Black History Month: Barking’s Broadway theatre hosts play about officer and footballer Walter Tull

Walter Tull

Walter Tull - Credit: Archant

A play of Walter Tull’s life will be staged at The Broadway theatre in Barking as the UK celebrates Black History Month.

Walter Tull during his debut for Spurs in a match against Manchester United

Walter Tull during his debut for Spurs in a match against Manchester United - Credit: Archant

The Hallowed Turf, which is being performed on Thursday, was written by Tull’s biographer Phil Vasili and shares the illustrious story of the former Bethnal Green man’s life.

The play stars Waterloo Road actor Kaine Barr alongside Oraine Johnson. Walter’s story is told through the imagined letters of an unknown 17-year-old soldier.

Phil wrote the biography “Walter Tull, 1888–1918, Officer, Footballer” in 2009. Dan Lyndon, an author and schoolteacher who has researched the veteran, accredits Vasili with being “the one who bought Walter Tull out of the shadows”.

Dan, who himself has written a book on Walter Tull, gave a talk about his “hero” on Saturday.

An official team portrait of Walter Tull in his Spurs kit in January 1911

An official team portrait of Walter Tull in his Spurs kit in January 1911 - Credit: Archant

“I think Walter was a double-pioneer,” he told the Post.

“He excelled in two fields. At the time he was playing football he was the only black player out of 600 professional players.

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“Once he left and went into the army he was clearly hugely respected by his peers and senior officers. He achieved a remarkable thing in leading white men in to battle.”

Walter was of mixed race, his father being Barbadian and his mother from Kent, and was sent to the National Children’s Home Orphanage at Bethnal Green after losing both his parents by the age of seven.

There he took a printing apprenticeship and grew to love sports.

After playing amateur football for Clapton FC, Walter signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1908 at the age of 21. In doing so, he became the only active professional black player in the top division.

Walter received racist abuse from fans during a Bristol City v Tottenham Hotspur game in 1909. A newspaper at the time commented that “the language used was worse than in Billingsgate”.

Dan described the abuse Walter received as “the first ever recorded incident of racism at a football match”.

“For him to go through that ordeal says a lot about his character,” he added.

Walter moved to Northampton Town in 1910, making more than 100 appearances for the club.

He was the first player from Northampton to sign up when war broke out in 1914, joining the 17th battalion of the Middlesex regiment. Walter fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, before being promoted to Second Lt – in direct contravention of military law, which barred black officers from commanding men.

Though there had previously been black officers in the British Army, Lyndon affirmed it was “the fact he was able to give commands and lead white men into battle” that set Walter apart.

Dan said Walter was assigned to receive the military cross after being recommended by a senior officer. The reward was for an attack on a dangerous area on the Italian front, which Walter lead without a single casualty to his troops.

Walter showed “tremendous courage and great sense of responsibility” in doing so, according to Lyndon. Tragically, he was killed in 1918 in the Somme Valley. His body was never found.

Dan believes Walter presents an ideal role model for the youth of today.

“Walter is an important role model figure for children. His is a very universal story with universal values.”

• The Hallowed Turf starts at 2pm. Tickets are £8 or £5 for concessions. Call 020 8507 5607.

Black History Month continues at The Broadway with two film screenings on October 9 and 16, Marley and Babylon respectively, both from 7pm and costing £3.

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