Walter Tull: in profile

Walter Tull was a professional footballer and British Army officer of Afro-Caribbean descent. He played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, among other teams, and was only the third person with a mixed race heritage to play in the top flight of the English Football League. He later served as a second lieutenant in the First World War but was killed in action in 1918, aged just 29.

When did you first hear about Walter Tull?

When I was asked to present a piece about him for The One Show in 2019 – the film marked an anniversary for the charity Action For Children. He lived in one of their children’s homes after losing his parents.


What kind of man was he?

He was the son of a woman from Kent and a Barbadian carpenter, who himself was the son of a slave. By the age of nine he’d lost both his parents – his mother died of cancer and his father from heart disease – and was placed in a Methodist children’s home in London’s East End. But besides having sharp survival instincts, which he would have needed, he clearly had a talent for football. After being spotted playing for amateur side Clapton, he was signed by Tottenham and never looked back.

What made him a hero?

Firstly, his life story is a fascinating tale of resilience, pragmatism and, I think, pursuit of legitimacy, which is common for many people – myself included – who’ve grown up in care. Secondly, his prowess as a footballer and his determination not to be deflected by the racist abuse he received from rival supporters. Lastly, his patriotism and the fact that he clearly loved his country, despite the challenges he’d faced in life – hence his decision to enlist in 1914.

What was Tull’s finest hour?

Firstly, carving out a career as one of Britain’s first top-flight mixed race footballers, playing for Spurs and Northampton and signing for Rangers, despite suffering racist abuse. One newspaper even applauded him as “a model for all white men who play football”. This showed real strength of character, and he paved the way for non-white players in today’s game.

Secondly, his bravery in the Great War. He led 26 men on a successful night raid and was recommended for a Military Cross after being killed in action in France.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

I can’t think of anything.

Can you see any parallels between Tull’s life and your own?

Yes. Besides our both being of mixed-race, I had a not dissimilar background: I was moved between four foster homes and a care home as a child, so I can relate to his fragmented sense of self and his search for a place in the world.

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What would you ask him if you could meet him?

Having grown up in an orphanage, I’d like to know what made him feel at home? What was his sense of home?

Ashley John-Baptiste has presented BBC TV shows including Expert Witness and Stories of Us.


This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine

Discover more history heroes, our monthy series in which popular figures from the present tell us about who inspired them from the past


York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.