The Hartlepool Monkey Trial

The football team (soccer, to us Americans) in Hartlepool, England has a very strange name. Called the Hartlepool Monkey Hangers, the origin of this moniker is as strange as the name itself.

Hartlepool, though small, was an important port on England’s North Sea coast during the Napoleonic Wars of the 1800s. Napoleon himself considered the town an important target, so it was well-guarded during that time.

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On an unknown date during the war, a French ship supposedly wrecked off the coast of the town. All the ship’s crew died in the wreck; at least, all the humans did. A monkey, the sole survivor, was washed up onshore. The crew might have kept him onboard as some kind of mascot, since he was found dressed up in a special, monkey-sized replica of a French uniform.

Legend says that the locals, having never seen a monkey or a French person before, believed the monkey to be a spy. They allegedly came to this conclusion when they questioned him and he “refused” to answer. So, the Hartlepool authorities held a trial for the poor animal right on the beach where he had appeared. He was then found guilty and hanged from the mast of the wrecked French ship.

Hartlepool has embraced their monkey history, but the true story might actually be darker than the legend. At the time of the alleged monkey-hanging, the term “powder monkey” was used for the young boys who were hired to prime a ship’s cannons with gunpowder. It is possible that the sole survivor of the shipwreck was one of these powder monkeys and that the citizens of Hartlepool executed this unfortunate child. They might have done this so that they could claim salvage rights over the remains of the ship, since these rights could not be claimed over a boat that had survivors (though whether these salvage rules would have applied to an enemy ship captured in wartime is debatable).

Obviously, the murder of a helpless child would not be something anyone would want to boast about, even in those less-enlightened times. The city of Hartlepool is proud enough of the monkey legend to have named their football team and mascot after the incident. There are also monkey statues to be found all around the town. It probably would not look good to commemorate a child murder, so the townspeople might have dropped the “powder” half of the term “powder monkey” to protect their image, even though monkey murder isn’t very admirable, either.

The town loves their monkey legend so much that they even elected the monkey mascot of the football team as their mayor. The man behind the mascot pledged to provide free bananas to all local schoolchildren as his only campaign promise. He is the only mayor in the UK to ever be elected three times.

In addition to all this, there is a memorial to the unfortunate monkey that you can still visit today. It is located on the beach, on the spot where he was supposedly executed.

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