The legend also tells of how the crofters, never having seen either a monkey or a Frenchman before, took the poor creature for a spy. They interrogated it, but could make no sense of the replies it gave; obviously not, since it must be speaking French. But the people of Hartlepool are decent folk – they allowed the spy a fair trial, right there on the beach. The accused mounted a poor defence for himself and was duly found guilty of treason. A makeshift scaffold was erected using the mast of a coble.
What happened next was to make this otherwise unremarkable north-eastern town famous around the world. The people of Hartlepool “hung the monkey”.
Then there are some who point to a much darker interpretation of the yarn. They say that the creature that was hanged might not have been a monkey at all; it could have been a young boy. After all, the term powder-monkey was commonly used in those times for the children employed on warships to prime the cannon with gunpowder. You can decide for yourself whether you want to believe that dark version.
Whatever the truth the story of the Hartlepool monkey is a legend which has endured over two centuries and now enters its third as strong as ever
Old folks, young folks, everyone and each
Come and see the Frenchie that’s landed on the beach
He’s got long arms a great long tail and he’s covered all in hair
We think that he’s a spy so we’ll hang him in the square