A statue of a monkey in Hartlepool is due to have its origins explained with a new sign amid fears that it could be used to portray the town as "unfriendly to foreigners", after the Black Lives Matter protests.
According to legend, a monkey that washed ashore in the north east town following the wreck of a ship during the Napoleonic wars was hanged as French spy.
The apocryphal story has been embraced by residents and the local football team, and commemorated with a statue of the monkey on the town’s marina, where coins are collected annually for charity.
But the monkey statue will now be given a plaque explaining the legend over fears the monument could be "misused by those with differing agendas to portray Hartlepool as unfriendly towards foreigners".
This is according to a Hartlepool Borough Council report on links between statues and "the slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism" compiled in response to Black Lives Matter protests.
Money thrown into the statue's bowl is collected and donated to charity
The June 2020 report which reviewed all statuary, street names, and historical residents warned that the monkey monument "could be perceived negatively by some".
Despite the council noting that the story of the monkey being hanged is "not a factual event", work is now under way to mitigate any negative perception of the town with a new plaque spelling out the legend.
The council has refused to clarify whether "those with differing agendas" it fears might misuse the statue includes supporters of BLM who would portray the monkey myth as xenophobic, or xenophobic groups who might welcome the symbolism of the monkey’s death.
It is believed to be the first post-BLM historical reexamination to focus on an animal, rather than a historical figure.
A Hartlepool Borough Council spokesman said: "We are currently working on an interpretation of the Hartlepool monkey legend with the intention of installing an explanatory sign or plaque on the monkey statue at the Hartlepool Marina lock gates."
Planned intervention around the statue will depend on the cooperation of the Hartlepool Marina Ltd, which owns the land where the monument is situated. The company has been approached for comment.
The council has so far released no plans for a public consultation on the reinterpretation of the statue, which is part of the local "monkey hanger" identity embraced by Hartlepool United FC and their mascot H’Angus the Monkey, portrayed at one time by Mayor of Hartlepool Stuart Drummond.
Hartlepool mascot H'Angus the Monkey
Coins are traditionally thrown at the monkey sculpture, which holds a bowl bearing the word "Make a Wish", with the money retrieved annually by local divers and donated to hospice charities.
Historian Dr Zareer Masani has criticised the push to "cancel" the legendary monkey, saying: "This is an example of tragedy ending as farce, virtue-signalling gone crazy.
"As this legend is probably a myth, will we be searching the Greek classics next for xenophobia?"
The monkey was not the only invented figure to be reviewed in the report commissioned as Hartlepool council sought to "demonstrate that as a town we are united in our opposition to all forms of discrimination and oppression".
It was feared a seaside statue of comic strip character Andy Capp, created by late local cartoonist Reg Smythe, could provoke "criticism focused on the character’s stereotypical Northern image, and around the long-standing issue that the cartoon strip trivialised domestic violence".
Hartlepool’s report also highlights other figures with streets named after them, including Winston Churchill who "made numerous explicit statements on race", and Boys Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell "for his alleged interest in creating links with the Nazi Hitler Youth movement".
Admiral Lord Nelson and four-time Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone were also included in the review, along with past residents who make have been connected to colonialism or the slave trade.
The report nevertheless concluded that "There are no public statues to individuals directly connected to the slave trade within the Borough of Hartlepool".
Where did the story come from?
Hartlepool began as an Anglo-Saxon monastic centre founded by Northumbrian saints, and later became a thriving medieval fishing port.
In the late 18th century, when Britain was at war with the French Republic and then Napoleon Bonaparte, defences were built to protect the town from naval attack.
Such an attack never came, but a story entered local folklore which claimed a monkey was the lone survivor of a French vessel wrecked off the north east coast during this conflict.
Locals executed the monkey as a spy, according to legend
The primate, which had been dressed in a uniform for the amusement of the crew, baffled the locals who had never seen either a monkey or a French person before.
In their ignorance, the story goes, they believed the monkey to be French spy and executed the animal by hanging.
The story is almost certainly apocryphal, and its content likely stems from an 1855 music hall song The Fishermen Hung the Monkey ‘O, by Ned Corvan, about the people of Hartlepool hanging a monkey.
His lyrics, possibly meant as a veiled protest over fishing rights, contain the line: "The Fishermen hung the Monkey O/The Fishermen wi’ courage high/ Seized on the Monkey for a spy."
Despite the story being a legend, it has been embraced by the locals, who are nicknamed "monkey hangers" along with local National League team Hartlepool United FC.
Hartlepool even elected the team’s mascot H’Angus the Monkey – portrayed by Stuart Drummond – as mayor in 2002, and Mr Drummond has since won two further elections.
A statue depicting the legendary monkey stands in the town’s marina, and holds a bowl bearing the words “Make a Wish” for visitors to throw coins into.
Each year coins that miss the bowl and fall into the waters of the marina are collected by the Hartlepool Divers Club and given to local hospice charities.