With racism in football again making headlines, the Octagon Theatre in Bolton has demonstrated interesting time by producing Tull, a new play about the life and times of Walter Tull, the first black outfield player in the old First Division and a First World War hero.
Tull first played for Tottenham Hotspur on their close-season tour of Argentina and Uruguay in the summer of 1909. Many believe his promising career at Tottenham was cut short because of the racism he endured. It was so bad in a match at Bristol City in September 1909 that the report in one London newspaper was headlined the “Colour Prejudice Problem”. The report stated that Tull was “so clean in mind and method as to be a model to all white men who play football… Tull was the best forward on the field”.
Tull was soon dropped from the first team never to regain a regular spot. He was eventually sold to Herbert Chapman’s Northampton Town, thriving under Chapman’s progressive and thoughtful approach. In December 1914 Tull enlisted in the Footballers Battalion (Middlesex Regiment). Promoted three times, after leading a raiding party across enemy lines on the Alpine Italian Front during the harsh winter of 1917-18, 2nd Lieutenant Tull was recommended for a Military Cross because of his outstanding bravery and leadership, not losing a single man from his company while coming under heavy fire.
He never received his Military Cross. Two fellow officers broke military rules by telling his family both that he had been recommended and that he had deserved it. His biographer, Phil Vasili argues it was because he embodied a contradiction: infantry officers, according to the manual of Military Law, had to be “of pure European descent”.
Having fought and survived the first Battle of the Somme, Tull was killed in the second in March 1918 during the German spring offensive. His men, braving shell and machine gun fire, tried in vain to rescue his body from the battlefield.
In 1999 Northampton Town unveiled a memorial, situated at Sixfields Stadium, in Tull’s honour. A marbled sculpture detailing his life and achievements it states: Through his actions Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries….It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly.
Tull, a play by Phil Vasili, directed by David Thacker, tells the story of this exceptional man. Vasili is already the author of Walter Tull, 1888-1918, Officer, Footballer; Colouring over the White Line and The First Black Footballer, Arthur Wharton, 1865-1930. Vasili has also played semi-professionally, coached for numerous grass roots clubs, and is currently based in London as a youth talent scout for Manchester United.
Tull is at the Octagon from February 21 to March 16 2013. For more information go to www.octagonbolton.co.uk or call the Ticket Office on 01204 520661.
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