The Hanging of the Hartlepool Monkey

by Ben Johnson

Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, a shipwrecked monkey was hanged by the people of Hartlepool, believing him to be a French spy! To this day, people from Hartlepool are affectionately known as ‘monkey hangers’.

A French ship was spotted floundering and sinking off the Hartlepool coast. Suspicious of enemy ships and nervous of possible invasion, the good folk of Hartlepool rushed down to the beach, where amongst the wreckage of the ship they found the only survivor, the ship’s monkey which was apparently dressed in a miniature military-style uniform.

Napoleon at Boulogne 1805 CC

Hartlepool is a long way from France and most of the populace had never met, or even seen, a Frenchman. Some satirical cartoons of the time pictured the French as monkey-like creatures with tails and claws, so perhaps the locals could be forgiven for deciding that the monkey, in its uniform, must be a Frenchman, and a French spy at that. There was a trial to ascertain whether the monkey was guilty of spying or not; however, not unsurprisingly, the monkey was unable to answer any of the court’s questions and was found guilty. The townsfolk then dragged him into the town square and hanged him.

So is the legend true? Did the good folk of Hartlepool REALLY hang a poor defenceless monkey?

There could perhaps be a darker side to the tale – maybe they didn’t actually hang a ‘monkey’ but a small boy or ‘powder-monkey’. Small boys were employed on warships of this time to prime the canons with gunpowder and were known as ‘powder-monkeys’.

powder monkey WKPD

Over the centuries the legend has been used to taunt the residents of Hartlepool; indeed still today, at football matches between local rivals Darlington and Hartlepool United the chant, “Who hung the monkey” can often be heard. Most Hartlepudlians however love this story. Hartlepool United’s mascot is a monkey called H’Angus the Monkey, and the local Rugby Union team Hartlepool Rovers are known as the Monkeyhangers.

The successful mayoral candidate in the 2002 local elections, Stuart Drummond, campaigned dressed in the costume of H’Angus the Monkey, using the election slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren”, a promise he was unfortunately unable to keep. However this appears not to have dented his popularity, as he went on to be re-elected two more times.

Whatever the truth, the legend of Hartlepool and the hanged monkey has endured for over 200 years.

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