The legend about the monkey that was hanged as a spy originated from the Napoleonic Wars when a French ship heading to Britain was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool.
The entire crew drowned except for one creature, unseen before by the local Britons. The creature was a monkey dressed in a French uniform, but the people couldn’t recognize the animal, only the clothes it was wearing.
The French might have brought the monkey along for amusement, but the monkey couldn’t have been more unfortunate. At first, it was questioned by the British folks, and as it couldn’t answer their questions, they assumed that it didn’t speak the language. Then, it was concluded that the monkey was, in fact, a French spy. The monkey was found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged on the beach.
Folklorists who researched the origins of the story found a more logical explanation. According to their theory, at the time, the term “powder monkey” was commonly used for boys who worked on warships to prime the cannon with gunpowder. So, according to this theory, it was a “powder monkey” who survived the shipwreck and got captured and hanged by the British. But as the story was hand down from generation to generation the term “powder monkey” disappeared and it was remembered only as a monkey.
During the 19th century, the comic performer Ned Corvan popularized the forgotten legend with his song “The Monkey Song.” And there is also another song “And the Boddamers hung the Monkey, O” which is based on a similar story, only this time about the inhabitants of Boddam, Aberdeenshire. It is believed that Ned Corvan adapted his version of the song from the Scottish one while traveling the Lowlands. So it is unclear if the original story is based in Aberdeenshire or Hartlepool.
Here is the lyrics of Ned Corvan’s “The Monkey Song”:
In former times, mid war an’ strife,
The French invasion threatened life,
An’ all was armed with 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!
A monument in Hartlepool marks the spot where the monkey was allegedly hanged. Also, the local football club, Hartlepool United F.C., adopted the nickname “Monkey Hangers” by creating a mascot called “H’Angus the Monkey” in 1999.
Stuart Drummond, one of the wearers of the monkey suit, unexpectedly became the first directly elected mayor of Hartlepool in 2002.