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“Who hung the monkey on the pitch?”
– football chant by Darlington supporters, aimed at local rivals Hartlepool United

Hartlepool is a small coastal town in the north of England near Middlesbrough and Sunderland. It has a marina and a promenade looking out on the North Sea, and a gun battery, two newspapers (the Life and the Mail), a nuclear power station and a museum ship, HMS Trincomalee. It was built at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

At one time the town had thriving steel and shipbuilding industries, now long gone. So is Peter Mandelson. He was the town’s New Labour MP for twelve years before jetting off to Brussels and becoming an EU Commissioner and then an investment banker and a Baron.

Hartlepool had a huge Leave majority in the 2016 referendum – seven in ten voters – and its football club gave Brian Clough a start in management when he was only thirty, and I am running out of facts about the place and, besides, the town’s main claim to fame is none of the above. It’s something called the Hartlepool Monkey.

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Picture the scene. England is at war with Napoleon, its seaside towns and villages are awash with rumours of an impending invasion and spies everywhere, and a French ship has just been wrecked off the coast near Hartlepool. The only survivor is a monkey, dressed in a wee French uniform.

Some locals want to kill it there and then as a spy; the story goes that most of them have never seen a monkey before, let alone a Frenchman. But in the interests of justice and an English sense of fair play they decide to hold an impromptu trial on the beach. Seriously.

Unsurprisingly, the poor animal can’t answer the court’s questions and is found guilty. Even if it could speak, it would surely have been conversing in French, or in monkey talk, or a Monkey-French that none of them would understand because Monkey-French is not the same as Monkey-English, but no matter. The court rules that the monkey is guilty, a French spy who must be sentenced to death.

The animal is hanged on the ship’s mast or – in some versions – dragged to the town square to meet its doom.

***

Napoleon’s invasion plans were real enough. From 1803-05 a force of 200,000 men, known as the Armée des côtes de l’Océan or the Armée d’Angleterre, was assembled and trained at camps at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bruges and Montreuil. A large flotilla of invasion barges were built at ports along the coast, from Brest to Antwerp.

As for Napoleon’s planned invasion of Ireland, a light infantry battalion called the Légion irlandaise was formed in 1803 as the cornerstone of a 20,000-man Corps d’Irelande.

At one point Napoleon even considered an invasion fleet of troop-carrying balloons. He appointed balloonist Sophie Blanchard as his air service chief, who concluded that an aerial invasion would fail because of the prevailing winds.

But while the fear of invasion of England – whether by sea, by undersea tunnels or even by Madame Blanchard’s air force – is perfectly understandable, and while the paranoia was palpable and the legend of the Hartlepool Monkey continues to be told as real history, the story has several large holes in it.

First of all, why would none of the locals know what a Frenchman looked or sounded like? Were Hartlepudlians really that thick? This was a harbour town since the Middle Ages, many of its residents were sailors and fishermen, and while a monkey may still have been an exotic creature, surely a French seafarer wouldn’t have been, at least before this latest Anglo-French war and the naval blockades?

After the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the propaganda wars by Britain and France were mainly fought out in posters and prints. On the English side of the Channel, there are plenty of examples of posters that portrayed the French as recognisably human.

Take the work of the satirical artist James Gillray, sometimes called the father of the political cartoon. One of his prints from 1796 has the snappy title “Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion,-or-Forcible reasons for negociating a Regicide Peace” (see top of the page). It is a typical “what-if” horror story or alt-history that imagines the French contagion spreading to the streets of London. And on those London streets, as far as I can make out, the sans-culottes and their Francophile allies all have men’s heads and men’s arms and legs, not monkey ones.

Other satirical cartoons of the time do sometimes show the French as monkey characters with tails and claws. While William Hogarth had established the visual stereotype of the scrawny, poverty-stricken Frenchman, it’s Gillray who picks up on the simian qualities and makes them more grotesque and fiendish.

(By the 1860s, journals in Britain and North America would be taking the racist stereotypes to further extremes in portraying the Irish as subhuman and simian, from monkeys to apes and gorillas and Frankenstein’s Monsters. But that’s another story for another day.)

‘The Monkey Race in Danger’

One of Gillray’s prints from 1799 has a Lion (Britain) devouring what the British Museum describes as an army of “puny simian creatures” (French soldiers); he has titled it “The state of the war -or- the monkey-race in danger”. In another from around 1800, he has Lord Moira addressing customers of a coffee-house on the slaughter of children by French troops, while behind him a monkey in a French military uniform scribbles away.

Napoleon himself was frequently depicted as “the Corsican monkey”, such as in an engraving from 1803 by another leading etcher-sketcher, Charles Williams. It’s titled “The Bone of Contention or the English Bull Dog and the Corsican Monkey”, and it shows Napoleon as a monkey in uniform. He is standing on a large “Plan for Invadeing England”, and is literally the bête noire of the piece.

“The Bone of Contention” (click for larger version)

Meanwhile a bulldog with “John Bull” on his collar stands over England on the same map. He has a bone labelled “Malta” in his mouth, and he’s cocking his leg over the French fleet that has assembled across the Channel. And the cocky dog can talk too. He exclaims: “There Monkey, that for you.”

Now, to state the bleeding obvious: just because Napoleon frequently appears in satirical broadsides of the time as a monkey, it doesn’t mean that he literally is one in real life. Some of the same cartoons show Russia as a bear and England as a bulldog (or “John Bull”), but not many readers at the time would deduce from all this that the Russians and English literally were bears, bulls and talking dogs.

These caricatures have all the fabulous, heightened elements of a fantastical cartoon, and clearly so. They are about as “real” as any scene from a cartoon. I can’t help thinking that the talking dog would sound gruff and American, like Jimmy Durante – or like the bulldog character Spike from Tom & Jerry. Although Spike is angry, vicious and thick, he has one redeeming feature: his glowing pride in his son Tyke (“That’s my boy”). But Spike and Tyke are still just cartoon figures, lines and colours, flickering images on a silver screen. Even small boys know that.

***

An alternative theory is that the Hartlepool Monkey was in fact a small boy: a “powder-monkey”, one of the many children used on French and English warships to prime the cannon with gunpowder. They had to be short and able to move quickly and easily in the limited space between decks and behind the ship’s gunwale (please don’t ask me what a gunwale is).

By the start of the nineteenth century, records of sinkings around Britain had become fairly systematic. Even so, there are no records of any French shipwreck around Hartlepool at the time. The BBC website quotes Historic England’s records that show a total of fourteen ships sinking in the Hartlepool Bay area during the Napoleonic Wars. Every one of them were English, most were merchant or fishing vessels, none had a monkey in their cargo or passenger lists.

Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan

If that weren’t enough to kibosh the story, the earliest mention of the Hartlepool monkey that historians can find is from 1855, in a popular ditty by Geordie entertainer Ned Corvan. He was born fifteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and his song has suspiciously similar lyrics and scansion to an earlier monkey-hanging ballad involving the villagers of Boddam in Aberdeenshire.

This Scottish ballad does seem to refer to a real shipwreck in 1772, and suggests a more likely reason for the monkey’s demise: not espionage or paranoia but plain money. The Boddamers could only get salvage rights if there were no survivors, so the poor monkey had to go.

Seems the Scottish song then mutated as it wended its way down the east coast to England, before ending up in Hartlepool.

***

So did the Hartlepool Monkey ever exist? Did the monkey trial actually take place in this moral panic? According to all the evidence, probably not.

Yet the monkey lives on in the town’s nickname (“the monkey hangers”) and in a monkey statue perched in the marina, and another on a plinth on the headland. It features in the cartoon postcards sold by local shops, and on the logo of Hartlepool Rovers rugby club (wearing a beret of course).

And it lives on in several stage plays, documentaries and radio dramas – including a deliciously rip-roaring farce on BBC Radio 4 recently featuring Michael Palin, Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) and Gina McKee – and in Sean Longley’s debut novel The Hartlepool Monkey (2008) and even in a French graphic novel by Éditions Delcourt, Le Singe de Hartlepool (2012).

It’s on the crest of the town’s football club, and in the monkey-suited costume of the team’s mascot, who was elected three times as mayor, from 2002-13 after which the post was abolished. Among his election promises was free bananas for the schoolkids. Don’t knock it – it worked.

So whether or not the monkey existed, the Hartlepool Monkey myth most certainly does. Not only does it endure as a slice of folklore but it keeps expanding and managing to feed the local tourist industry and popular culture – even if it paints the Hartlepudlians’ ancestors in a poor light as ignorant monkey-hangers. It is, as they say, a tale with legs. Perhaps it’s so believable because people want to believe it and want it to be true. What do you think?

Above all, surely it tells us far less about the alleged paranoia, xenophobia, ignorance and cruelty of those real-life locals two centuries ago, and far more about today’s attitudes towards the past and to a lingering motif or two at the very heart of modern mythologies of England: the enemy at the gates, and the enemy within…

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