It is said that when a French ship was wrecked off the coast during the Napoleonic Wars, the townspeople were so suspicious of the only survivor – a monkey – that they hanged it, fearing it to be a French spy.
According to reports, the monkey was wearing a French uniform, for the amusement of the crew, but this only sealed the poor creature’s fate when it was found by the people of Hartlepool. There are also stories of a farcical trial before the execution, where the monkey was sentenced to death after failing to answer any questions (pictured above).
It sounds absurd, but there is a grim alternative explanation for this monkey tale, suggesting that the victim was not actually a monkey but one of the young boys who would be used on warships to carry gunpowder during battle. They were known as ‘powder monkeys’ after all.
The earliest connection of Hartlepool with this tale is a Victorian popular song, possibly inspired by a Scottish ditty of 1772 in which a monkey – a sole shipwreck survivor – was hanged so the villagers could claim salvage rights.
Whatever its origins, the story is now a source of local pride. In 1999, Hartlepool Football Club unveiled its new mascot, a monkey by the name of ‘H’Angus’. A few years later, the popular mascot stood in the election for the town’s mayor – promising “free bananas for schoolchildren” – and won.
This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of History Revealed and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Emily Brand.