Hartlepool: where does the term 'monkey-hanger' come from?

The term comes from an old fable dating back from the Napoleonic Wars.
The nickname comes from a popular old legend in the town.The nickname comes from a popular old legend in the town.
The nickname comes from a popular old legend in the town.

The people of Hartlepool are sometimes affectionately referred to as “monkey-hangers”, a curious nickname that might seem inconsistent with the north-east port town.

As all eyes are turned to Hartlepool - a battleground between the Tories and Labour - during the local elections, this is how locals got their quirky, unusual nickname.

Where does the term monkey-hanger come from?

The term comes from an old local legend which says that, one day during the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th century), a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool.

The only survivor of the ship was its animal mascot: a live monkey.

Having never laid eyes on a monkey before, nor a Frenchman, the people of Hartlepool were astonished to see the creature wash up on their shores.

Believing it to be a French spy, the people of Hartlepool reportedly hung the monkey on the beach, hence the nickname “the monkey hangers”.

Is the story true?

Historians and experts are divided on the veracity of the story.

The first recorded mention of the hanging was in 1855 in a Victorian song written by touring performer Edward "Ned" Corvan.

Corvan would reportedly write songs satirising whatever town he was in - and in Hartlepool he wrote a song about the monkey.

According to Keith Gregson, an author, historian and retired teacher from Hartlepool, the phrases used in the song echo another song from up the coast in Newcastle, which emerged in 1825.

Speaking to the BBC about the song, Gregson said that the Newcastle version, ‘The Baboon’ was based on an apparently true tale about a baboon that visited Tyneside with some Cossack soldiers.

It might follow, then, that Corvan took elements of the Newcastle tale and adapted it for Hartlepool.

The story was taken up by people in West Hartlepool a new industrial town growing around the fishing port of Old Hartlepool.

Speaking to the BBC, Gregson said the people of West Hartlepool considered those of Old Hartlepool to be intellectually inferior - and thus stupid enough to hang a monkey.

Over time, the towns merged and the story became associated with Hartlepool as a whole.

Did the shipwreck ever happen?

According to Historic England's records of 38,000 shipwrecks around Britain's coast, just 14 ships - all of them English - sunk in Hartlepool Bay around the time of the Napoleonic wars.

And though there was some excitement over animal bone found on the beach in 2005, it turned out to be that of a prehistoric deer - not a monkey.

It’s likely the tale is folklore, with a very similar tale, from 1772, centring on Boddam, Aberdeenshire.

In this tale, villagers hung the monkey as it was the only survivor of the wreck - meaning they had to kill it to gain salvage rights.

Monkeys are also said to have been killed in Chalvey near Slough and in the Cornish village Mevagissey.

The story has retained its power in Hartlepool, however, and has become the subject of songs, books and a graphic novel.

The town’s football club also has a monkey mascot named H'angus.

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