That Time When Hartlepool Hanged a Monkey

Aug 17, 2023 0 comments

On the coast of northeast England, lies the town of Hartlepool, and from this large town in County Durham comes a humorous legend about a monkey. The legend dates back to the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars, an era marked by heightened fear and wary, and suspicion of potential French invasion.

According to the tale, on a stormy night, a French ship was discovered sinking off the coast of Hartlepool. Among the wreckage, the townspeople found a lone survivor—the ship's monkey, dressed in a tiny military uniform, likely for the entertainment of the crew. The people of Hartlepool were unfamiliar with monkeys and had never encountered a French person before. However, they had seen British cartoons that depicted the French as monkey-like beings with tails and claws.

Given their limited exposure to different cultures, the townspeople concluded that the survivor was a French soldier, possibly even a spy. They restrained the monkey's limbs, brought it to the town square, and began an interrogation.

The town's leaders bombarded the monkey with questions: Where is Napoleon? What are the French planning? Could an invasion be imminent? Yet, all the monkey responded with were screeches and chatters, in a language the townspeople couldn't understand. They presumed it to be French. The monkey's inability to communicate in English only fueled the frustration of the Hartlepool residents.

Following lengthy interrogations of the poor monkey, the local inhabitants proceeded to hold a formal trial, ultimately determining the creature's guilt as a French spy. This grave conviction led to a sentence of death by hanging. A gallows was hastily erected in the town square, and the monkey was hanged.

Thus concludes the tale of the Hartlepool monkey. But the question lingers: is this narrative rooted in truth?

Some believe that the Hartlepudlians did not execute an actual monkey but a small boy, about the age of 12 to 14. Young boys of such age were often employed in warships to ferry gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the canons and were known as ‘powder monkeys’. They were usually selected for the job because of their ability to move quickly and easily in the limited space between decks. It’s possible that the townsfolk caught hold of such a young boy from a sinking French ship, and hanged him believing him to be a spy.

A powder monkey on a Union vessel during the American Civil War. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story's origins trace back to 1855, when Victorian entertainer Ned Corvan composed a song about it, performing it in Hartlepool. Apart from this, there's scant historical evidence supporting the event's occurrence. During the Napoleonic Wars, the period of time when this incident allegedly occured, only 14 ships sank in the Hartlepool Bay area. None were French ships.

Nonetheless, there exists a substantial contingent of believers. “Of course it happened,” said Stuart Drummond, who had been Hartlepool’s mayor three times. “It is too bizarre a story to make up so there must be some element of truth in it.”

Regardless, the narrative found fertile ground in West Hartlepool, a burgeoning industrial town adjacent to the traditional fishing port of Old Hartlepool. The newcomers held the notion that those from the old town were less intellectually inclined, the type who might mistakenly hang a monkey. Over time, the towns merged, and the tale became synonymous with all of Hartlepool.

As years rolled on, what was initially taken as an affront by the townspeople transformed into a source of revelry and pride. The residents of Hartlepool proudly embraced the moniker "Monkey Hangers." In 1999, the Hartlepool United Football Club even adopted a monkey as their mascot, naming it H'Angus the Monkey. Similarly, the local Rugby Union team, Hartlepool Rovers, are known as the Monkeyhangers. In 2007, a statue of the monkey was erected at Hartlepool Marina, also functioning as a receptacle for collecting coins for a local hospice. The legend has inspired many plays, movies, documentaries and literary works as well.

Photo credit: 70023venus2009/Flickr

The song that started it all:

In former times, when war and strife
The French invasion threaten'd life
An' all was armed to the knife
The Fisherman hung the monkey O ! 
The Fishermen with courage high,
Seized on the monkey for a French spy;
"Hang him !" says one; "he's to die"
They did and they hung the monkey Oh!

They tried every means to make him speak
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak;
Says yen "thats french" says another "its Greek"
For the fishermen had got druncky oh!

Hammer his ribs, the thunnerin thief
Pummel his pyet wi yor neef!
He's landed here for nobbut grief
He's aud Napoleon's uncky O!

Thus to the Monkey all hands behaved
"Cut off his whiskers!" yen chap raved
Another bawled out "He's never been shaved",
So commenced to scrape the Monkey, O!

They put him on a gridiron hot,
The Monkey then quite lively got,
He rowl'd his eyes tiv a' the lot,
For the Monkey agyen turned funky O!.

Then a Fisherman up te Monkey goes,
Saying "Hang him at yence, an' end his woes,"
But the Monkey flew at him and bit off his nose,
An' that raised the poor man's Monkey O!

In former times, mid war an' strife,
The French invasion threatened life,
An' all was armed to the knife,
The Fishermen hung the Monkey O!

The Fishermen wi' courage high,
Seized on the Monkey for a spy,
"Hang him" says yen, says another,"He'll die!"
They did, and they hung the Monkey O!.

They tortor'd the Monkey till loud he did squeak
Says yen, "That's French," says another "it's Greek"
For the Fishermen had got drunky, O!

"He's all ower hair!" sum chap did cry,
E'en up te summic cute an' sly
Wiv a cod's head then they closed an eye,
Afore they hung the Monkey O!.

# The Hanging of the Hartlepool Monkey, Historic UK
# Was a monkey really hanged in Hartlepool?, BBC
# Hartlepool  - the Monkey Hangers, Greathead


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