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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
November 5th as we all know marks Bonfire Night; a chilly festival of sparklers and fireworks commemorating the moment when a conspiracy to blow up Parliament was foiled at the last minute.
But how exactly did the Gunpowder Plot come about?
The plot’s roots originated during the reign of Elizabeth I; a time when persecution of Catholics had steadily risen, with fines, imprisonment and execution meted out to those who practiced the faith.
When King James I came to the throne in 1603, Catholics were hopeful he’d be more sympathetic- after all, his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had herself been Catholic. This optimism vanished however as James continued to enforce Elizabeth’s policies and banished all priests from the country.
Infuriated by these events was Robert Catesby, a 32 year old Catholic who’d sheltered priests at his home in Uxbridge since the 1590s. In February 1604, he met with two similarly disillusioned young men- Thomas Wintour and John Wright- at another property he owned in Lambeth. It was here that Catesby first proposed the idea of assassinating the king with explosives.
Agreeing to the plan, Wintour travelled to Europe to seek support. In Flanders he met and recruited 34 year old Yorkshireman, Guy Fawkes (aka ‘Guido’); an explosives expert and mercenary fighting for the Spanish army.
In May 1604, Guy Fawkes came to London and met the plot’s ringleaders at the Duck and Drake inn on The Strand where an oath of secrecy was sworn. In all, there would be 13 collaborators.
Later that year, another of the group- Thomas Percy- blagged a job as a royal bodyguard and acquired a house close to the House or Lords from which the conspirators began digging a tunnel. Guy Fawkes, under the rather unimaginative alias, ‘John Johnson’, posed as Percy’s servant, meaning he was at liberty to wander around Parliament.
In March 1605, a golden opportunity arose when a vault directly beneath the House of Lords became available to rent.
The laborious tunnelling was abandoned and Guy Fawkes began transferring the gunpowder (which had been stashed across the river in Catesby’s home) directly into the cellar. There was no need to rush. Due to an outbreak of plague, the opening of Parliament- at which King James would be in attendance- had been delayed until November 5th 1605.
The plot began to unravel in late October when Lord Monteagle, whilst dining in Hoxton, received an anonymous letter- most probably from his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham who was one of the plotters- warning him to avoid Parliament’s opening due to the threat of a “terrible blowe.”
With suspicions raised, Monteagle passed the letter to the king who ordered Parliament to be searched.
On the morning of November 4th, Guy Fawkes was spotted and questioned, but dismissed when he claimed he was merely a servant going about his business.
Still sceptical however, guards returned to Parliament in the early hours of November 5th where, once again, they discovered Guy Fawkes- this time equipped with a lantern, matches and fuses, and also dressed in a cloak and riding spurs for a hasty getaway. The plot has been rumbled.
After his arrest, Guy Fawkes was hauled to the Tower of London where he was subjected to horrendous torture.
It took him three days to crack and name his fellow conspirators who’d fled along Watling Street (now the A5) towards the midlands.
Armed with this information, the king’s men swiftly hunted them down. Catesby and Percy died in a shootout in Staffordshire, after which their heads were jabbed upon spikes outside Parliament.
Eight of the surviving plotters were found guilty of treason and consequently sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The first four executions took place outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the 30th January 1606 and the second batch- including that of Guy Fawkes- were held the following day in Old Palace Yard, between Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
After taking the noose Guy Fawkes suddenly leapt from the scaffold, snapping his neck for an instant death; thus sparing himself the horror of being disembowelled whilst still alive. His head was later drenched in tar and displayed on a spike above the gateway to London Bridge.
Francis Tresham meanwhile died from poisoning whilst imprisoned- a small mercy for the warning he’d supposedly given…
My latest Time Out post is a guide to Marylebone station, featuring a ghost line, The Beatles and several follies…please click here to read more.