I attended a University of Northampton seminar on the life of Walter Tull, an extraordinary man, as part of a collection of events developed by the Student’s Union Vice president BME officer, Tre Ventour, who also happens to be a co-opted trustee of NREC. Phil Vasili, author of the book mentioned above, gave a presentation, starting with Walter’s early life, which saw him sent to an orphanage, as his father had died and his stepmother could not look after all of his siblings, six in total. Walter’s grandfather had been a slave in the West Indies, sold to British plantation owners, and this harsh life gave him the resilience which he handed down to his son, and his grandson. Walter faced many barriers in 19th century Britain. He played football for several clubs at a time, including Northampton Town, when players of colour were rare. He faced racism, so much so that it was reported in the Football Star newspaper.
When the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the footballer’s regiment. He became an officer, after recommendation by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Haig-Brown, at a time when army regulations stated officers had to be of ‘European descent’. He was the first black officer to lead white British troops into battle and he was seen as an effective commanding officer. There is documentary evidence to show that Walter was awarded the military cross, however, he died before he received it. Still today, there is a campaign to award Walter his military cross. MP David Lammy in 2018 supported a signed letter with many other MPs to make this happen, citing prejudice at the time of Walter serving as the reason this had not occurred. There are many signs in Northampton pointing to the legacy of Walter Tull – a ward in Northampton General Hospital, a road, a pub, and this blog goes some way to showcase Walter’s talent and the barriers he faced.
Despite this, Walter Tull has not had the recognition he deserves, and Black History Month is an excellent time in which to explore the history of this unsung talented man, who excelled in sport and in his military career. Walter is one among many soldiers of colour to serve in the First World War, who faced opposition and prejudice. It is an important theme of history to explore so that all those who fought are given recognition for their contributions to Britain and Europe.