"Crossing the White Line"


On April 28th 2008, senior Dovorians came to a discussion group about Walter Tull. This was part of the national commemorations for our local hero, as this year is the 90th since his death on the Somme, and the 130th since his birth. The group met in the Town Council Chambers in Maison Dieu House (older Dovorians will remember this lovely room as the old adult lending library).

Bob Markham introduces

The discussion covered a number of subjects, including racism, how remembrance is created, and, of course, as Dover is the Frontline Town, the experiences of Dovorians during World War II. The meeting was kindly hosted and opened by the Right Worshipful the Town Mayor of Dover, Councillor Bob Markham.

"That we are all here today is the result of such a mixture of hard work, fate, and a story that has captured the hearts, minds, and imagination of people from every walk of life and age group. Who would have thought that from the fascination of Marilyn and Simon's research, all of our lives would be so enriched? I say "captured hearts and minds" because it's 21st century "Boys' Own" stuff; the sort of story I read under the sheets with a torch when my mother put the lights out at bedtime."

Walter Tull, sent away to an orphanage at an early age, became during the Great War the first black combat officer in the British Army. He had already had a successful career as the first black professional outfield footballer; by strange coincidence, John Ripsher, founder of Tottenham Hotspur, Walter's old club, died and is buried in Dover. Walter himself is commemorated on our Town Memorial, just outside the Council Chamber. His mother came from Dover, his sisters war memorial through window of Council chamberand stepparents lived in Dover - and relatives live in the area to this day. 

Councillor Markham continued, "These national commemorations are funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund ...This funding will help ensure that the name we first read on the Dover Town War memorial will be held dear and inspire other generations to look beyond the name to find the man ....It's the personalisation that brings it all home. One name mentioned recently, at the Memorial Service for Civilians in November 2007, organised by The Dover War Memorial Project, was Freddie Spinner. He died in September 1944, at the end of the shelling. Several individuals in the memorial service related stories about Dover –the place would have been in tears if there had been one more story."

"Until Maggie and Simon began their research, the casualties were all just names on the memorial. Maggie and Simon have personalised them, it is a wonderful thing they are doing and lovely to have them with us now. We hope their work goes on and we thank these people for their work."

On behalf of the City of Westminster Archives, who are leading the commemorations, Marysia Lachowicz, daughter of a Polish airman, came from London to chair the discussion group.

"Nicely done", and "Very moving", were some of the comments after the discussion group had watched an animation Marysia and JoanDVD about Walter's life. It was created by children from Mundella School, Folkestone - that was Walter's old school, formerly known as the North Board Schools, and it was from there, on 23rd July 1897, that Walter and his younger brother Edward left for the orphanage in London. In memory of Walter, and all the others from the school who served and died, the children will be laying flowers at the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey in November 2008.

Dovorians know more about war than most. Not only was Dover home and transit point for troops from across the globe, but the citizens of our Frontline Town were bombed and shelled throughout both world wars. The discussion exploded into memories. "We in Dover were different from the rest of the country during war-time – you saw the flash across the channel and 20 seconds later the shell arrived from France," said one member of the group. "There was no other warning," agreed another. “We sat on the cliffs and watched, you could see the shells dropping." "But if the engine cut out of the aerial bombs, you had to run!"

Dover suffered 2224 shells and 480 bombs in the Second World War, according to one source.  “It was grim. I saw lots of action, the warnings went on all nights." "We were Hellfire Corner. You’d have thought we would have been wiped out completely, although we weren’t.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Dovorians survived was because of the many different shelters. There were Anderson and Morrison, trench and surface, "shelters in Astor Avenue, a big one at Noah's Ark Road";  innumerable tunnels and caves cut into the chalk of the famous white cliffs.  Many have photographs still, of themselves, their parents, or grandparents in the shelters; some families lived in the deep shelters. Some, children then, can remember hasty school lessons underground. Others Bryan Walker, Town Sergent, with his Falklands collectionremember long days of freedom. "We used to go out for days at a time. We went up Poulton woods and made fires.“ "We became very independent." There are Dovorians now attribute their success in business to their war-time childhood.

Many other Dovorian children were evacuated. "You had no option about being evacuated." "It wasn't compulsory, but no real education if you didn't go." "Evacuation for the children might be an adventure, but it was dreadful for the parents to see them go." "Some children, though, were dealt terrible blows by bad experiences in evacuation." "Yes, quite a few children came back." "Some never came back, and some who did could never bond as a family again."

"At D-Day the schools opened, and they brought the evacuees back." "We were all put in the same class together with the evacuees, but we had no education in Dover." "I got my education when I went to sea, later. I did it by postal courses."  "We were the dead-end kids."

Walter Tull broke the mould; he was commissioned in 1917. This was despite regulations now interpreted as forbidding "a person of colour", someone not of "pure European descent", even though born in this country, becoming a combat officer in the British Army. Some of the group had experienced discrimination: "In the 1960s a friend in Horsham went out with a chap from Fiji. The racism was very bad." One member of the group was concerned, "Are we ourselves being racist? Are we remembering Walter Tull now just because of his skin colour?"

Walter Tull had been successful in another career, professional football, before the war. "Clean in mind and method," according to one newspaper correspondent, he was said to have been cool, judicious, strong, and accurate.  flag from the VindictiveOn the battlefields he was commended by Major General Sir Sydney Lawford for his "gallantry and coolness" under fire. He was "popular and conscientious", said his commander. His comrade, fellow footballer Private Billingham, who witnessed his death, summed it up, "He was a thorough gentleman, beloved by all."

Overcoming early hardships to attain success in two different fields, Walter Tull is an inspirational example. "He was a strong character," said a group member. Yet his personal integrity and character were uncompromised, and his successes were in fields where co-operation, teamwork, and care for others were paramount. "It was family values too," said another member of the group, for Walter's sister Elsie gained an MBE for services to Folkestone hospital, while brother Edward became a successful dentist. "It was Christian values as well, all the way through."

Walter Tull drew upon traditional values, and maybe too exemplifies the concept of a gentleman. He is a lesson, perhaps, for a modern less-mannered age. We do not need to remember him because of the colour of his skin, but for himself, and for what he represents.  Nevertheless, Walter Tull was also a person of colour. While perhaps he did not experience racism in his intimate circles, there is no doubt that his ancestry could be a bar in his public careers. This is not merely phenotypical; he came from a working-class background. One of the conclusions Marysia had drawn from the other discussion group, held with the West Indian Ex-Service Association, were that the services may have been not so much racist as "classist". That Walter Tull, therefore, was possessed of qualities to overcome not only the unsettled and disadvantaged beginning of his life, but such institutionalised discrimination also, provides yet another sterling reason to commemorate and celebrate the life of this unique man. "He was dual heritage," said one member of the group. "And the best of both!"

According to a letter by a comrade, Walter Tull had been recommended for a Military Cross. This was not awarded, however. One of the George Cross for Dover campaigners wondered if a retrospective award might be out of time, as recently they had been turned down for this reason. "But the Land Army have just recently received medals," she continued. "Those who were shot at dawn have also now just been pardoned," said another.

A medal is a public recognition of service. "But is a medal enough of a remembrance for the family?" Remembrance takes many forms, and much of it is personal and private. "The Ladies ATS served on gun sites.  The family of an ATS girl in Manchester wanted to scatter her ashes on a gun site where she was. It was at the end of the Leas in Folkestone.  The members inspect the Zeebrugge collectionfamilies came, the Mayors of Dover and Folkestone. It was a fitting tribute to a lady who attached such importance to her service."

"My grandfather has a grave, in Belgium. The relatives are given the opportunity of saying things on the CWGC gravestones. Even my dad's Christian nameis on my grandfather's grave.On the Menin Gate there are lots of names. But relatives haven't had the same opportunity to say, "We miss you"".

"I went to the war graves when I was eleven. They are wonderful. They are so well kept." "On the continent, they have photos on ordinary graves." "Photos on graves fade." "It shows how temporary everything is, really." "How do we remember the past? Photos then, computer technology now?" "The Imperial War Museum was an exhibition of stamps, featuring the faces of people who had died in Iraq. It was an idea as a memorial that would reach the wider public, every day." "When we began the Dover War Memorial Project," said Maggie, "these were some of the reasons. You can't remember people properly just by a list of names on a memorial or in a book. We put photos and details about our casualties and their families on Dover's Virtual Memorial, so that everyone can remember them as the people they were."

"The memorial outside is lovely," said another member. "We have the Remembrance service every year."  "Keeping the memory alive." Remembrance, however, can be contingent and selective. "Not everyone is named there; it's nearly all First World War casualties. Not Second - they're in a book.  Women aren't on there, or civilians." "There is a memorial for women at Whitehall." "At Tilmanstone there is a roll of honour in the church, and that has women on." "There are the Zeebrugge graves at St James. There's a ceremony there each year." "With Zeebrugge it was a lottery who got the VCs. So many deserved it." "Next to the Zeebrugge graves are the Ostend ones; we don't remember them - it was seen as a failure." "One ethnic group we don't remember are the Chinese Labour corps. Their graves are in the cemeteries, but it's too far for their families to visit." "My daughter was in Assam. There are war graves there. We were all fighting for the same thing."

Here's our discussion group. Left to right, front row: Kath Hollingsbee, Christine Sedgwick, Joan Simmonds, Betty Vile, Mayoress - Cllr Lyn Young. Left to right, back row, Mayor - Cllr Bob Markham, Maggie S-K, Jack Woolford, Cllr Ronnie Philpott, Terry Sutton MBE, Arthur Tolputt, Bill Cock, Marysia Lachowicz, Georgette Rapley, Sam Chidwick, Peter Bates.

Thank you to you all - what lovely people you are!

With grateful thanks to Dover Town Council, for their kind hospitality, and to our 2007 Mayor and Mayoress for their support and interest. With special thanks too to our Town Sergeant, Bryan Walker, Falklands veteran, for his display on The Falklands, and to Peter Bates for his display on Zeebrugge.

Top: the Mayor introduces the discussions
Next: the memorial, through the window of the Council Chamber
Next: Bryan Walker talks about the Falklands, to Cllr Bob Markham, Arthur Tolputt, RA, and Town Clerk Mike Webb
Next: flag from the Vindictive, veteran of the Zeebrugge raid. This was presented to Dover on St George's day 2008 by Michael Dunkason, grandson of Charles Dunkason, who sailed with the Vindictive and who survived. 
Next: Bill Cock and Sam Chidwick look at the Zeebrugge Exhibition. Note the flag behind them. At the meeting Bill and Sam discovered they were old friends; they had sat next to each other at school!
Bottom: our discussion group.
All pictures by Simon John Chambers

Copyright 2008 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved