BBC Home > BBC News > England

Study queries monkey legend roots

13 January 09 19:28 GMT

New research claims the Teesside legend of a monkey, hanged because it was feared to be a French spy, has its origins in Scotland.

Folklore says a French ship was wrecked off Hartlepool in the Napoleonic Wars. A monkey found in the water was hanged by fishermen fearing it was a spy.

The "monkey-hangers" legend was adopted by the town's football club, whose mascot was elected mayor in 2002.

But an Aberdeen University study claims the tale originated in Scotland.

The tale of the "monkey-hangers" is widely known and is said to have evolved after locals, who feared a French invasion, hanged a monkey which survived a shipwreck.

But Fiona-Jane Brown, a folklorist at Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute, suggests the Hartlepool legend stems from a similar incident off the village of Boddam, near Peterhead, in 1772.

'Intriguing story'

A song of the time recalls how a monkey survived a shipwreck off Boddam. The villagers could only claim salvage rights if there were no survivors from the wreck, so they allegedly hanged the monkey.

Ms Brown claims the song was adapted over many years as it travelled down the east coast, eventually spawning a Hartlepool version and embedding the monkey myth in Teesside culture.

She said: "The evolution of the song remains an intriguing story in itself, but it's also interesting how each community relates to it now.

"On Teesside, the legend has been generally adopted as a positive marker of social identity which survived on the football field.

"But in Scotland, the Boddamers have refused to accept what they see as a slur against their community, a bad memory of bitter rivalries of the past."

Ms Brown's findings are part of a project into the cultural identity of British fishing communities.

Related BBC sites