An incredible journey

The journey of a boy from plantation slavery into dentistry and sports

08 December, 2023 / indepth
 Will Peakin  

A black and white portrait of Edward Tull-Warnock

December saw the launch of author Phil Vasili’s book about Edward Tull-Warnock, thought to be Britain’s first qualified Black dentist. The Life and Histories of Edward Tull-Warnock (1886-1950), published by Rymour Books, is the incredible story of a boy from a plantation slavery family who became an NHS dentist and noted sportsman.

A member of Turnberry Golf Club, Scottish league footballer, supporter of the Socialist Medical Association and renowned singer of ‘Negro Spirituals’, his life reveals a fascinating and counterintuitive view of the experiences of a Black Scot born at the height of Empire.

The book discusses Edward’s life in the context of his family’s Black Atlantic heritage. His status Britain’s first Black dentists is the biographical prism through which readers will navigate the triangular journey from the West coast of Africa via the Caribbean to St Vincent Street, Glasgow.

I feel this work will have a special place in the literature of the Black diaspora

The launch of the book was held at the Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons of Glasgow on 4 December1; Edward was a licentiate of the College, gaining his Licence in Dental Surgery in 1910. The launch was organised by Mike Gow, chairman of the Henry Noble History of Dentistry Research Group, who through Edward’s adoption is his first cousin three times removed.

He was born in 1886, in Folkestone. His father, Daniel Tull, was a carpenter, and came to Folkestone, Kent, in the mid-1800s arriving from Barbados, where his parents were born into slavery on the plantations. Daniel married a local farm worker’s daughter, Alice Palmer, and they had a number of children, including Edward.

Edward experienced adversity at a young age when his mother, Alice, died of cancer when he was nine, and his father died two years later of a heart attack. In the absence of any welfare state, Edward and his younger brother Walter were admitted to Dr Stephenson’s Children’s Home in Bethnal Green.

“Rather than confirming the Dickensian stereotype of the harsh, uncaring, brutalising unwanted child depository, Dr Stephenson’s home was comparatively progressive and child centred,” said Phil, writing in 2019 as part of a Kickstarter campaign for the book.

Edward sang in the children’s home choir and, after a money-raising choir tour of the UK, Edward was adopted by the Warnocks, a middle-class Glaswegian couple. James Warnock, a dental practitioner, was an orphan himself while his wife Jean was raised in the Poorhouse.

“Their love and empathy for Edward consolidated and built upon the teenager’s stable emotional foundation provided by his parents and extended Folkestone family,” said Phil. “While researching Walter Tull2, I interviewed octogenarian Jean Finlayson, Edward’s daughter, at her married home in the Highlands.”

Walter was one of English football’s first Black players, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. He also enlisted in the British Army and would become its first ever Black officer
to command white troops.

“I also tracked down patients of Edward who wrote warm and complimentary letters detailing how he would freely treat poor patients of the Glasgow tenements surrounding his practice,” said Phil.

“Jean’s husband, the Reverend Duncan Finlayson, recalled his politicisation through Edward, the trio attending Paul Robeson concerts and rallies. The family were also close friends with Harold Moody, founder of The League of Coloured Peoples, Britain’s first Black civil and political rights pressure group.

“I feel this work will have a special place in the literature of the Black diaspora as we are able to trace a Black Atlantic family from 18th century slavery to the 20th/21st century.  This book is needed because it will allow people of colour access to an inspirational segment of their history. There are very few books which discuss the Black Atlantic journey of one mixed heritage family from slavery to metropolitan settlement.”




Tags: Dentist / Figures / Historical / History

Categories: Feature / Magazine

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