The man who was famously elected as Hartlepool's Mayor, while dressed in a monkey costume, is raffling his car to help raise money to start a new adventure Down Under. He talks to PETER BARRON

LOOKING back on nearly 20 years as editor of The Northern Echo, there were many historic moments.

Tony Blair serving three terms as Prime Minister while Sedgefield’s MP  is obviously up there. So is the day George Bush, as President of America, flew into the County Durham constituency for fish and chips at the Dun Cow pub.

But, for the truly surreal, nothing quite compares with the night a man in a monkey suit was elected as the Mayor of Hartlepool, and The Northern Echo’s front page boldly declared: “Monkey is Mayor.”

As the 20th anniversary approaches, the monkey mayor, Stuart Drummond, has announced plans to emigrate with his family to Australia. And that’s enough of an excuse to swing by Hartlepool to reminisce about a political event that echoed around the world and might easily have left my editorship in tatters.

“I was gobsmacked – I was wet behind the ears and honestly didn’t expect to win,” admits Stuart as we meet in a café overlooking Hartlepool Marina.

But, in an event  that can surely only be rivalled by America making Donald Trump its President, the people of Hartlepool really did elect H’Angus the monkey to be their Mayor.

It started as a joke, dreamt up in a Hartlepool pub when Stuart, along with three pals – Nick Loughlin, Paul Mullen and Ron Harnish – decided it would be a good idea for H’Angus to fight the forthcoming mayoral election on May 2, 2002.

H’Angus is the much-loved Hartlepool United mascot and, in those days, the role was performed by Stuart, whose day job was working in a Hartlepool call centre. Nick Loughlin happened to be The Northern Echo’s sports editor, conveniently leading to the paper having a front page exclusive, which began: “Hartlepool could become a banana republic – if the latest candidate in the mayoral elections gets his way.”

As well as going into battle on local issues, such as saving The Headland Sports Centre, the headline pledge in the monkey manifesto was free bananas for local schoolchildren.

Only one bookmaker – Bet 365 – offered odds on the outcome. Leo Gillen, the Labour candidate and close confidante of MP Peter Mandelson, was hot favourite. H’Angus started at 100-1 but dropped to 4-1 within hours, with betting suspended.

Still, no-one seriously believed the monkey might win, until around 10pm and his pile of votes had grown steadily higher.

At the end of the first count, H’Angus polled 5,696 votes, with Leo Gillen on 5,438, Ian Cameron (Independent) 5,174, Arthur Preece (Liberal Democrat) 1,675, and Stephen Close (Conservative) 1,561.

It went to a recount and, as long as I live, I’ll never forget the telephone conversation I had at 1am with Nick Loughlin, who was at the count. We were right on our final deadline to print the paper, the front page was awaiting the result, but the recount wasn’t complete.

“Nick, we can’t wait. I need to know – has the monkey won?” I asked.

The reply came back: “Pete, the monkey’s p****d it.”

Despite the result still being unofficial, and in full knowledge that my editorship would have been doomed if it was wrong, the Echo was printed with the front page declaring the monkey as the winner.

The Northern Echo:

The records show that H’Angus won by just 345 votes and I’ve never been more relieved to hear an election result confirmed hours later.

“It was meant to be a joke and, suddenly, the reality dawned that I’d won,” recalls Stuart.

He also remembers Peter Mandelson taking him to one side ahead of the result being officially declared and going ape. “You know you’ve won this, don’t you?” he hissed. “You’re a f****** disgrace. You’ve set this town back 30 years. You’ve made the town a laughing stock.”

Ordering him to ditch the monkey suit, the MP then demanded a potted history, with Stuart quickly explaining that he’d graduated from university with a degree in Business and Finance with French and Spanish.

Within minutes, Mandelson was live on the BBC, declaring that the winner was an intelligent lad, who had the town at heart, and could speak three languages.

The new Mayor was next to be interviewed by the BBC, and he learned an important lesson when his phone went off in his pocket, with the unlikely ringtone of Two Little Boys by Rolf Harris. To be fair, it was the Hartlepool United theme tune at the time and long before Harris was embroiled in any sex scandals.

Stuart spent the night celebrating with friends and went straight into a morning press conference at which The Sun was represented by a gorilla, and branded the Mayor a conman for refusing to don his monkey suit.

"It dawned on me that I suddenly had a massive responsibility. The people of the town had voted for me, I'd inherited a £250m budget, and I had to give it my best shot," he says.

And history would suggest that his best shot proved to be pretty decent. He went on to be re-elected twice – without the monkey costume – and Hartlepool was consistently in the top five performing councils in the country during his tenure.

Highlights included bringing the Tall Ships to the town in 2010, and twice being shortlisted for the World Mayor Awards, with Hartlepool listed alongside New York, Rio de Janeiro, Delhi and Mexico City.

"I think I came out of it alright – I even got on really well with Mandelson in the end," he smiles.

He stood down in 2013 after a vote to abolish the mayoral system and, for the past seven years, he's been Chief Executive of the Hartlepool NDC Trust, a charitable company delivering regeneration projects.

Now, nearly 20 years on from the monkey election victory, Stuart is preparing to move to Australia on a four-year temporary visa with his wife, Rebecca – a careers adviser with Stockton Borough Council – and their three children.

"I'm 47 now and it's a case of now or never," he explains. "It's a chance to experience a new lifestyle and we can't wait. There's not much call for elected mayors out there, but Rebecca's experience in the careers service has opened doors, and I'm hoping to work in the voluntary sector."

But, with the price of airline tickets soaring post-Covid, the cost of getting the family to the other side of the world is around £50,000 – hence the decision to raffle his Landrover Discovery Sport.

Tickets cost £2 and, for old time's sake, his friend and election conspirator, Nick Loughlin, bought one for each of the guests at his recent wedding to fiancee, Kelly.

"It was just to help him on his way," says Nick. "He's still the same decent, down to earth lad he's always been – despite all that's happened to him."

The raffle ends on November 27, and it's all entirely legal and above board. No banana skins and not a hint of monkey business.

  • For more details on the car and for a chance to win it, click here