Walter Tull was not only Britain's first professional outfield football player but also the first black commissioned officer in the British Army. © City of Westminster Archives
The story of the remarkable life of the man who became both the first black British professional outfield footballer and the first black officer in the British Army is to be told thanks to a £49,900 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
Walter Tull’s extraordinary career lasted just nine short years before he was killed in action at the age of 29, but now the achievements of this grandson of a former slave are to be celebrated in a new project by the City of Westminster Archives.
The project will include a national touring exhibition, website and booklet as well as drama and animation workshops to mark the 90th anniversary of his death on the Western Front in the First World War.
“Walter Tull’s extraordinary achievements deserve a much wider audience,” said the HLF’s London Manager Sue Bowers. “This project will make an important contribution to black British heritage and provide young black people with an excellent role model.”
In an alternative take on the rags to riches story, Tull was born in Folkestone in April 1888 but the death of his mother and his father meant that he and his brother Edward were placed in a Methodist-run orphanage in Bethnal Green, East London.
A keen footballer, Walter signed up for a local amateur side, Clapton FC, in 1908 but was soon spotted by Tottenham Hotspur who signed him professionally in 1909 for a fee of £10 and a wage of £4 per week.
He subsequently left Spurs and played more than 100 matches for Northampton Town before the First World War interrupted his career and he joined the Army’s Football Battalion.
Quickly promoted to sergeant he fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and despite military regulations forbidding a “person of colour” being commissioned as an officer, he was promoted to lieutenant in 1917.
He met his death leading an attack on the Western Front in March 1918. Several of his men made unsuccessful attempts to bring him back to the British trenches and his body was never recovered.
Activities for the project on his life will be undertaken at the National Army Museum, the National Football Museum and at National Children’s Homes, the organisation that runs the orphanage where he spent much of his childhood. The project exhibition, website and booklet will target young black people in particular using the football connection as a means of engaging with them.
“Westminster Archives is delighted with the grant we have received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, said the archives’ Education and Interpretation Officer, Peter Daniel. “As an organisation we are committed to celebrating diversity and this funding will allow us to bring the story of a great black Briton to the wider audience he deserves.”