Clara, gave him and one brother, Edward, away to be brought up in a church orphanage in the East End of London.

Edward was later adopted by a Scottish family and Walter made do with occasional family visits and correspondence in the orphanage. In his teenage years, Walter started a printing apprenticeship and played football for the orphanage team. His footballing talents were spotted by top amateur side Clapton FC which took him on and, by the end of the 1908-09 season, Walter had three medals as a leading goal scorer.

These achievements were noted by Tottenham Hotspur, who had just been promoted into the top division of the Football League. The club offered Walter a professional contract; its acceptance was not perhaps as instantaneous as it might be today. There was a much closer level of ability between the top professional sides and the amateurs. Indeed, many amateurs, mainly from the middle and upper classes, still played in the Football League alongside paid players.

The class divisions in society were reflected in football. The game was run by those brought up in the era when clubs like Old Carthusians and the Royal Engineers were dominant. Now, however, the relatively young professional sides were luring working-class men into their ranks to be paid to play. Walter chose to sign but only after wrestling with the dilemma of giving up a relatively stable job for the prospect of a short career doing something he enjoyed.

Walter joined Spurs at a time when the Players Union was being formed, at the instigation of footballers mainly in the north of England, to fight the maximum wage imposed on players by the football authorities and club owners – a battle that was only won in the early 1960s.

His debut season in the first team at Tottenham started fairly well but ended when he faced a particularly hostile crowd at Bristol City. Walter and other black people in Britain faced regular verbal and sometimes physical attacks. The author, through the frankly shocking reporting of the press in reference to black workers, shows the level of abuse Walter and others had to face on a regular basis.

The Bristol experience was Walter’s last in first-team football that season. It could be surmised that Tottenham were either pressured or took the decision themselves to remove him from the abuse. He only played three times for the first team in the 1910-11 season. He was transferred to Northampton Town of the Southern League in October 1911, a level of football considered at the time on a par with the Second Division of the Football League. Here he flourished, enjoying four seasons of regular football until war broke out.

There was enormous pressure on single men to enlist for the slaughter of the ‘great war’, and footballers were not exempt. Secretary of state for war and hero of British imperialism, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, said: "Every club who employs a professional player is bribing a needed recruit to refrain from enlistment, and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing so much towards a German victory"!

Walter signed up in December 1914 and Phil Vasili outlines his considerable war service, largely on the western front but also in Italy. Like many other working-class soldiers, it was conspicuous in its bravery and strong leadership, attributes noted by his commanding officers. They recommended him for officer training, which he completed, despite his ethnicity and the specific clause in the 1914 Manual of Military Law: "Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent".

Indeed, Kitchener and the Army Council were adamant in rejecting black soldiers in regular units of the British army. This had not always been the case. British regiments had enlisted black soldiers during the American war of independence, for example. But it seems the slave revolt and revolution in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture from 1791-1804 frightened British imperialism about the possible insurrectionary effects of having black soldiers in colonial armies.

But even by 1915, the army tops were worried about the terrible loss of life in the first world war and recruitment was being affected. So, many mixed-heritage men were transferred to the specially-formed British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), which was white officered! Walter wrote to his brother that he would apply for a transfer to the BWIR, which was one of the regiments affected by the many protests and mutinies in the war.

However, Tull remained in the Middlesex Regiment although he did not survive the conflict, dying in the German spring offensive at the second battle of the Somme, 25 March 1918. His body could not be recovered, despite the courageous efforts of Private Tom Billington, previously a goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse. Commanding officers wrote to Walter’s family saying that he would be recommended for a Military Cross for his bravery, but this was unusually overlooked by the authorities. The suggestion is that they could not award a decoration to someone who should not have been in the position of commanding men of a different colour.

Walter’s life is now recognised, and his achievements and a campaign to properly recognise his military record have been taken up by recent black professional footballers. He is commemorated at Northampton Town’s football ground and elsewhere, and there has been recent media coverage of the centenary of his death.

Phil Vasili’s book is part of that campaign but it is much more besides. He has reconstructed Walter’s life for a new generation, to see the battles that their ancestors had to fight, and not just military ones. He outlines the prejudice and racism engendered in society by the ruling classes to divide and rule.

Phil Vasili has also included chapters on the very few black sportsmen (he could find no women, he notes) in Britain during the pre-1914 era, as well as on other black soldiers. Linked with extensive research in the National Archives and the co-operation of the family of Walter Tull and their descendants, he has produced an excellent book, republished in a new edition for 2018. It is written in a class-based, anti-racist perspective that deserves a wider audience.

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