The death of Lambert Disney
At 6.30 am on Friday 13 December 1867 platelayer William Greatholder came upon a dreadful sight in Shugborough railway tunnel near Stafford. The still warm body of a man was lying between the rails with its head and one foot severed. At the ensuing inquest the driver of a luggage train, John Matthews, stated that he had entered the tunnel at 5.30 am and had felt a sudden jerk near the southern end. At Colwich he reported a problem with the track and Greatholder was dispatched to the tunnel to inspect it. There he made his gruesome find. The remains proved to be those of Captain Lambert Disney, paymaster of the 2nd Staffordshire Militia in Stafford.
Lambert Disney came from a group – the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy of southern Ireland – who have been largely ignored in Irish migration. Writings on Protestant emigrants concentrate on the Scots-Irish of Ulster and particularly the Orangeism that many, though not all, brought to Britain. No study has been done of Church of Ireland adherents from the South who came to England in substantial but uncharted numbers. They lack historical visibility and it is generally assumed that their emigration was opportunistic and that they integrated easily into English life and culture. The Disney family contradicts that assumption. Their emigration came about through family crisis and their settlement in England was reluctant and uncommitted. They arrived in Stafford through Disney’s role in the militia, but the ultimate explanation for their insecurity and his death on the railway line must be sought from before as well as during his militia service.
Disney’s background in Ireland
Lambert Disney was baptised at Glasnevin, Dublin, on 28 August 1808, the son of Thomas Disney, a land agent. Although Thomas Disney’s large family normally lived in Dublin, they also had business interests and property in the Trim area of Co. Meath and from the 1820s increasingly seem to have resided there. In the 1840s Lambert Disney himself held about 150 acres of land in Galtrim parish. The social networks of the Protestant Ascendancy always opened up opportunities and Disney benefited. By the late-1830s, he had become agent on the Earl of Darnley’s estate around the small town of Athboy, Co. Meath. His father had previously managed the Earl’s property in the 1800s. In the 1830s the Earl was a minor and Disney first comes to notice when he tried to eject Thomas Anniskey, ‘a most wretched, squalid-looking old man’, from bog land near Jamestown. That demonstrates the easy and arrogant use of power that Ascendancy attitudes inculcated in men such as Disney. At the Quarter Sessions the eviction was held to be illegal. In that time of agrarian unrest Disney was a likely target of hatred, even more so because he was also a local magistrate. In 1842 he was the victim of a ‘robbery of daring boldness’ when his horse and harnesses were stolen from his residence, Clifton Lodge, at Athboy.
More positively, in 1843 Disney got the Earl’s guardians to agree a twenty-five per cent reduction in estate rents, ‘an act of great liberality’. During the Famine he was chairman and treasurer of the Relief Committee in the Barony of Lune, based at Athboy. He undoubtedly worked hard but with mixed objectives. On the one hand he pursued the local public works programme with vigour in order to get at least some money into the hands of local people and keep them on the land. On the other hand he operated the Darnley estate’s ‘landlord-assisted’ emigration policy to get rid of ‘surplus’ tenants. Some ended up destitute in Quebec when his agent there failed to give them the promised start-up money. ‘No blame can fairly be attached to me’ was his off-hand response when the issue was publicised. It seems clear, however, that the exertions of the Famine period sapped Disney’s health and in the end he was the victim of a ‘severe and protracted’ illness which led him to give up his duties in 1850.
There was another facet to Disney’s character, however, which was to lead more specifically to the railway track in Shugborough Tunnel. His Anglo-Irish Protestant background put him continually on the defensive against perceived threats to his status and religion. That was common in people of his class, but Disney seems to have so internalised the politics of Irish religion and class that it ultimately gnawed at his whole being. The evidence is fragmentary but telling. In the second half of the 1830s, in an attempt to head off the Repeal movement, the Irish government pursued policies to move respectable Catholics into positions of influence that were previously reserved for Protestants , such as the magistracy. This ‘green’ shift was also associated with attempts to undermine the Orange Order. The Protestant landlord class accused the government of attacking property rights and showing dangerous signs of weakness towards rural crime and popular movements. On 24 January 1837 a ‘grand aggregate meeting of the Protestant nobility, gentry, clergy &c of Ireland’ was held at the Mansion House, Dublin, and ‘Mr Lambert Disney of the County of Meath’ was there on the platform amongst scores of others. He publicly gave support to a plethora of speeches and resolutions that repeated the mantras of ‘no surrender’, ‘preserving life and property’, ‘our Protestant institutions menaced’ and so on.
Disney’s attendance at the meeting in Dublin shows he carried the baggage of Protestant ruling class insecurities in nineteenth-century Ireland. It does not prove he was mentally obsessed by these issues, however. For that we have to turn to other evidence. In 1844 he filed a libel suit against the proprietor of the Athlone Sentinel alleging that the latter had published a fake letter ‘with reference to the private concerns of Mr Disney and his political and religious tendencies and his conduct in relation to the tenantry of the Ballyleeran estate’ of which he was agent. No smoke without fire. It seems that Disney’s obsessions were widely known.
Other evidence survives from his death. It was reported in the press that ‘the deceased was religiously disposed and, on more than one occasion, he has circulated among the inhabitants of the town religious and other publications.’ Though we do not know the content of those publications, they suggest he was on a one-man crusade against threats to his religion and his class. That brings us to a second point – the timing of his death on 13 December 1867. It was the height of the Fenian campaign in Britain – indeed the Clerkenwell Prison bombing took place later the same day. As a Protestant military man Disney would have seen the Fenians as the ultimate threat to his religious and political identity.
But the same period also saw the public conversion of Gladstone and the Liberals to Irish reform, notably the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and around the land question. Gladstone had come out for disestablishment in May 1867 and he was to make his famous Southport speech on Ireland six days after Disney’s death. We know Disney was no friend of the Liberals. Stafford was a two-member seat, but, in the general election of 1865 there was only one Conservative candidate although there were two Liberals. Disney voted only for the Conservative. Fenianism and Gladstone’s shift of policy both struck at Disney’s whole world view and could have been the factors that tipped this obsessive man towards suicide.
At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’. That was a polite fiction to save the family from shame. The evidence points to suicide. A key role was played by a militia associate, Trench Nugent. He testified that he had been with Disney on the evening before his death and that he ‘had not been in his usual spirits. He had, indeed, been suffering much depression – of a religious character – for some time past.’ Nugent claimed that Disney had never given him reason to think he might be suicidal, but the evidence of his behaviour that night is bizarre. Having gone to bed but then not sleeping, he got up in the early hours of the morning and left the house. Nugent tried to explain this by saying he possibly wanted to see his doctor who lived at Colton near Rugeley and that the railway line was the most direct route. But why go in the middle of the night and along such a dangerous and illegal route? It would have been difficult to walk along the track in the dark and no witness said he was carrying a lantern. When the level crossing keeper at Queensville asked where he was going he failed to respond but turned quickly on to the road up Radford Bank. He must have subsequently returned to the railway track and walked into the pitch-black of Shugborough Tunnel. He was near the far end when the luggage train came up behind him. He must surely have heard it and even perhaps seen its headlamps. He could have sought refuge by stepping on to the opposite track, squeezing against the tunnel wall or lying down between the rails. He did none of these things. Instead, his head was on the rail itself. They said it was a tragic accident, but the evidence points to depression and suicide.
Lambert Disney’s story shines a rare light on Ascendancy Irish emigrants in England and a later post will examine more of his family’s life in Stafford.
- Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867. The story of the Disney family and Trench Nugent is discussed more fully in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Immigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2016,) pp. 221-229.
- The complexities of the Disney family’s background have been investigated recently by Anne van Weerden in her interesting book Catherine Disney: a Biographical Sketch (Stedum, Netherlands, J. Fransje van Weerden, 2019), esp. pp. 12-24. Born in 1800, Catherine Disney was Lambert’s elder sister and her story was also tragic. She fell in love with the famous Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Catherine was, however, forced by her family to marry William Barlow, a clergyman who was also her brother-in-law. She remained deeply in love with Hamilton and in 1848 she tried to commit suicide. She was weakened by the attempt and died five years later. Catherine was only able to tell Hamilton of her undying love shortly before she died.
- Griffiths Valuation, Meath, Ballynamona Townland, Galtrim Parish, c.150 acres leased by the Representatives of Lambert Disney to Margaret Gallagher and Denis Sweeney. Ancestry Database accessed 10 February 2013.
- Van Weerden, Catherine Disney, p. 16. Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 2 February 1839.
- Freeman’s Journal, 27 September 1842.
- Freeman’s Journal, 29 September 1843.
- Famine Relief Commission papers, 1844-7, RLFC3/1: 4338, 15 July 1846; 2809, 6 March 1846; 2943, 6 June 1846, Ancestry Database accessed 5 February 2013.
- Daily News, 13 January 1848.
- Freeman’s Journal, 4 March 1850.
- Bew, Ireland: the Politics of Enmity, pp. 144-9.
- The Times, 27 January 1837. Extracts from the speeches of the Marquis of Downshire and Earl of Donoughmore.
- Freeman’s Journal, 13 November 1844. The judge granted an order against Daly.
- The Times, 17 December 1867.
- Quinlivan and P. Rose, The Fenians in England, 1865-72: a Sense of Insecurity, (London, John Calder (Publishers) Ltd., 1982), p. 87.
- Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2, (London, Macmillan & Co., 1903), pp. 241-3; R. Jenkins, Gladstone, (London, Pan Macmillan, 2002), pp. 280-4; D.G. Boyce, ‘Gladstone and Ireland’ in P.J. Jagger (ed.), Gladstone, (London, The Hambledon Press, 1998), p. 107.
- London Metropolitan Archive & Guildhall Library, UK Poll Books and Electoral Registers, 1865, July 12, Borough of Stafford. Ancestry Database, accessed 4 February 2013.
- Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867.