When you walk around the coastal town of Hartlepool in the North-East of England you may notice a lot of monkeys hanging about. Not actual monkeys obviously, but representations of them including statues, being part of a rugby team’s crest plus a football team’s popular mascot. So why the obsession with monkeys? Whilst Hartlepool is a nice place, it is not exactly a tropical paradise and therefore not a suitable home for our simian friends. Instead Hartlepool’s link to monkeys dates back to Napoleonic times, thanks to a story which has become somewhat of a legend…
THE LEGEND OF THE MONKEY HANGERS
The story goes that on one stormy day during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. There was a great fear at this time throughout the country of a French invasion, and also of the possibility of French spies and infiltrators. The inhabitants of Hartlepool (which at this time was a small fishing port lying on a headland jutting out into the North Sea) decided to keep a close eye on the French ship as it struggled against the storm.
When the ship finally floundered and sunk due to the severe stormy gales (or normal weather as it’s called in Hartlepool), the attention of the Hartlepudlians turned to the wreckage that was starting to wash up on shore. Not wanting to miss out on a free bit of loot, the villagers scrambled to the beach to find among the wreckage a very wet and very hairy survivor. Dressed in a military style uniform to amuse the crew was the ship’s pet monkey. Apparently not being familiar with what a Frenchman (or indeed a monkey) looked like, the folk of Hartlepool held a quick trial on the beach believing that the monkey was in fact a French spy. As the monkey didn’t understand a word of English (obviously because he was French) he couldn’t answer any of the questions asked of him and so was sentenced to death and hung from a nearby fishing boat.
TRUTH OR MYTH?
As a result of this bit of farcial injustice, the inhabitants of Hartlepool thereafter became derogatorily known as “monkey hangers” by people from nearby towns who used the term to mock the inhabitants of the town. However, is the story true? It depends on who you ask. People from Hartlepool now generally tend to embrace the term “monkey hanger” and will swear that the story is true. Others are not so sure.
One theory is that it wasn’t a monkey that was hanged, but rather, more grimly, a young boy met a gruesome end at the hands of the locals. During the Napoleonic Wars young lads tended to be employed by the Royal Navy to continually supply the gun crews with highly combustible gunpowder. These young boys were known as “powder monkeys”. Could it be possible that the locals hanged a young French boy who was dressed up in a French military uniform as they believed him to be a spy for the enemy? Such was the fear and hysteria at the time of the French that this could have been possible.
Others, however, believe that the story was completely fabricated. According to recent studies, the first recording of the “monkey hanger” story was in 1855 in a song called “Who Hung the Monkey?” written by popular local entertainer Edward “Ned” Corvan (1827-1865). ‘Ned’ regularly toured towns and villages in the region and liked to lampoon whichever place he was in by writing a song about it.
Some of the phrases in the song included references to the monkey being a French spy and Napoleon’s uncle which were very similar to an earlier 1825 song called “The Baboon”. In this song, set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a group of Russian Cossacks visited the city along with their pet baboon. They dressed the baboon in a military uniform, however it escaped resulting in much confusion amongst the locals. It is possible that Corvan took some elements of this story, added a few of his own and set the whole tale in Hartlepool.
THE MONKEY HANGERS OF BODDAM
Hartlepool is not the only place to have a monkey hanging story attached to it. A very similar tale exists in Boddam, near Peterhead in Aberdeenshire. In this story, dating back to 1772, another monkey survived a shipwreck off the coast of Boddam. It was said that the villagers could only claim salvage rights if there were no survivors from the wreck and so the monkey was hanged so they could get their hands on free loot.
The legend inspired a song called “The Boddamers Hung the Monkey-O” which has whole verses exactly the same as Ned Corvan’s “Who Hung the Monkey?” song. It is therefore likely that Corvan overheard the Boddam song whilst touring in Scotland and adapted it to his own story about Hartlepool, even going as far as using the same tune along with several of the same verses.
H’ANGUS THE MONKEY
Regardless of whether the story is true or not (chances are it isn’t – 14 vessels sunk off the coast of Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars, all of which were British ships and had no records of monkeys being on board), the majority of Hartlepudlians have come to embrace the legend and the term “monkey hanger”. Whilst the term was first used as a slur to suggest the people of Hartlepool were a bit on the dim side (even by the inhabitants of the new town of West Hartlepool who would use the story to have a dig at their neighbours in Old Hartlepool), over time it has become part of the town’s identity and many representations of monkeys can be seen throughout Hartlepool.
However, nothing has come close to representing the town’s ‘love affair’ with the legend than Hartlepool United Football Club’s mascot – H’Angus the Monkey who according to the football club’s website was “born” in 1999 and has his own Facebook and Twitter account. Such is the town’s love for H’Angus that in 2002 the people of Hartlepool elected him to become the town’s mayor (much to the surprise of the more established candidates from major political parties) on the basis of his campaign promise to provide free bananas to all school children.
Despite not being able to fulfill his promise to provide free bananas to schoolchildren, H’Angus (or Stuart Drummond to give him his real name) was still popular enough to be re-elected as mayor on two further occasions, so becoming the first directly elected mayor in Britain to serve three terms. Stuart Drummond stepped down from the role of mayor in 2013 when the post was removed from the local council’s structure, however H’Angus the Monkey is still doing the rounds at Hartlepool United, although the role has now been taken over by fan Michael Evans who, unlike his predecessor, currently has no desire to enter politics!
P.S. Whilst the majority of Hartlepudlians now generally embrace the term “monkey hanger”, the inhabitants of Boddam in Aberdeenshire hate the term as they see it as a slur against their community. So make sure when in Boddam not to call a local a “monkey hanger” as you may get chased out of town!
P.P.S. In 2005 there was much excitement in Hartlepool when a large leg bone was found in the sea close to the town. Many hoped that this bone would belong to a monkey and so prove that the story was true, however tests carried out by the University of Durham’s Archaeology Department and Tees Archaeology found the bone to be 6,000 years old and belonging to the shin of a red deer. Shame really!