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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Poets aped in Gibraltar monkey business
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online at the National Archives

Not poetry lovers: Gibraltar apes
Tradition says the British will only leave the Rock of Gibraltar when its apes go.

But such were the fears that the apes were dying in the 1960s - symbolically hastening the arrival of Spanish rule - civil servants turned to poetry in an attempt to urge action, according to documents released by the National Archives in Kew, south west London.

In rhyming reply, Gibraltar's governor reassured London the primates would not die out because of homosexuality, "lesbianism, sodomy and rape".

Gibraltar's "apes" (they are actually Barbary macaque monkeys) arrived on the Rock with British sailors after the Royal Navy captured the strategic stronghold in 1704.

Today they number more than 160, each of them named at birth.

Symbolically important

Over the centuries, their presence became synonymous with British sovereignty, giving rise to the tradition of their fate being intertwined with that of the Empire.

Confidential: Hidden until now
In turn, the apes became symbolically important to British morale.

During the First World War, the army was given special responsibility for the apes - but it was in the dark days of the fight against Hitler that the primates were talked of in Downing Street.

In the middle of the Battle for Arnhem in 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously found time to leave the war room to telegram the Colonial Secretary, then responsible for Gibraltar.

He wrote: "The establishment of the apes should be 24.

"Action should be taken to bring them up to this number at once and maintain it thereafter".

Churchill's command led to continuing six-monthly reviews of the ape population.

But according to documents released at the National Archives, the population was declining once more in 1967.

Sexually imbalanced

Not only were tourists ruining their diets by feeding the apes sweets, they were living in two sexually imbalanced "tribes".

Ape survey
Ape survey: Newborns named
The 'Middle Hill' clan had too few males; the Queen's Gate group too few females.

The future indeed looked bleak for the British in the Mediterranean.

Saville Garner, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Commonwealth Relations Office, swiftly telegrammed Gibraltar's governor, Sir Gerald Lathbury, on this matter of utmost importance:

We're a little perturbed about the apes,
After studying their sizes and their shapes.
As we see it, at first glance
There seems at least a chance
Of some lesbianism, or sodomy, or rapes.

For nine girls of Middle Hill may well decide
That they can't by five mere males be satisfied.
While the Queen's Gate lads, one fears may become a bunch of queers
If by sex-imbalance nature is denied.

So can you plan migration, or get up
A party for the apes who feel het up,
When the bachelors from Queens
Meet the Middle Hill colleens
And a new pack (with a Gerald) is set up?

For the Welfare State for Apes has been decreed
Where each of them is mated (and de-flead)
Then let Franco rage in vain,
Your immunity from Spain
Is by simian eugenics guaranteed.

A few days later, Sir Gerald replied:

Much as we admire
Your Churchillian desire
To alter
While pre-occupied with Malta
The simian balance of Gibraltar
So long as we have Joe
(born at Queen's Gate in fifty-eight)
No female ape need pine
Or lesbianate.

And of course there's Harold too,
And Hercules of Middle Hill,
Through comparatively new
He knows a thing or two.

The governor appeared somewhat less concerned, and he was to be proved right.

A few years later, the Queen's Gate group had heard pitter patter of tiny monkey feet and welcomed Jimmy, Roger and Bob to the clan.

Middle Hill put out the pink bunting for Sybil, Olga, Marie-Claire and Rosemary, named after the wife of the new governor, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Varyl Begg.

The poems lay in the Foreign Office vaults until an official who had seen them at the time, searched them out in 1971 to show to the then Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home, presumably as some light relief.

"V.G. [very good]," noted the Secretary of State. "Unusable I fear?" And stamped confidential, the poems returned to the vaults until today.


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