Was a monkey really hanged in Hartlepool?

  • Published
Media caption,

"Let's hang him at once to end his woes"

Hartlepool is known by many as the place where a monkey was mistaken for a French spy and hanged. As some of the team behind the hit stage show War Horse launch a play based on the story, BBC News asks whether the hanging actually happened.

One stormy day during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked off the coast of an old fishing village clinging to the north-east coast of England.

The only survivor was the ship's mascot, a monkey that was washed ashore.

The people of Hartlepool had never seen a monkey before - nor, for that matter, had they ever set eyes on a Frenchman.

Mistaking its chattering for the language of the enemy, they convicted the monkey of being a French spy and hanged the animal on the beach.

Or so the story goes.

Image source, The Other Richard
Image caption,
A new stage show, The Hartlepool Monkey, opens next week

The townsfolk became known as the "monkey hangers", and what was once a term of mockery would become a proud part of Hartlepool's history.

As well as inspiring the play, the story has been the subject of books, songs and a graphic novel.

The town's football club's monkey mascot H'angus - real name Stuart Drummond - was even elected as Hartlepool mayor, not once but three times.

Image caption,
Rugby union club Hartlepool Rovers features the monkey on its badge

But did the hanging really happen?

"Of course it happened," said Mr Drummond.

"It is too bizarre a story to make up so there must be some element of truth in it.

"There are always going to be naysayers and people trying to prove it's wrong but there is not anyone alive now who was there who could confirm or deny it."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
H'angus the monkey is the mascot at Hartlepool United

Others are not so sure.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that the people of Hartlepool hanged a monkey," said Keith Gregson, an author, historian and retired teacher from the town.

So where did the bizarre story come from?

Image source, Hartlepool Borough Council
Image caption,
Touring performer Edward "Ned" Corvan is credited with the first recorded mention of the hanging story

The first recorded mention of the hanging was in 1855 in a song by Victorian entertainer Edward "Ned" Corvan, a touring performer who liked to lampoon whichever town he was in by writing a song about it.

For his performance in Hartlepool he wrote a song about the monkey.

Some of his phrases, such as "hairy French spy" and "Napoleon's uncle", were eerily reminiscent of another song from up the coast in Newcastle, Mr Gregson said.

That song, The Baboon, written in about 1825, was based on the apparently true story of a baboon that visited Tyneside with some Cossack soldiers.

Image caption,
All the artworks depict the hanging place as this beach

So it could be that Corvan took certain aspects of the baboon tale, added some of his own and set the whole thing in Hartlepool.

Certainly, the story was gleefully seized upon by the people of West Hartlepool, the new industrial town growing around the traditional fishing port of Old Hartlepool.

The people of the new town considered those in the old one to be somewhat intellectually impaired, Mr Gregson said, and so of course they were stupid enough to hang a monkey.

As time passed, though, the towns merged and the story became attached to the whole of Hartlepool.

The Hartlepool Monkey

Image source, The Other Richard

In the new play, a monkey and a French cabin girl are the only survivors of a shipwreck.

A debate ensues about what to do with the monkey.

Producers Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, both of whom are from the North East, said the questions raised about issues such as immigration and xenophobia are particularly pertinent today.

Mr Olié said: "We do not want to make any moralistic judgement but rather have a conversation about it and explore the issues through humour."

Mr Caldwell said: "The story is valid in its own right and has its own power - whether it actually happened or not is maybe not so important."

So what evidence is there that the monkey hanging actually happened?

The date of the supposed hanging was never given more explicitly than as being during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain's conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte's France between 1803 and 1815.

According to Historic England's records of 38,000 shipwrecks around Britain's coast, 14 ships sank in the Hartlepool Bay area during that time.

They were all English, the vast majority either merchant or fishing vessels linking English and Scottish ports, and there were no reports of any having monkeys on them.

There was some excitement in 2005 when an animal bone was found buried on the beach but it was found to be that of a prehistoric deer.

Image source, Huw Evans picture agency
Image caption,
The story of the monkey has been told in songs, books and postcards

And, despite the fact the story has stuck in the North East town, Hartlepool is not the only place where a washed-up monkey was said to have been hanged.

The most similar tale, from 1772, centres on Boddam, near Peterhead in Aberdeenshire.

Villagers supposedly hanged a monkey as it was the only survivor of a shipwreck - no survivors meant they could claim salvage rights.

And monkeys were also said to have been killed in the Cornish village Mevagissey, and Chalvey near Slough (in that case the unfortunate primate was an organ-grinder's monkey that bit a child).

Image caption,
The monkey's legacy can still be felt in Hartlepool

Ultimately, does it matter if Hartlepool's story is true?

"It matters that people are aware of the legend as it is a part of Hartlepool's identity," Mr Drummond said.

"For people to pour sand on it and try and rubbish it is to miss the point. I'm quite happy to believe it."

But it is a question that will probably never be conclusively answered, Mr Gregson said.

"Sometimes we just have to say we do not know and probably will never know."

The Hartlepool Monkey starts with a run at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre in east London, from 19 September, before going on a national tour, including performances at Hartlepool Town Hall on 14 and 15 November.