English Fishermen Tried and Hanged the ‘French’ Hartlepool Monkey For Espionage
During the tumultuous Napoleonic Wars, from 1803 to 1815, Europe was engulfed in violence. However, in the wake of the bloodshed, an unusual legend emerged from the northeastern coast of England—a tale that speaks volumes about the intense animosity between two nations. Here we have the curious tale of the Hartlepool monkey.
Britain faced the daunting prospect of conflict with France, driven by Napoleon's insatiable quest for territorial expansion and his dream of an amphibious assault on France’s historic enemy. Amidst the fear of invasion, England grappled with funding the fortification of its coastal defenses and a looming economic crisis. The object of distain, the French were widely ridiculed in a propaganda war in which Napoleon was caricatured as a belligerent midget, and occasionally even likened to a monkey.
The people of Hartlepool have come to cherish a bizarre urban legend. Local lore claims that when they noticed a French ship in trouble, townspeople kept watch to ensure there were no survivors. While scavenging the wreckage they chanced upon a lone survivor—a monkey, adorned in a distinctive French uniform.
Confronted with the (presumably French) monkey, the primate was made to face charges of espionage at a rare modern animal trial. Sentenced to death, the Hartlepool monkey was hanged on a scaffold made of the ships wreckage.
‘The Bone of Contention or the English Bull Dog and the Corsican Monkey’ was an 1803 satirical print which played on the English fear of a French invasion. Born in Corsica, Napoleon was depicted as the Corsican monkey. (Public domain)
The tale has become integral to Hartlepudlian identity; the local rugby team is nicknamed the Monkeyhangers and the football team's mascot is H'angus the monkey. It has even inspired literary works and a harborside monkey statue which helps attract tourists.
But, is there actually any truth to the story?
Probably not. The idea that fishermen would be unable to distinguish between a monkey and a human—be it French or English—seems a little farfetched.
Some suggest the Hartlepool monkey actually refers to a “powder monkey,” a boy used to fill cannons with powder. However, despite efficient shipwreck records, Historic UK found no evidence of French shipwrecks in the area during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Hartlepool monkey likely originated in the imagination of Ned Corvan, a music hall celebrity, who penned the first recorded mention of the story in an 1850s ditty. Its resemblance to a similar 1770s song from northeast Scotland—Boddamers Hung the Monkey-O—suggests that stories and songs mocking the French and featuring monkeys were simply in vogue during the era.
Could it be that these narratives have contributed to anti-French sentiment in the area? In the 2016 Brexit referendum, BBC News disclosed that seventy percent of Hartlepudlians supported leaving the EU. In response, producers of a 2017 play based on the story claimed that “the Hartlepool Monkey is a timely production about the irrationality of xenophobia,” reported The Telegraph.
Top image: Legend has it that the Hartlepool monkey was the only survivor of a sunken French ship during the Napoleonic Wars. Source: Ai / Adobe Stock