Uncle Walt's lost ancestors

Jon Winter went in search of the noble Disneys of Lincolnshire
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The Independent Travel
We all know the stories; those adopted dogs in 101 Dalmatians, the forsaken stepchild in Snow White, Dumbo the baby elephant who was separated from his mother; the list goes on. Not so well known is the tale of an American boy, Walter Disney, with no birth certificate. What birth record there was for a child of his name was dated 10 years before he could have been born. This niggling ambiguity about his origins and the possibility that he had been adopted were to trouble him throughout his adult life.

Yet, in the late Forties he arrived in Lincolnshire to find his purported Disney ancestors.

Today, those on the Disney trail in Lincolnshire should start in Lincoln itself. Few local guide books acknowledge that "the world's favourite uncle" has his roots in a Lincolnshire family, but you will find some interesting snippets in the city library. Among these is an early family tree spanning two centuries (plenty of Johns, Matthews, Williams and Henrys, although no Walters).

You'll soon discover that the Disney family was of Norman extraction, arriving as soldiers of fortune with William the Conqueror, and that Disney is an anglicisation of D'Isigny (Isigny being a small village near Bayeux in Normandy).

A sketchy history muddles their early years, but what is certain is that they became a family of some significance, prospering as farmers and putting their name to a small village in the east of the county. And so things might have remained if their crusading tendencies hadn't led them astray as part of a failed rebellion against the King in the late 1600s. Forced out of England, they moved to Ireland for some years before decamping again, some back to France, and others, including Walt's great-grandfather, to America.

Little in the library mentions Walt's visit to Lincolnshire, except a back issue of a parish magazine.

"Walt Disney paid a visit, I believe to Norton Disney. What was not made clear at the time was that he was the adopted child of a Disney, and so had no blood relationship with the ancient family of Lincolnshire Disneys."

On the trail of Walt, you make for the village of Norton Disney, some 10 miles from Lincoln, with its "romantic, unsophisticated church lost in the willows of the river Witham, filled with ancient Disney monuments". It's a place you'd expect to have outgrown this rather quaint guidebook description, given there are at least three separate signs diverting traffic to the village off the A46; yet the place is indeed small, with just a string of plain houses, a church and a pub.

In my view, the pub is always a good place to start, and although I was greeted in the St Vincent Arms with customary village suspicion, I found what I was looking for. Pinned above the fireplace were the cuttings I had failed to locate in Lincoln Central Library. Dated 30 July 1949, they reported the events of Walt's brief visit.

"Private and personal. Norton Disney, Lincolnshire, England. Arrived just after lunch." Walt had scratched in his diary before strolling off to point his cine-camera around the village. The fading photographs show Walt absorbed in the search for facts about his family name. He is pictured studying the tombs and gravestones and with the vicar, leafing through reams of ancient church registers signed by past generations of Disneys. But he didn't stop for long. "Afraid I must pop off now - learnt that expression over here. You English are always popping places."

There's something furtive in pushing open the door to an ancient, dusty little church and finding yourself alone as it closes behind you. You feel compelled to look around quickly and leave as soon as possible. This feeling is prolonged at St Peter's church in Norton Disney, where there is plenty to delay the curious visitor. The task of investigation is, however, made easier by dropping a few coins into a box and taking the parish guide.

There are five Disney monuments in all, depicting two Williams, two Joans, a Richard and a Hautacia in various forms of suspended animation.

Carved in stone and set in a low, arched recess is the effigy of Joan D'Isney, hands clasped to breast, dressed in a coif and wimple with hanging drapery to the feet - the costume dates her to the early 1300s. Also in stone are the second Joan and Sir William, son of the chapel's founder. He is kitted out as a knight in full armour.

Commanding the best position on the floor of the mortuary chapel is the effigy of a late-14th-century lady dressed in a long, close-fitting habit. She lies on a low plinth, hands clasped, with her head on two diagonally set cushions. An inscription on one side reads "Here lies Hautacia, daughter of William Disney, Lord of Norton".

The fifth monument is a framed brass plaque dating from some time in the 17th century, whose principal purpose was to commemorate two generations of Disneys. It is engraved with the Disney coat of arms, the crests of related families, and images of both a William and a Richard Disney with their wives and numerous children, each with their names engraved above them. At the bottom is a written tribute to the exemplary lives led by William and Richard, yet evidently not all of their offspring were to follow this example. There is a small, rectangular hole in the brass where the names of Richard's sons were cut out of the plaque in connection with a lawsuit concerning Richard's will.

On my way out I stopped to sign the visitors' book. Sadly, it wasn't old enough to reveal whether Walt had written anything about resolving that niggling doubt, but there among the light-hearted messages was an entry on 15 September 1996 - "Matthew Disney, Cambridge - direct descendant of William and Richard Disney". A real Disney, no less.

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