My dad was born in Hartlepool, a coastal town and fishing port in North-East England. His favourite piece of tradition from the town of his birth is the legend that has seen the residents dubbed “Monkey Hangers”. Some actually take pride in the name (see below), but others may still take offence, so use it wisely! The story goes that during the Napoleonic wars, a ship was wrecked off the coast. The only survivor was a monkey or ape that was found on the beach. Versions of the story have him wearing military uniform, as I suppose a pet on a naval vessel might be. Whatever the details, the monkey interrogated, found to be unable or unwilling to speak English, and is therefore hanged as a French spy. The idea being that the ignorant and brutal locals had never seen either a monkey, or a Frenchman. Here’s the “official” version of the story as related by the local council.
If your BS detector isn’t twitching by this point, you might need to spend a bit more time reading about urban myths – stories that seem plausible and usually have some sort of political or moral agenda, but are apocryphal or just outright untrue. Rather like the archery origin myth for the two-finger insult that I posted about recently. The difference with historical myths is of course the passage of time; the greater the antiquity ascribed to a story, the more believable it becomes, and the harder it is to check primary sources to see if there’s any reason to believe it. You can rarely prove a negative, but it is usually possible to demonstrate the poor quality of the evidence. And if we have no good evidence, we have no more reason to accept that there is any truth behind the story.
So is there reason to believe that people from Hartlepool really did something like this? Most sources online express scepticism, or at least incredulity. As this page points out, Hartlepool had been a port for hundreds of years; the idea that anyone there might not have seen either monkeys or French people seems ridiculous. It also does smack of the sort of slander that’s thought up by neighbouring towns to impugn their rivals down the road. The specific social history of the area may in fact be where the truth lies.
The town of Hartlepool in the mid-19th Century was changing. The industrial port of what would become West Hartlepool was seen as different, and unwelcome, by the original town’s residents. In effect the two halves were in competition with each other. To express this tension, a comedian and musician called Ned Corvan wrote the “Monkey Song” about the perceived stupidity of the West Hartlepudlian fishermen; you can read the lyrics in the link above, or listen to part of it here. All evidence points to the story being manufactured, and not by another town in the region as one might expect, but internally.
Crucially, as the letter linked above points out, this song appears to have been inspired by an older near-identical tale from Boddam, in Scotland. Though the motivation for monkey-murder in that case is given as salvage law requiring there to be no survivors from a wreck, the connection is clear. Corvan had toured all over the North-East and lowland Scotland, and it does seem likely that he came across the folk song about the Boddamers. Though this is the most plausible explanation, interestingly, it does appear that other similar stories have arisen elsewhere in the UK, for example Mevagissey, in Cornwall. There are likely to be links even in those cases however; any other monkey-related “stupid locals” stories are probably recently borrowed transpositions of the Hartlepool story, intended to add local “colour” for the tourist trade.
In any case, there is simply no mention of the story with reference to Hartlepool prior to Corvan’s 1840s song, despite plenty of local history material dating to the Napoleonic war period. We must therefore conclude that there is no truth in it, and that it was invented in the late 18th Century as a piece of mischief. The only piece of “evidence” to come to light in recent times was a mysterious bone washed up on the beach at nearby Seaton Carew in 2005. Early reports contrived to identify it as simian in origin, fuelling speculation that the monkey/ape might have been real. Tests, however, showed that it was a far more interesting piece of our actual past – a fossilised prehistoric deer bone.
Though rival towns may still use the expression “monkey hangers” to deride Hartlepudlians, the monkey story has since been embraced or “reclaimed” by many of them, especially in a footballing context. A modern folk song has been written about it, and Hartlepool United mascot “H’Angus the Monkey” is something of a celebrity, even becoming mayor in 2002. There’s even a big metal monkey statue on the redevelopment marina:
The monkey story itself most likely isn’t true. But as an expression of local rivalry and identity, it’s very real. It also reflects an awareness of the sort of fear and ignorance of other people that has plagued human history, as this political article shows. Although that author is clearly misrepresenting the story as actual evidence of British ignorance and aggression for his own purposes, we can all well imagine the unjustified killing of an innocent creature by a gang of parochial morons of any nationality. Obsession with our own grotesque nature is probably one reason for the persistence of the story. Now over 100 years old as a piece of folklore, it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. Though apocryphal, in this way it can also be seen as a genuine piece of (social) history.