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When Walt came to Southwark

Some years ago, a sage old cabbie told me about a mysterious photo which he’d claimed to have never seen himself but was sure existed somewhere; an image apparently depicting legendary American animator and entrepreneur, Walt Disney posing beneath a street sign on Borough’s aptly named Disney Street

Disney Street- and its little offshoot, Disney Place– are two thoroughfares which form a small dogleg between Marshalsea Road and Redcross Way.

‘Disney’ is in fact an extremely old name of Norman origin, deriving from d’Isigny; a surname historically used by folk from the town of Isigny-sur-Mer in north-western France.

The name has been borne by these two Borough streets since at least the 1860s- a quick search of The Times newspaper archive reveals a handful of vicious crimes taking place here, including numerous stabbings and an appalling incident in 1902 when a drunken woman was arrested after “ill-treating a baby by swinging it round” along with a verbal threat to “dash the child’s brains out by throwing it on the pavement.”

Late Victorian map depicting Disney Street (image: nls.uk)

In short, the name ‘Disney’ was being used in London long before Walt’s first flick- the jovial ‘Steamboat Willie’- hit screens in 1928… quite a relief really considering the rather brutal connotations with the two roads.

Going even further back in time when the area had a more rural vibe, the two paths, which have evolved over many decades, were known by completely different names- Bird Cage Alley (which really did refer to local artisans who made said pet accessories) and Harrow Street; an offshoot of which was ‘Harrow Dunghill’ which would no doubt have had quite a literal meaning back in the 18th century.

Original map depicting Harrow Street, Bird Cage Alley and Harrow Dunghill

*

Returning to the cabbie’s fable with which I started this piece, I was told that, at some point in the mid-1960s, Walt Disney was on a visit to London with is wife, Lillian.

The pair hailed a taxi and, upon recognising his passenger’s face, the driver couldn’t resist telling his famous fare about the existence of Disney Street and Disney Place.

Unsurprisingly Walt was intrigued and asked be taken there, whereupon he and Lillian had their photos snapped.

For a long time I thought this was nothing more than a cabbie’s urban legend.

Until recently when I happened to discover the images…

The first is of Walt and Lillian:

Walt and Lillian Disney, Disney Street, Southwark, 1965

The second depicts Walt on Disney Place with his business partner, Arthur Allighan; a born Londoner who apparently confessed to having no prior knowledge of the streets which bore his colleague’s infamous surname.

Walt Disney and Arthur Allighan, Disney Place, Southwark 1965

These two images were taken in 1965 and were published in a 1966 edition of ‘Disney World Magazine’.

Sadly, they were amongst the last photos taken of Walt who died shortly after in December 1966 aged 65.

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7 responses

  1. I well remember seeing the top photo as a child. I am guessing it might have featured in our local paper ‘The South London Press’. As I lived close to that area for much of my life, I know those small streets well. I am sure you know that nearby was the infamous Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. This was where the father of Charles Dickens was held for debt. Dickens later immortalised the prison in his book ‘Little Dorrit’ There is a park named Little Dorrit Park at the end of Disney Place, and part of the prison wall remains, in Angel Place.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. That’s interesting, Pete. Wonder if they’ve got an archive of their old papers somewhere? Would be a treasure trove of info.

  2. Great article mate. Really enjoyed it. Well done and keep them coming.

    1. Thanks Kevin, much appreciated 🙂

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