Origin of the name
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 in a storm off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor from the ship was a monkey, allegedly dressed in a French army uniform to provide amusement for the crew. On finding the monkey on the beach, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial; since the monkey was unable to answer their questions and because they had seen neither a monkey nor a Frenchman before, they concluded that the monkey must be a French spy. Being found guilty, the animal was duly sentenced to death and was summarily hanged on the beach.
An alternative theory is that it was a young boy who was hanged (the term "powder-monkey" was commonly used at the time for children employed on naval warships to prime the cannon with gunpowder).
An earlier and remarkably similar monkey-hanging legend with a similar associated song refers to the inhabitants of Boddam, Aberdeenshire. With similar lyrics and scansion ("And the Boddamers hung the Monkey, O") it is plausible that Ned Corvan heard and adapted the song while travelling the Scottish Lowlands with Blind Willie Purvis. The story may also have its origins in the rivalry between Hartlepool (the small coastal village) and West Hartlepool (the growing industrial town based around the docks). The comic song may have been popular in one of the West Hartlepool's music halls, where the audience would have enjoyed poking fun at the Hartlepool ‘yokels’ who hanged the monkey.
The Monkey Song
The earliest evidenced 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 any strong evidence for the development of the Monkey story", the song itself seems the most plausible origin for the myth.
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!
In popular culture
The local football club, Hartlepool United F.C., capitalised on their "Monkey Hangers" nickname by creating a mascot called "H'Angus the Monkey" in 1999. Two of the town's six rugby clubs use variations of the hanging monkey, Hartlepool Rovers crest being a beret wearing monkey hanging from a gibbet, while Hartlepool RFC neckties sport a rugby ball kicking monkey suspended from a rope. One wearer of the monkey suit, Stuart Drummond, unexpectedly became the first directly elected mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 while in the guise of H'Angus, but was forbidden from wearing the costume while in office. A statue of the monkey has been erected on the Headland; another at Hartlepool Marina (formerly in West Hartlepool) also serves to collect coins for a local hospice. Although some Hartlepool residents find the term "monkey hanger" insulting, a large number of residents have embraced the term and celebrate it as an important and unique characteristic of the town; as seen in the 2014 documentary Heart of the Pools.
The French comic book Le Singe de Hartlepool by Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau published in 2012 tells this story.
Monkey hangers are kids to me
But even monkey hangers have a place to be
A little town on the seaside
In 2008, a novel based on the legend called The Hartlepool Monkey, written by Sean Longley, was published. The novel tells the story of the monkey, named Jacques LeSinge by the French doctor who discovers him, that was supposedly hanged. In the book, the monkey talks and possesses several other human characteristics.
In 2014, a documentary was made about the Hartlepool Monkey and its long-lasting significance to the city and its inhabitants called Heart of The Pools.
A radio play by Ian Martin, The Hartlepool Spy, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day 2018, with a cast including Michael Palin, Vic Reeves, Toby Jones, Gina McKee and Monica Dolan. The Hartlepool monkey is mentioned in Jonathan Coe's novel Middle England (published by Penguin Random House, 2018).
The Northumbrian singer/songwriter Jez Lowe has a satirical song "The Simian Son" (originally known as "The Monkey's Revenge") that was performed first in 2012. In it, the grandson of the ill-fated monkey reveals the simian curse under which Hartlepool has been living since the hanging.
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