FROM THE PLAYING FIELDS OF ETON TO SPRINGFIELD ELEMENTARY
The curious tale of Wellington, monkey hangers and a rather fetching porcelain castor rest
not often or as a general rule that I am prepared to concede that
something which is normally thought to be attributable to a noble Scot
should be more properly recognised as being the work of a Sassenach. I
am, however, prepared to rein in prejudice and temper my bigotry when
the person in question of sufficiently grand status, and is essentially
But more of that anon – first, to Hartlepool and
other points of a more northerly latitude. It is the early years of the
1800’s and Europe is riven by conflict as Napoleon and his imperialistic
ideals set him at odds with, well, pretty much everyone to be fair.
Britain, as ever, is at the van of those who stand against the evil
empire, braced for potential invasion as it had been almost constantly
for 400 years. All around the coast there were home guard units or
militia, charged with if not actually fighting would be assailants then
certainly with keeping watch and alerting the authorities of any threat.
One such group would have taken great delight one midwinter’s day in
watching as a ship of French provenance foundered in the waters of
Hartlepool Bay. The name of the vessel is not recorded with any degree
of certainty - it’s often cited as being the Chasse Marée, but that is a
type of ship – a merchantman invariably carrying fish – rather than an
actual given name. What is known is that there was a single, bedraggled
survivor from the wreck who was washed ashore and picked up by the local
Now – legend would have us believe that is was the
ship’s monkey which made terra firma, dressed in a miniature French army
uniform, and this is what has given the story such longevity and
precipitated its place in folklore, but – to be honest – I have my
doubts. The story would have us believe that the “monkey” was
interrogated and, being entirely unable to answer with any coherence,
was summarily executed as a French spy by being hanged from the mast of a
ship in Hartlepool harbour; to this day folk from the town, and their
football team in particular, are known as Monkey Hangers as a somewhat
derogatory sobriquet, commemorating their simian solecism.
Personally, I am somewhat less prone to perpetuate the mythical and
abject stupidity of Hartlepudlians, and would point out as a matter of
fact that small boys in the employ of the great navies of the world were
known at the time as powder monkeys. This was due to their intended
purpose which was to run gunpowder charges to the cannons during the
maelstrom of battle, their size and agility being ideal to navigate the
cramped spaces below decks as all hell broke loose around them. Given
the size and attire of the victim, I would be more prone to believe that
it was the ship’s cabin boy who was strung up – unable to speak a word
of English, and therefore being equally as inarticulate as any perceived
monkey spy !
However, the story took on growing currency with
the general public and it was soon de rigeur to refer to the French
disparagingly in whatever context was deemed (in)appropriate as monkeys.
Many cartoons were published depicting them in such a manner, with
either the French nobility, their generals and admirals or the
population at large being lampooned. This seems to have persisted until
the early 1970’s – I can see no other reason why my French textbook at
school should have included the story of Alain, Chantal, Mimi and Zazou
and “le singe qui est dans l’arbre” other than the fact that it was not
all that distantly related to the tediously bourgeois Gallic famille !
I should quickly point out that there is another version of the monkey
hanging story which predates the Hartlepool version, and involves a
broadly similar tale from the 1760’s with the good folk of Boddam near
Peterhead in Aberdeenshire being the dim-witted protagonists. However,
as I simply cannot countenance such stupidity from my kinfolk, we’ll
leave it as the English who are unequivocally the culpable parties – let
the pointing and laughing commence…
So having firmly established
the provenance of the French nation being derided as monkeys as an
integral part of the not particularly cordial entente of the Regency
era, let us consider one of the true giants of the age and long-time
friend of any Scottish Antiques columnist in search of a few column
inches, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington.
Wellington, of course, was the scourge of the French. From the first
time he encountered them at Boxtel in 1794, by way of victory after
victory throughout the Peninsular War and ultimately – of course – the
climactic last one one hundred days of the War of the Seventh Coalition
which ended so decisively at Waterloo – he had their measure, and when
opposing him they would almost always come up woefully short of the
When discussing his vanquished foe one evening after the
events of June 1815, over a dish of the celebrated orange fool at
Boodle’s – his London club in Pall Mall – Wellington is purported to
have offered this summation of their leadership:
must excuse the importunity and any perceived arrogance of my response
to your question being based solely on my own opinion and experiences,
but it is one at which I have arrived after much asperity of thought.
The French soldier in the field was badly regarded by his generals, and
was betrayed by the failings of their supposed superiors on many
occasions. I consider these gentlemen – if I am suffered to consider
them thusly - to have two primary interests, the first being to take
fine wine in injudicious volume whilst consuming an illimitable amount
of cheese, and the second being a predilection to surrender their eagles
to my armies at the first available opportunity”.
were the regimental insignia of the constituent parts Grand Armee,
mounted on blue flagpoles which bore the tricolour, and which were
carried by each unit as it marched in to battle. The Scots’ Greys, who
captured the eagle of the 45eme Regiment de Ligne, referred to their
booty as “the cuckoo on a stick”.
And so, weaving all the parts
of this interminable tale together – notably the common regard for the
French as monkeys and the pertinent points of Wellington’s tacit
dismissal of the capabilities of their generals, I am left to conclude
that it may have been none other than the Iron Duke himself who was
first to conflate the constituent parts of the expression “cheese eating
surrender monkeys” when referring to his palpably inferior foe, and not
– as is commonly assumed to be the case – Groundskeeper Willie at
Springfield Elementary in The Simpsons, fine figure of Scottish manhood
though he may be.
Wellington’s biographers have attributed other
quotes to him with similar somewhat sketchy etymology, with Montalambert
reporting in 1855 that the Duke had made his now famous assertion that
“it is here where the Battle of Waterloo was won” – referring to the
playing fields of Eton school which the young Wellesley had attended.
Other distinguished writers reinforced the questionable legitimacy of
this “quote” – Sir Edward Creasey, Sir William Fraser and eventually even George Orwell, writing in “The Lion And The Unicorn” in 1941.
So Wellington’s legacy transcends the ages on yet another level – and
it is no small wonder that he was a favourite source of inspiration for
artists from early on in his career - click the link below to view a magnificent decorative furniture adornment bearing the Duke’s
likeness, and the other items available which have relevance to the noble Duke...
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