According to Phil Vasili, Walter Tull is “largely absent from recorded history”.
Yet Phil said that as he researched black footballers in Britain he became “more fascinated” in Walter Tull’s “heroic-tragic short life”.
Phil has written a biography and now a play that gets its first staging this week in Bolton Octagon Theatre.
Walter Tull was the second black professional footballer in Britain.
He went on to become the first black officer in the British army in the First World War. This was despite military regulations that officers should be of “pure European descent”.
The play is performed by a cast of eight, each playing a range of characters—except Tull himself, who is played by one actor throughout.
There are no props and scene changes are delineated by the changes in lighting and music.
Phil said, “We have included the most important events of his life from childhood onwards.”
Walter’s parents died early. Walter and his brother were sent to a progressive orphanage in east London where they tried not to split up families.
He joined Tottenham Hotspur football club in 1909 and transferred to Northampton Town in 1911.
A memorial to him was unveiled at Northampton’s ground in 1999.
“The second half of the play is basically a love story between Walter and his landlady and closest companion, the socialist suffragette Annie Williams.” Though Annie did exist, this part is fictional.
It allowed him to develop some of the play’s wider themes.
“Annie has speeches about the class war as well as the world war. Her politics and her opposition to the war, come from a reaction to the early enthusiasm for it.”
Walter had volunteered in December 1914 in the Footballers’ Battalion.
But his early enthusiasm was transformed by experience into hatred of the carnage.
Phil explained, “Walter comes to realise he has been lied to that the things he has been told the war is about are nonsense.
“I hope it shows that when ordinary men are being asked to kill people, that killing is brutalising whatever the context.”
The play also shows how in 1916 Walter—like many thousands of other soldiers—suffered a breakdown in response to the horrors that he saw.
He was hospitalised for some months. Yet he returned to the front.
Walter was then promoted to second lieutenant in 1917 and fought in Italy until 1918. He was killed in France in 1918 and his body was never found.
Phil explained how the play deals with the racism Walter faced.
“We have tried to show that racism, like offensive language, was quite commonplace.
“Popular consciousness came from ideas from the ruling class—that Britain had a great empire, something to be proud of and that therefore white people were superior.
“The idea that people were equal came from progressive elements and we try to show that in the play too.”
Phil gives Herbert Chapman, Walter’s manager at Northampton Town, a speech putting Walter’s accomplishments into a historical context.
As Phil said, “Walter’s achievements did not die with him. They are now beginning to be recognised.”
That recognition is due in no small measure to Phil Vasili’s work.
Play review: An exceptional production
A new play about the life of Walter Tull, the second professional black footballer in Britain and the first black army officer, has just opened.
The eight actors juggle over 100 characters between them, without props and with limited lighting. Nathan Ives-Moiba, who takes the single role of Walter Tull throughout, makes an outstanding professional debut here, but all eight are exceptional.
The production moves fast but the audience is drawn in especially when Tull’s landlady, the suffragette Annie Williams, gives an impassioned call to support the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
We see the racism that Walter faced as a boy in Folkestone, in Argentina when on tour with Tottenham Hotspur and at a Spurs’ match against Bristol City. Ruling class figures from football club owners to Tory politicians and army top brass are shown, at best colluding in racism, and at worst, trying to whip it up.
Yet there are voices challenging the racism. Herbert Chapman, Walter’s manager when he played for Northampton Town, supports him throughout and delivers a celebration of Walter’s life after his death. A fellow footballer, Tom Billingham, breaks from his racist views. But the strongest voice against racism and for equality, freedom and socialism, is Annie Williams.
Although she is a real character from Walter’s life her words are Vasili’s invention. The developing relationship between her and Walter is handled sensitively. Because she has such a clear understanding of what she thinks Annie is the most powerful voice in the play.
It was hard not to cheer when she rallies different crowds against oppression, war and exploitation.
Phil Vasili and David Thacker have succeeded here in telling a story from our history that speaks powerfully to our modern world.
Tull, 21 February–16 March, Bolton Octagon Theatre,
Box office 01204 520 661 www.octagonbolton.co.uk
Walter Tull, 1888-1918 Officer, Footballer, by Phil Vasili, £12. Available from Bookmarks the socialist bookshop, www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk