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Monday, April 30, 2012

Who Hung the Monkey?

During the Napoleonic Wars (circa 1789 to 1815) in which the British, Russians, Spanish, Prussians, Sardinians etc (the good guys) defeated the French, the Dutch, the Americans, etc (the bad guys) and prevented Napoleon Bonaparte, or "Boney" as the British called him (British children used to play a game called "Catch Boney"), from taking over and ruling Britain and Europe, the inhabitants of the town of Hartlepool on the eastern coast of Britain found a monkey on a beach in the early 1800s. Having never seen a Frenchman, or a monkey, before the people of the town put it on trial and then hanged it, accusing it of being a French spy.

Hartlepudlians, as the inhabitants of Hartlepool are called, still fondly remember these events, and there is even a statue of a monkey in the town. Darlington football team is the greatest rival of Hartlepool football team and the Darlington fans call the Hartlepool team "Monkey Hangers." The rugby team is also called the "Monkeyhangers"....

Who Hung the Monkey?

"The Lord Mayor of Hartlepool was walking on the shore
When he came upon a funny sight he'd never seen before
He came upon a little chap a-walking in the sand
Holding a banana in his tiny hairy hand"


It's a wild December day and a throng of fishermen and their wives, braving the cold wind, stand gossiping on the Fish Sands (a small strip of rocky beach nestling in Hartlepool harbour below the Town Wall). The cobles (a kind of boat only found on the north east coast of England and still used as a fishing boat today), the large rugged boats the men prefer to use on their fishing excursions, lie hauled up on the beach where they have lain all day. Weather like this, that can break a French warship in two, is no weather for fishing.

In and amongst the grown-ups, excited children, full of the dramatic events of the day, chase each other, playing at "Catch Boney". To these children it's all a game, and Boney just a figure of fun. But to the crofter fisherfolk of Hartlepool it means much more. Even here in the far north of England they have heard of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the invasion which must surely come soon. Not many this day have been sorry to see the --founder and go down with all hands.

But not all hands were lost in the wreck of the French ship, and legend tells of how a monkey, a sailor's pet no doubt, was washed up on the Fish Sands to the amazement of the Hartlepudlians gathered there.

The people of Hartlepool hang the monkey, accusing it of being a French spy, circa 1800-1815

The legend also tells of how the crofters, never having seen either a monkey or a Frenchman before, took the poor creature for a spy. They interrogated it, but could make no sense of the replies it gave; obviously not, since it must be speaking French. But the people of Hartlepool are decent folk - they allowed the spy a fair trial, right there on the beach. The accused mounted a poor defence for himself and was duly found guilty of treason. A makeshift scaffold was erected using the mast of a coble.

What happened next was to make this otherwise unremarkable north-eastern town famous around the world. The people of Hartlepool "hung the monkey".

So is it true? Did it really happen like that? You won't find many people in Hartlepool who say it didn't. 

They love the story. Even the local rugby team bears the proud nickname, the Monkeyhangers.

Which is strange, because, for a long, long time after the event, people from neighbouring towns used the tale to mock Hartlepool and its inhabitants, and Hartlepudlians were often on the receiving end of the jibe: "Who hung the monkey?"

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. You can decide for yourself whether you want to believe that dark version.

Whatever the truth the story of the Hartlepool monkey is a legend which has endured over two centuries and now enters its third as strong as ever.

In 2002, -- campaigned for the office of Mayor of Hartlepool in the costume of the --'s mascot, '--'. He narrowly won. His election slogan had been "free bananas for schoolchildren", a promise he was unable to keep. Despite this, he stood again three years later and won with a landslide victory.

In former times, when war and strife 
The French invasion threaten'd life 
An' all was armed to the knife 
The Fisherman hung the monkey O ! 
The Fishermen with courage high, 
Siezed on the monkey for a French spy; 
"Hang him !" says one; "he's to die" 
They did and they hung the monkey Oh! 
They tried every means to make him speak 
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak; 
Says yen "thats french" says another "its Greek" 
For the fishermen had got druncky oh! 

Hammer his ribs, the thunnerin thief
Pummel his pyet wi yor neef!
He's landed here for nobbut grief
He's aud Napoleon's uncky O!
Thus to the Monkey all hands behaved
"Cut off his whiskers!" yen chap raved
Another bawled out "He's never been shaved",
So commenced to scrape the Monkey, O!
They put him on a gridiron hot,
The Monkey then quite lively got,
He rowl'd his eyes tiv a' the lot,
For the Monkey agyen turned funky O!.
Then a Fisherman up te Monkey goes,
Saying "Hang him at yence, an' end his woes,"
But the Monkey flew at him and bit off his nose,
An' that raised the poor man's 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 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!.

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