"Crossing the White Line"
WALTER TULL COMMEMORATIONS
- DISCUSSION GROUP AT THE COUNCIL CHAMBERS
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
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
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
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
and 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
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
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.
remember 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
"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.
On 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
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.
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
grandson of Charles Dunkason, who sailed with the Vindictive and
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