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According to local folklore, the term originates from an incident in which a monkey was hanged in Hartlepool, England. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship of the type chasse marée was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor was a monkey, allegedly wearing a French uniform to provide amusement for the crew. On finding the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach; since the monkey was unable to answer their questions, and many locals were unaware of what a Frenchman might look like, they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French sailor. Being found guilty, the animal was duly sentenced to death and hanged on the beach. The vertical part of the ship's mast he was hanged from is still visible on the beach between the Pilot pier and the Heugh.
An alternative theory is put forward alongside the above on the "This Is Hartlepool" town guide.
It states: "Then there are some who point to a much darker interpretation of the yarn. They say that the creature that was hanged might not have been a monkey at all; it could have been a young boy. After all, the term powder-monkey was commonly used in those times for the children employed on warships to prime the cannon with gunpowder."
However, the earliest mention of the hanging is from the popular song, written and performed by 19th century comic performer, Ned Corvan, "The Monkey Song". Given that "only after Corvan's appearances in Hartlepool is there strong evidence for the development of the Monkey story", the song seems the most plausible origin for the myth.
The Monkey Song
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 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!
- Boddam, Aberdeenshire
- List of British regional nicknames
- Mary (elephant)
- H'Angus the Monkey
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