The Monkey who was Hung as a French Spy

About 200 years ago, the people of Hartlepool, England hung a monkey as a French spy… And they are proud of it.

The legend goes like this…

It was in the early 1800s on the coast of northeast England in the small town of Hartlepool. The local fishermen were out in their boats when they caught sight of a French ship. Now this was during the Napoleonic Wars. They were still raging after many years and had cost the lives of thousands of men. So when the Hartlepudlians (that’s what they call people from Hartlepool) saw that the French ship was having trouble and sinking, they weren’t too unhappy about it. And they sure didn’t row out to try and save the men aboard.

Watch out for Napoleon

They headed back to the safety of their own land and set up watch to make sure that none of those Frenchies swam to their shores. While they waited, they had a few drinks (or maybe more) and talked about what they would do if a Frenchman dared to appear on their beach. They would question him and get all the information they could about Napoleon and what his next move might be. They might even gain information that could put an end to the war and make Hartlepool famous at the same time.

Little Nap
“Little Nap – The Napoleon of the Chimpanzee World” a circus performer from around 1915 – Image in public domain

The Monkey Spy

Then they caught a glimpse of a survivor. He was clinging to a piece of the broken-up ship, and the sea was carrying him directly toward the fishermen. They ran out and surrounded the unfortunate chap. They grabbed his arms (which they noticed were extremely long and hairy) and tied them behind his back. He was an odd looking little fellow. He was very short, and it wasn’t only his arms that were hairy – he was very hairy all over.

As it turned out, this hairy little man was a monkey: the ship’s mascot dressed in a little French military uniform. (Or more likely he was a chimp – since neither chimps nor Frenchmen have tails.) The Hartlepudlians had never seen a monkey. They had never seen a Frenchman either, for that matter. However, they had seen British cartoons depicting Napoleon as being very short so they weren’t surprised that this French sailor was also on the short side. And as for all that hair? Well, some men are hairier than others – no real cause for concern.

The Trial

They took the monkey to the town square and began to question him. In answer to every question, he just screeched and chattered in a language they didn’t understand. They could only assume it was French. He simply refused to speak English which infuriated the Hartlepool folk even more since they knew that everyone could speak English if they wanted to.

After questioning the poor monkey for hours and failing to get any answers in English, they held a trial and convicted him of being a French spy. He was sentenced to die by hanging. A gallows was made from bits of the shipwreck, and the monkey was hanged in the town square.

Well, that’s the legend anyway…

Monkey statue at the Hartlepool port that collects money for charity.Image source

Is It True?

It seems that the first mention of this story is from around 1854 when the Victorian entertainer, Ned Corvan, wrote a song about it which he performed in Hartlepool. Other than that, there’s no historical record to support that it actually happened.

From Insult to Source of Pride

“Who hung the monkey” became a way to insult the people of Old Hartlepool. At the time the song was written, there were two Hartlepools: Old and West. West Hartlepool was the newer, more modern town. Those from this new town looked at Old Hartlepudlians as being ignorant and behind the times.

So whenever there were insults being thrown around between the two, invariably the West Hartlepool side would come out with, “Oh yeah? Well, who hung the monkey?” It was an insult: How could they be so daft as to confuse a monkey with a Frenchman? Eventually, however, the two sides grew together to form a single Hartlepool, and the monkey legend became a source of city pride.

Monkey Mascot and Mayor

In 1999 the Hartlepool United Football Club took a monkey as their mascot. His name is H’Angus (note the word “hang” in his name). One of the men who wore the mascot costume even ran for mayor (wearing the monkey suit) and campaigned on the promise of “free bananas for all schoolchildren.” And he won, by the way. In fact, he was elected mayor in 2002, 2005, and 2009.

Monkey Bone

In 2005 the Hartlepudlians got a bit excited when a strange bone washed up on their shores. For a while everyone thought it was a monkey bone and that their legend might be proved once and for all. But, disappointingly, it turned out to be a fossilized prehistoric deer bone.

Monkey on the Stage

Whether the Hartlepudlians actually hung a monkey as a French spy or not, the story is just as alive today as it ever was. Gyre and Gimble have created a stage version of this story, called The Hartlepool Monkey. They are the creators of the War Horse play, and the chimp in this new show will be a wooden puppet with lifelike movements similar to the horse puppet in War Horse.

The Victorian Song that Started It All

Note: It’s written in the regional dialect.

Hartlepool Monkey Song

The Fishermen Hung the 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 tried every move to make him speak,
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!

Another Monkey Tale

A similar story is told a bit further up the coast in Boddam, Scotland, a fishing village near Aberdeen. As in the first version, this one has a French shipwreck and a surviving monkey who is hanged. However, the Boddam fishermen had a different motive. They didn’t take the monkey for a spy, but they knew that “finders keepers” was the law for shipwrecks and they would be entitled to whatever treasures might be on board the doomed ship – but only if there were no survivors. Would a monkey count as a survivor? They didn’t want to take that chance, so they hung the monkey.

Note: I am completely against cruelty to animals, and no monkeys were harmed in the writing of this article.

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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England

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Who Hung the Monkey?
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Margo Lestz
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    1. Ha Ha! I guess you could say that in Franglish. 🙂 Although, technically, since key (clé) is a feminine word, it would be “ma key” – but that doesn’t fit as well with the story. 🙂

      1. Don’t laugh too much about the “monkey story”. I’m afraid that the truth cod be far worse!
        In the days of wooden warships, ammunition and powder were brought to the guns by young “Cabin Boys” – These brave lads were referred to as “Powder Monkeys”!

    1. It’s true, people were much more isolated than we are today. Without TV, radio, planes, or trains it would have been a lot harder to know what was going on in the wider world.

      1. Yes, I remember once listening to a radio-novel for that time period when the English would tell their children to behave or “Boney” (Bonaparte) would “get them”! 🙂

    1. Yes, poor little monkey… However it is just a legend and there is no evidence that it ever really happened.
      It’s really a joke about the people of Hartlepool – it’s saying that they couldn’t tell the difference between a monkey and a French man. 🙂

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