The Hartlepool Monkey Hangers
There’s an incredibly strange legend surrounding the port city of Hartlepool, England. The legend involves how the town decided to hang a monkey for being a French Spy. In this episode, we examine whether or not there’s any truth to the legend, the way the town celebrates, and an unusual Mayoral race. Then we yap yap with Comedy Magician Ben Young!
If you lived in Europe before the 19th century, and you witnessed an animal doing something wrong, it would be entirely possible to witness that animal go to trial and be punished the same as a human.
There are all kinds of cases of this going back to the 13th century when a pig was executed and in the 14th century, a pig was hanged by the neck after killing a child. It had received full legal representation as if it were a person. Before its execution, it was dressed in a suit with pants and gloves and a human mask. Super weird. In the 15th century, there’s a story about a rooster being put on trial because it laid an egg. They said the egg was the spawn of satan and contained a demon.
Most of these practices ended in the 1700s, but there was a case in 2004 when Katya the bear was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for 15 years after mauling two people. She was released in 2019.
But today’s story is about a monkey in Northern England. A monkey so famous, its still depicted and sang about today. The date of our story isn’t certain, but its reported to have happened during the Napoleonic Wars, which puts it somewhere between 1803 and 1815.
In the early 2000s, the city of Hartlepool England voted to have an official elected Mayor, rather than a ceremonial one. Many residents of Hartlepool were angry. They didn’t want an elected Mayor who had power for the first time in the city’s history. So in 2002, when the election for Mayor took place, there was a protest candidate. His name was H’Angus the Monkey. Like Angus with an H in front of it. He was the mascot for the local football club. We’ll talk about why in a moment, but this monkey – this man dressed up in a monkey costume first emerged as a candidate with 100-1 odds to win the Mayor’s race against the Labour Party candidate, Leo Gillen. Soon, those odds became 4-1 and on May 6, 2002, H’Angus the Monkey won the election to be named Mayor of Hartlepool by something like 500 votes. He hadn’t campaigned – at least not seriously. He ran on a platform of free bananas for school children. It was purely a protest vote for many citizens of Hartlepool. So that’s how the man inside the costume, a guy by the name of Stuart Drummond, became mayor. In his official capacity as Mayor inside the Mayor’s office, he didn’t dress as H’Angus the Monkey. He was just Stuart Drummond. And people liked him so much, he was elected twice more.
So why was this mascot so popular? And why was the mascot named “H’Angus the Monkey?” It all goes back to a popular legend from the Napoleonic Wars.
The legend goes like this. Sometime between 1803 and 1815, a French ship sank off the coast of Hartlepool. Hartlepool is a coastal city on the Northeast side of the UK – just below Scotland on the East coast. It was one of the most important ports in England. The local fisherman had been observing this French commercial ship off the coast and a horrible storm blew in. The fishermen watched from the shore as the storm wrecked the French ship. The only survivor – the only one to wash up on shore alive – was a tiny monkey, reportedly dressed in a decorative French Army uniform. It must have been the ships mascot to keep the sailors entertained.
Now – this is where some versions of the popular legend say that the locals thought that the monkey was a French person – that they had never seen one, so that’s what they thought the French looked like. It wouldn’t answer their questions, so it must have been a French spy. This was during a time that everyone was on high alert waiting for a French invasion and here was a tiny French little spy. That’s pretty hard to believe, but whether or not they thought the monkey was a French Spy or not, they decided that this only survivor of an apparent invading ship was to be tried, and if found guilty of being a spy, it would be hanged.
Like in the cases we talked about before, an animal is generally unsuitable to put up any sort of strong legal defense to argue their case, so the monkey was found guilty and sentenced to hanging.
So the townspeople of the Port of Hartlepool gathered near the beach where a gallows had been erected to watch the hanging of a French Napoleonic Monkey. They dropped the floor of the gallows and the monkey…survived. It didn’t hang because it just climbed up the rope. They eventually – not sure how – did hang the monkey. And became famous for being Monkey Hangers.
So famous that sometimes residents of Hartlepool are referred to as “Monkey Hangers.” The Hartlepool Football Club embraced the legend in 1999 when they named their mascot H’Angus The Monkey. Even the Hartlepool Rugby Club, whose official name is The Rovers, are known colloquially as the “Monkey Hangers.”
So is any of this true? It’s tough to say. We know that the legend really took off after a song that was written by Ned Corman in 1855.
There’s really no evidence of the legend before this song. So some believe that it was the song – a work of fiction – that started the legend. But there’s also some evidence to believe that the song just took an existing popular legend and wrote about it. The original lyrics of the song were “The Boddamers hung the monkey.” Because this legend appears in the town Boddam, Aberdeenshire, which is a Scottish port up the coast from Hartlepool. There are at least two other Scottish towns with similar legends. So we really don’t know if there’s truth to the story. There’s also a darker origin story.
Some people believe that there wasn’t a monkey at all, but a small boy that washed up on shore. Boys ages 12-14 were employed during those times aboard ships. They were referred to as “powder monkeys” because their job was to carry gun powder from the ship’s holds to the cannons. So some people think that it was a young French boy who they found dressed in a uniform and unable to communicate with the Englishmen who found him.
Regardless of the truth, many townspeople, including Former Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond – H’Angus the Monkey himself – believe it to be 100% true. So maybe it doesn’t matter anymore whether or not it actually happened. What IS true is that the legend lives on, and that’s how residents of this small town in England got one of the weirdest nicknames to ever exist. The Hartlepool Monkey Hangers. The Internet Says it’s True.
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