Published: 07/10/2014 09:25 - Updated: 07/10/2014 09:38

Uncle Walter is a hero in the family

Written byCalum Macleod

Pat and Iona with a photograph of 'Uncle Walter'. Picture: Gary Anthony.
Pat and Iona with a photograph of 'Uncle Walter'. Picture: Gary Anthony.

WHEN the story of football hero turned war hero Walter Tull comes to Eden Court in new play The Hallowed Turf, watching will be a Ross-shire family with their own links to Walter.

To most of the world Walter Tull is a rediscovered hero as the first black combat officer to serve in the British army and one of Britain’s first black professional footballers as a member of the Spurs and Northampton.

However, for Pat Justad of Strathpeffer, her sister Iona from nearby Jamestown, and brothers Duncan from Edderton and Edward who now lives in Edinburgh (all Finlaysons), he is simply Uncle Walter.

"Technically he’s a great-uncle, but we always just refer to him as Uncle Walter," Iona pointed out.

The Finlayson family are the grandchildren of Walter’s elder brother Edward.

The boys’ father Daniel was a carpenter from Barbados and according to family lore, Daniel’s mother had been born a slave.

Their mother Alice came from Kent and Pat still has a letter from her father welcoming Daniel to the family, but following Alice’s death, Edward and Walter were sent to a children’s home.

Eventually Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian couple after visiting the city with a boys’ choir and went on to become a dentist in the city — becoming the first black or mixed race person to qualify for the profession in Britain.

Meanwhile, Walter went on break down barriers in football.

With amateur side Clapton FC he became the first black player to collect a medal in English senior football as winners of the FA Amateur Cup, joined a close season tour of South America, then in 1909 signed for Tottenham Hotspur at the age of 21, making him the second black footballer and first black outfield player to play in the top flight of English football.

He signed to Northampton Town in 1911 and three years later became the first member of the team to volunteer for military service and joined the Footballers’ Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

He served in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 before being sent back to Britain to recuperate from shell shock, and in May 1917 was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, becoming the first black British army officer to lead his troops into battle, serving on both the Italian and Western Fronts.

Had he lived, Walter would have followed Edward to Scotland at the war’s end.

He had been signed to play for Rangers, but was killed in action in the second Battle of the Somme in March 1918, some eight months before the armistice.

Many of Walter’s effects were passed on to Edward and remain within the family, including his footballing medals, letters and photographs.

Oraine Johnson as Walter Tull in 'The Hallowed Turf'.
Oraine Johnson as Walter Tull in 'The Hallowed Turf'.

Sadly Walter’s war medals were stolen in a break in, leaving only the Memorial Plaque or "Dead Man’s Penny" issued to the next-of-kin of all service personnel killed in World War I.

"We knew his story because it was a family story," Pat said.

"We knew him as a footballer and a soldier — especially as a footballer because he played for Tottenham Hotspur. He was famous within the family, but that’s changed more recently.

"It’s quite unreal, especially when you go on the internet and look him up. In the early days, there wasn’t so much about him, but now it’s still quite a surprise when you go online and see family photographs."

Since Walter’s story was first popularised by academic and writer Phil Vasili, who came across Walter’s story while researching a PhD on black British footballers, his remarkable tale has been told in books for both adults and young readers, a BBC Four play Walter’s War, written by Kwame Kwei-Armah and various documentaries.

The Hallowed Turf is the second stage play about Walter, following on from Vasili’s own play Tull and a big screen version has just been announced starring Nathan Ives-Moiba, who played the title role on stage, alongside Vinnie Jones, David Morrissey and Tom Wilkinson.

Walter Tull is also the only individual to feature on a set of six special commemorative £5 coins released by the Royal Mint to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreeak of World War I

"There have also been a lot of events to do with Walter," Pat added.

"Northampton Town unveiled a memorial to him and have started an anti-racist garden in his memory.

"There’s also been a lot of educational stuff about him that has been used in schools and for youth work and in anti-racist campaigns and there have been a couple of really nice children’s books about him."

Although most of the material broadcast and written about Walter is accurate, some artistic liberties have been taken with his life story in the past.

"The drama on the telly was focused on the time when he was doing officer training and we have nothing about that period in his life at all," Iona said.

"There was a romance in the play and people keep asking us: ‘What happened to the woman?’ We have to tell them nothing — she was made up."

There have also been exhibitions about him at the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum and Walter Tull has also been featured heavily in schools material for Black History Month, which runs throughout October.

"As a family, it’s nice to see his story being used for equalities work and to foster understanding," Iona said.

"That’s one thing we didn’t appreciate growing up, that he was such a pioneer.

"We always just thought of him as a family member who played football and fought in the war."

Walter, who also experienced racial abuse in his footballing career, did not just have potential prejudice to overcome in order to become the British army’s first infantry officer, he also had to overcome official regulations which stated that only those of "pure European descent" were eligible to receive an officer’s commission of the type awarded to Tull.

Even the family have no idea how Walter was able to circumvent the rules and be accepted for officer training at Gailes in Ayrshire.

"We don’t know how that happened," Iona admitted.

"The implication was that he was a very good soldier. Whether it was because they were so short of men or because he was well known as a footballer, we just don’t know."

Walter Tull in his days as a Spurs player.
Walter Tull in his days as a Spurs player.

Certainly Walter seems to have been highly regarded by those he served with.

"When he died, the letters written to Edward by his commanding officer were very complimentary," Pat added.

"He said he didn’t just lose a comrade, he had lost a friend."

However, although Walter’s colour may not have prevented him from becoming an officer, there remains a suspicion that it may have prevented his being awarded the Military Cross.

Tull was recommended for the honour for his "gallantry and coolness" while serving in Italy in the winter of 1917/18, having led his company of 26 men on an incursion into enemy territory and returned them safely to British lines.

A petition now underway to award him the medal posthumously has received the backing of more recent Spurs stars Sol Campbell and Garth Crooks.

With Walter Tull increasingly becoming a public figure, the family are very conscious of a responsibility of maintaining his legacy and memory.

Pat’s son is now putting together a website that will bring together the material the family holds on Walter in one place.

He may now be revered as a role model and pioneer of racial equality in the UK, but the family are inclined to agree with biographer Vasili’s assessment of him as someone who might have been bemused by the attention he is receiving almost a century after his death and would simply have regarded himself as someone doing his duty.

"We always had a kind of feel for what sort of a person he was," Pat said.

"We have his letters, but also it’s knowing the people he came from like Edward and their sister Cissie (who came to Scotland to look after Edward’s adopted parents). People who were kind."

The Hallowed Turf, written by Pamela Cole-Hudson and starring Oraine Johnson and Kaine Barr, is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, on Tuesday 7th October at 8pm.

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