Walter Tull: Footballer turned Military Officer

As this week marked Remembrance Day, I wanted to share the amazing story of Walter Tull, one of the first black professional footballers and the first black army officer who served, and died, during the First World War. Whilst researching his story in more depth, I must admit I got quite emotional, even more so knowing he hasn’t received recognition since his death in 1918. Thankfully in recent years, there have been attempts to share his story, led by his grandnephews and nieces. I hope this blog post goes some way to adding to that recognition.

Walter Daniel Tull was born to Daniel and Anne Tull on the 28th of April 1888. Daniel was from Barbados and had moved to England at the age of 20. He settled in Folkestone on the Kent Coast, where despite facing initial prejudice due to his skin colour, had a successful career as a carpenter. Whilst attending the Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, he met Alice Palmer, and they married in 1880, with the consent of her family.[1] They went on to have six children, one of them being Walter, but sadly their oldest child died within a few weeks.

Walter had a happy beginning to life and the family were known to be close knit. Sadly this wasn’t to last as Alice died of cancer at the age of 42 in May 1895, leaving Daniel as a single parent struggling to look after them and work at the same time.[2] To show how much Daniel was accepted into Alice’s family, a niece of Alice’s called Clara moved in to help look after the children so the family wouldn’t be split up.[3] Daniel and Clara went on to marry and they had a daughter. Again heartbreak reached the family as Daniel died of heart disease in December 1897, leaving Clara to look after six children alone.[4] The situation was dire and Clara had to make the awful decision to place Walter and his brother, Edward, into care. They were placed into a home in East London run by Methodists on Clara’s insistence, hoping that there would be some familiarity in that, no matter how big the difference was in moving from the coast to the dirty and polluted capital.[5]

Walter Tull with Comrades (1914), Wikimedia Commons

Before any application could be sent to the home, the Reverend Stephenson, who ran the home, was made aware of the skin colour of the boys. He responded that it made no difference, they were very welcome, so long as poor relief board could contribute towards their costs, just as they did with the other boys in their care.[6] Care homes at that time made it hard for families to ever take their children back, as it was expected the families would financially compensate the home, the costs of which increased the longer children had been in the home for.[7] The home that Walter and Edward lived in also did this, but was well known for the kindness it was run with. The children well fed and taught trades for the future, as well as encouraging hobbies and sport, including access to their own swimming pool.[8] It was here that Walter found his love of football. He was often a player for the home in local amateur games, with which he competed in more after Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian family.[9]

Walter was first offered a trial by Clapton FC in 1908. This was a good place to start his football career, albeit on an amateur basis, as Clapton was seen as one of the best amateur teams of the time.[10] Walter proved his worth for the team as he helped contribute to them winning the FA Amateur Challenge Cup, London Senior Cup and London Amateur Cup that season.[11] Tottenham soon signed him up as a professional in July 1909, so that he could join them in a football tour of Argentina, before he made his English debut for the team in September.[12] Within a month, he was racially abused by Bristol City supporters at an away match, which made all the national newspapers.[13] Soon after he was dropped from Tottenham’s first team and placed into the reserves, which he did continue to make appearances for, although on a smaller scale than he envisioned. Whilst playing one of these reserve matches against Northampton Town in February 1911, Walter again showed his talent for the game. He scored a hat trick in a 7-1 victory against Northampton.[14] It impressed the club and they signed him up for the next season. He played just over 100 matches for the team before the First World War.[15]

In December 1914, just four months after Britain entered the First World War, Walter enlisted in what was known as the Football Battalion, a battalion made up of footballers from all over the country. Within two months, he was promoted to the position of Lance Corporal, and then promoted again to Lance Sergeant.[16] In May 1916, he was invalided back to England due to shell shock, although the Northampton Mercury newspaper also reported that he was suffering from pneumonia.[17] Despite this, he returned to the fighting and took part in the Battle of Ancre, the first and second Battle of the Somme, Battle of Messines, Battle of Passchendaele and first Battle of Bapaume.[18]

First World War Football Battalion Recruitment Poster, Wikimedia Commons

With the bravery shown in battle, he was again promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1916. He was recommended for an officer’s training course and became a Second Lieutenant in May 1917 after showing good leadership skills.[19] This went against the Army Council’s rules of only allowing those of European descent of becoming officers. The Council also said that black people should be placed in their own regiments and not mix with white people, but Walter’s example went against this as he first led white men at the Battle of Passchendaele.[20]

Whilst stationed in Northern Italy towards the end of 1917, he successfully led men on night time reconnaissance missions to gather information on German positions. Each time he did this the party came back without any casualties.[21] For this he was mentioned in dispatches and put forward by Major General Sydney Lawford for a military cross, but he didn’t receive one.[22] It’s thought he didn’t receive one as due to the Army Council’s rules.[23]

Walter was killed at Arras on 25th March 1918 during what is known as the German Spring Offensive, which was the German’s last attempt to regain control towards the end of the war. It’s reported that Private Tom Billingham, a former goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse, attempted to bring Walter’s body back to the British lines but was unable to, meaning he was unable to have a grave.[24] His name is instead mentioned on the memorial wall at the Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery in Arras.[25]

Newns, T., Epitaph of Walter Tull at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton (2009), Wikimedia Commons

That could easily have been the last people heard of Walter, but there have been efforts to increase public awareness of his achievements in football and his sacrifice during the First World War. Northampton Town have a memorial set up outside their stadium, as well as the road that leads to their stadium being named Walter Tull Way.[26] To mark centenary celebrations of the First World War between 2014 and 2018, a special £5 coin and stamp with Walter’s face on were created.[27] Most recently, Walter was finally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame on the 20th of October 2021, with the award being collected by his grandnephew Edward Finlayson, the grandson of Walter’s brother, Edward.[28]

Whilst I am very pleased that Walter’s story has become more well known since the centenary, I must admit I was disappointed to learn that he has still not received a military cross for his bravery, despite the possible reason for his colour not allowing him to be granted one in his lifetime. A petition was set up in 2013 but didn’t receive enough signatures.[29] The granting of a military cross would be the next logical, and deserved, step in remembering the legacy of Walter Tull and the achievements he made despite the obstacles of racism and poverty he had. If any campaign is reignited for Walter to be granted a military cross, I will be right behind it as I feel he definitely deserves one.


[1] Wynn, S., Against All Odds: Walter Tull, The Black Lieutenant (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018), p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid, p. 4.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, pp. 7-9.

[10] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[11] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 9.

[12] Ibid, p. 10.

[13] Ibid, pp. 18-19.

[14] Ibid, p. 21.

[15] Ibid, p. 21.

[16] Ibid, p. 33.

[17] Ibid, p. 36.

[18] Ibid, p. 36.

[19] Ibid, p. 41.

[20] Ibid, p. 41; Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[21] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, pp. 41-42.

[22] Ibid, p. 42.

[23] Conway, R. and Lockwood, D., ‘Walter Tull: The Incredible Story of a Football Pioneer and War Hero’, BBC Sport, 23 March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448

[24] Ibid.

[25] Walter Tull Archive, https://waltertullarchive.com/a-brief-history/

[26] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 23.

[27] Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[28] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[29] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 54.

Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love: The First Professional Footballers, Part 2

Welcome back to the second part of the story of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, two of the first professional footballers. The first part focused on how Scottish Players, including Suter and Love came to play football in the mill towns of Lancashire, as well as a closer look into the life of Suter himself. You can find the first part here. This follow-on post will look into the short and tragic life of Jimmy Love, so be prepared for the emotion to come.

As previously mentioned, I first came across the story of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love in the Netflix drama, The English Game. Jimmy’s character is portrayed as a kind, loving and caring young man, who see’s Suter not just as a friend, but a brother figure. He was by far my favourite character in the show. As usual, my curiosity got the better of me and I had to investigate the life of the real Jimmy Love. I was incredibly sad to find out that he is hardly remembered at all compared to Fergus, as really little is known about him. However, I must offer my thanks once again to Andy Mitchell, who is almost the only person who has seriously explored who the real Jimmy Love was. Most of what I have written has come from his sources with his permission to reference.

Jimmy or James Love was born in Glasgow in 1858, but sadly lost his mother at five years old. His dad also confusingly called James, which was why Jimmy was used as his name to differentiate the two. When I saw this, I instantly made a connection with Jimmy as my own mum lost her mother at the same age, and soon gained a step mum. The family moved from Greenock, around 25 miles outside of Glasgow, to Partick, which is now a suburb of Glasgow, in 1876. Following this move, Jimmy decided to set up his own street cleaning business and joined Partick football club in his spare time.[1]

James Harkness and Kevin Guthrie as Jimmy Love and Fergus Suter in Netflix’s The English Game (2020)

Things didn’t go well with his business and he went bankrupt in 1878, but absconded from his court appearances about the matter.[2] In fact he’d left Scotland altogether and moved to Darwen in Lancashire. At first this may sound odd, but Love had played against Darwen whilst playing for Partick, so he probably knew people there and that he could easily pursue his love of football there. He became a part of the Darwen football team and secretly began to get paid to do so. As previously explained, Jimmy was one of many Scottish footballers, especially Partick players, who went on to play for Lancashire teams, mainly because of the better skills they had compared to English players.[3] It turned out to be a good decision on Jimmy’s part, as he became a celebrated goal scorer for Darwen, which also led the way for Fergus Suter, a fellow Partick player, to decided to join Darwen a few weeks after Jimmy.[4] In April 1879, the club played a benefit match where proceeds were raised for both Fergus and Jimmy.[5]

For whatever reason, possibly the chance of earning more money, as Fergus later recalled, saying he was bribed both Jimmy and Fergus moved on to play for nearby Blackburn Rovers. Jimmy made his first appearance for them in November 1879, but his last ever match was played in January 1880. It’s not known why he stopped playing football, especially as he was a good player. Still, Jimmy had been part of the Darwen team that made history for being the first northern team to get to the quarter finals of the FA Cup, but with the passage of time, his part in that has been partly forgotten.[6] This is probably in part to Suter, who carried on playing until his retirement in 1888 and became a household name in the world of football for winning the FA Cup three times.[7]

Report of the death of Jimmy Love in Egypt on the 27th of September 1882, Glasgow Herald, 10 October 1882

Sadly, for Jimmy, his own retirement from football in January 1880 is where most stories of him tend to end, most likely because of the unknown circumstances of it. Thankfully, Andy Mitchell has picked up the story of what happened to him after his football career was over, and it was as far away from football, and Lancashire, as you could possibly imagine. Just a month after his last game for Blackburn, Jimmy made the 40 odd mile journey to Liverpool to sign up for the Royal Marines. In his sign-up papers, he was described as a painter who was 5ft 6.5 inches tall with dark complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair.[8] He must have followed it through as he was next seen in the 1881 Census living in barracks at Chatham in Kent, a well-known naval base at the time. He had also been promoted to the rank of corporal.[9]

The Marines, Jimmy being among them, were sent out to fight in Egypt in 1882 as the Egyptians started an uprising after the British and French began to have a bigger amount of control over the country following the leader, Khedive Ismail Pasha’s financial ruin.[10] For Jimmy, this mission was ill fated as he died of a fever at the young age of 24 in Egypt.[11] His body stayed in Egypt but his name is mentioned in a memorial dedicated to the Marines who fought during that Egyptian Campaign.[12] For his service, he was posthumously awarded with a medal, which was given to his father, James Love.[13] In honour of her then dead younger brother, Jessie Love, who went on to marry David Muirhead, another Partick player, named her son Jimmy Love Muirhead.[14] What a touching tribute and perhaps a glimmer into how much Jimmy meant to his family. Still, the tragedy didn’t end their as Jimmy Muirhead died as a young man himself on the battlefields of World War One.[15] To say that name was unlucky for the Love family is a massive understatement.

Colours given to Rochester Cathedral on 27 May 1950 after final parade of Chatham Group, Royal Marines, who were disbanded that year. Wikimedia Commons

All in all, I hope you’ve enjoyed my first ever two-part blog post, even if it’s not on my usual kind of topic. After discovering the real and moving story of Jimmy Love in particular, I felt I had to share his story. When I first read about his untimely death in Egypt, I’m not ashamed to admit I had a bit of a cry. Whether Jimmy had been a famous football player or not, the story of dying so young and so much to live for, as well as the story somewhat repeating itself in the next generation, is an awful thing for the family to have gone through. Anyway, I hope this post has helped raise the profile of Jimmy Love as a player who paved the way for his friend Fergus Suter, and just as seen in the English Game, probably helped and supported his friends along the way, whatever his personal reasons for leaving the sport were.

I would once again like to end on a thank you to Andy Mitchell for investigating Jimmy’s story in the first place, as it is certainly one that I feel needs to be told more. If you would like to know more about Jimmy, Fergus and Partick, I would thoroughly recommend Andy Mitchell’s blog on Scottish Sport, where most of the information I have referenced is from with his permission. I would also thoroughly recommend you watch The English Game on Netflix, as it tells the story not just of how football as we understand it today was created, but the class divisions that separated it in those early days of professionalism.


[1] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’, Scottish Sport Historyhttps://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/the-true-story-of-jimmy-love-the-very-first-scotch-professor

[2] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[3] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, the First Professional Footballers’, Scottish Sport History, https://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers

[4] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[5] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[6] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[7] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[8] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[9] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[10] The National Archives, The Egypt War of 1882, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/egypt/

[11] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[12] Imperial War Museum, Royal Marine Light Infantry Egypt 1882, https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/16491

[13] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[14] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[15] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love: The First Professional Footballers, Part 1

Whilst looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, The English Game kept popping up as a recommended programme to watch. From the trailer, it’s clear to see that this period drama of a different sort is based on the class struggles that dominated the early years of football, or soccer to you American readers, as a standardised game in the late nineteenth century. Anyone who knows me will know I hate sports of any kind really. I was the despair of my P.E. teacher at school, who I remember asking my mum if there was any sort of physical activity I liked at all. Still, football has seemed to surround me a little bit lately, whether I like it or not.

I’m currently an archives assistant on a coal mining project at my county’s local archives, which focuses on the health and welfare provided for miners by their employers. Sport, especially football, was a large part of this. Many local mining teams produced top players, who went on to play for well-known professional football clubs, and they even had their own leagues too. For me, the part that interested me was the social and class aspects surrounding the game. That reason, as well as The English Game being written by Julian Fellows, the writer of one of my favourite period dramas, Downton Abbey, was what persuaded me to watch. Little did I realise the research rabbit hole this would lead me down and the discovery of the interesting lives of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, the Scottish players shown in the series, who are seen as the game’s first professional players. As both their stories are worth exploring in detail, I thought it would be best to do a post on each of them.

Netflix’s The English Game (2020)

Football has been around for centuries. Prior to the establishment of the Cambridge Rules written in 1848, football didn’t have a set of standard rules throughout the country. It varied depending on location and was more similar to what we now call Rugby. Ashbourne in Derbyshire, not far from where I live, still plays this form of the game once a year and is known as Shrovetide Football. The whole town plays in a giant scrum and it all looks very messy. The English Football Association (FA), created in 1863, made teams use the rules created in 1848, but it heavily relied on upper class teams from universities and private schools, who made up the board for it. The Scottish Football Association followed ten years later in 1873. It was in this environment that Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love began playing football from the mid-1870s.

Fergus Suter was born in Glasgow in 1857 as the son of an Irish stonemason who had moved to Scotland in search of work. Just like his father, Fergus went into the stonemason trade and became a stonemason’s apprentice.[1] Partick, the area of Glasgow he grew up in, was known for it’s football club, although initially this was a different team than Partick Thistle who play now. Suter, as well as Jimmy, were two of the first players for the team after its formation in 1876, as many working-class men played for football clubs in their spare time. Fergus’ brother, Edward, also played for Partick. However, Fergus left in the autumn of 1878 and moved to Darwen in Lancashire, following in the footsteps of his teammate Jimmy Love. Andy Mitchell who has done extensive research into the lives of both players suggests that Suter left due to financial worries when Partick stonemasons went on strike about pay.[2]

Fergus Suter, Blackburn Rovers full-back, from 1880 to 1889, The Cottontown Digitisation Project, Wikimedia Commons

It may sound strange now to think that players moved so far away from their home teams before the game had become professional, but the Scottish players, particularly those who played for Partick were sought after by the Lancashire teams. The Scottish players were much more experimental with their game strategies, opting for combination playing involving all members of the team, rather than the rather messy one preferred by the English teams.[3] The introduction of this new way of playing soon became more popular and helped to raise standards as a whole. The Scottish players brought to Lancashire by the football clubs were found jobs in workplaces that would allow time for training and playing the game and would ensure travel expenses and compensation for lost earnings.[4] This was perfectly acceptable behaviour as this allowed the game to continue to be amateur as by the rules. However, Suter admitted in a press interview given in 1902, that he and some of the other players, were being paid to play, not a regular amount, but £10 (around £660 in today’s money) when necessary.[5] At that time, the payments were considerably more than the average earnings of either unskilled or skilled labourers.[6] It’s no wonder that Suter very quickly gave up his job as a stonemason and solely relied upon the money he was earning from football. This made him the first official professional player in footballing history.

In February 1879, the Darwen team showed how far they had come, hoping to make the toffs of football and the FA. take working-class teams seriously. They played the Old Etonians, one of the main teams at the time, who’s players made up the board of the FA. itself. At half time the Old Etonians were winning 5-1, but by the end of the match, it was a 5-5 draw. In those days, extra time wasn’t a given and it had to be decided before a match or it would have to be replayed if a draw was the final result. The first rematch was a 2-2 draw, and the Old Etonians only just won the third match, going on to win the FA Cup for that season. Darwen had made history for being the first northern team to get to the quarter finals of the FA Cup.[7]

Despite the success Fergus had with Darwen, he moved on to play for Blackburn, another Lancashire team. Blackburn had bribed Suter with £100, around £6,600 in today’s money to make the move.[8] Family legend has also speculated that Suter made the move because of fathering an illegitimate child.[9] Whatever the reason, he went on to win the FA Cup with them three times and stayed with the team for nearly a decade until he retired in 1888. Following his retirement, he remained in Blackburn, but by then working as a publican, until just prior to his death in 1916.[10]

The Blackburn Rovers Team for the 1884-85 and 1885-86 Seasons, Wikimedia Commons

Fergus Suter is now well remembered as the first professional player in the football game. He was part of a team of innovators that helped create the game that is known around the world today. However, that is not the end of his story. Following the release of The English Game, his grave in Blackburn Old Cemetery has been restored, with the work finishing just last month. Blackburn Rovers have helped for the restoration of the original headstone and a new memorial stone has been placed on it to show his contribution to football.[11]

More on Jimmy Love will be coming up in part two, who has an even more interesting, though tragic story to tell. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about Jimmy, Fergus and Partick, I would thoroughly recommend Andy Mitchell’s blog on Scottish Sport, where most of this information is referenced from. He was a research consultant on The English Game. He has also written books on the subject, including one about Arthur Kinnaird, another character in the English Game, who went on to be a President of the FA.


[1] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, the First Professional Footballers’, Scottish Sport History, https://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers

[2] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[3] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter,’

[4] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), p. 131.

[5] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[6] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[7] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[8] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[9] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[10] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[11] Blackburn Rovers, ‘Magical’ Memorial as Rovers Celebrate Suter’s Memorable Milestone, https://www.rovers.co.uk/news/2021/april/magical-memorial-as-rovers-celebrate-suters-memorable-milestone/