Believe it or not

Although Monkey Boy is made-up story, it is based on real events and contains many facts about Navy life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

HMS Fury

H.M.S. Fury is not a real ship. It is bigger than most British warships ships of the period, but it was based on the giant H.M.S. Hibernia, which was launched in 1804. Hibernia was a mammoth 110 gunner, 20 foot longer than Nelson’s famous H.M.S. Victory (which has been restored to its full glory and is on display in Portsmouth, England). Fury however is an older design and its ornate stern has more in common with another huge ship, the ginormous 130 gun Santisima Trinidad which fought  on the Spanish side at Trafalgar in 1805. 

HMS Pickle

H.M.S. Pickle was a real boat, a sleek schooner that was one of the fastest in the British Fleets. It was H.M.S. Pickle that sped back to England with the news of Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Invasion Army

In 1804 French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte really did have a grand plan to invade England with a 60,000 strong army. Napoleon was one of the greatest army generals in history, but luckily he was a hopeless naval commander. His plan of attack wasn’t very good and the boats built for the invasion were rubbish – not much better than punts used for paddling up a lazy river. In Monkey Boy, Jimmy’s ship, H.M.S. Fury, is leading a blockade to keep the French Fleet trapped in the port of Brest on the north west coast of France.

During 1804-05 the English laid siege to the French ports hoping to prevent Napoleon’s dreaded invasion. In 1805 a huge fleet of 30 French ships came out of Brest to face the English. In Monkey Boy a great battle is fought, but in reality the French just anchored, then retreated without firing a shot. The Brest Bay was indeed dangerous with hidden reefs, and the cursed Atlantic fog – which was the bane of the English Navy. Several major sea battles were fought in fog like the Battle of Cape St Vincent, The Battle of Santa Cruz at Tenerife, and just months before the famous final showdown at the Battle of Trafalgar, the French Fleet escaped Nelson’s British Fleet in the sudden Atlantic fog. 

Quota Men (and boys)

During the period which Monkey Boy is set (1804), the English Navy made every town and village provide a ‘quota’ of men (and boys) to crew their fleet, which had grown to 700 ships and over 150,000 men. The quota was on top of the press gangs – Navy thugs who roamed the city streets, grabbing anyone they could find and forcing them into the Navy. Many were boys like Jimmy – beggars, orphans, boys from the workhouse, or from large families who simply couldn’t feed them any more. It was little wonder none of them could swim, they had probably never even had a bath! The youngest boy at the Battle of Trafalgar was just 8 years old. If the boys came from wealthy families they could pay to be an officer’s servant. If not, they were forced into lowly and unpleasant jobs such as powder monkeys.


There were many orphan boys who were ‘pressed’ into the navy. A lot of them had funny names, as William Williams says in Monkey Boy “I’m an orphan, sir, and they didn’t like thinking up new names for us young’uns again and again ...”. This was indeed true. In one London orphanage, they named the children after Roman Emperors. Imagine being called, Caligula or Caesar Octavius!

Brutal Officers

Once at sea the boys and men experienced the worst food imaginable and were trapped on board for years on end (practically prisoners), as the Navy would only have to pay the crew wages when the ship returned to harbour. 

Discipline was incredibly harsh too, though not always dished out by cruel officers like Lieutenant Nancy in Monkey Boy. On one warship at the Battle of Trafalgar, burly, hardened sailors were terrified of a 14-year-old midshipman who beat them day in and day out with his cane. The men couldn’t lift a finger against the boy officer for fear of even worse punishment. The punishments described in Monkey Boy all took place, from bolting the jaw to kissing the bosuns daughter, floggings, hangings and the dreaded keelhaul. In 1804, the keelhaul was losing favour as a punishment in the English Navy. However, it was not completely unheard of and was still in common use by the Dutch Navy until 1853.

Speaking of brutal officers – the officer uniforms in Monkey Boy are not entirely accurate. A British Navy lieutenant in 1804 did not have the fancy shoulder epaulettes as I have shown them in the book. But HEY, what's the fun of being an illustrator if you can't change a few things?

Sailor Tricks

It is a great tradition amongst experienced workers to give newbies some kind of initiation. On an old warship, this usually involved sending new recruits on difficult or dangerous missions that were impossible to complete or got them into trouble with the officers (and you didn’t want that!). In Monkey Boy, Jimmy Grimholt has to search for salted peas – something which doesn’t even exist  – but he still manages to succeed. This scene was inspired by the famous story of Leonardo da Vinci – who, as an apprentice, was asked to purchase a tube of rainbow paint. His fellows thought it was a great laugh, but they were greatly surprised when Leonardo returned with a home-made tube of paint which squirted out rainbow colours, in a similar fashion to a modern tube of multicoloured toothpaste.

Toilet Humour

On a great warship like Admiral Nelson’s H.M.S. Victory, the heads were tucked up behind the figurehead at the bow, one on either side of the bowsprit, which is a bit different from how they are portrayed in Monkey Boy. The Heads on H.M.S Fury are based on the type used on smaller frigates and collier ships, where the head is just a toilet seat, set out over the side of the ship. I first encountered this kind of toilet when visiting a replica of James Cook’s Endeavour, and although they are not entirely accurate for a ship of H.M.S. Fury’s size, I thought they’d be more fun in a story like Monkey Boy. 

Ordinance (big guns)

Way back in the 1500s, captains didn’t know how to fight ship to ship. Cannons were cumbersome and unreliable. One of the early techniques was to throw spiky trivets onto the enemy ship, then squirt the deck with soapy water. They hoped that some of the enemy might slip and hurt themselves before they had to engage in hand to hand combat.

By the 1800s, British warships were packed with top-of-the-line weapons, from hand grenades to the many types of cannons and the brand new Congreve Rockets (which had only just been invented in 1804 and are used as night signals in Monkey Boy). Royal Navy gunners were also aided by the invention of the gunlock. Old cannons took a few seconds to light with a match. The gunlock was like a trigger which allowed the gun captain to fire at exactly the right moment. Warships were rated by the number of guns they could carry: a first rate ship had over 100 guns; 2nd rate 90-100 guns; and a 3rd rate had around 70 guns. H.M.S.Fury carries 112 guns. On ship’s like Fury, the biggest gun was the 64 pound carronade on the top deck. This could fire an entire barrel of cannonballs and shrapnel at the enemy for close range destruction. Big ships carried around 30,000 cannon balls, which could weigh as much as 300 cars.

Far flung travellers

Needless to say, that none of the characters depicted in Monkey Boy are real people, but they are based on things that real people did. European sailors travelled to the far-flung corners of the world. From Europe, to America, Asia and the great South Pacific Ocean on the opposite side of the world. In Monkey Boy you will notice that Old Jasper Boggis has both ears pierced, as it was a tradition each time you circumnavigated the globe. Mr Poe has only one piercing, as some sailors did this if they survived the journey around merciless waters of The Horn, at the tip of South America. To sail as far as Australia and New Zealand could take up to three years – some went for exploration, some for trade, some for breadfruit to feed slave colonies in the Caribbean, and some for whales. Whalers came from all walks of life looking for excitement, money and adventure on the high seas. One of the most famous was Herman Melville who went on to write about his life among cannibals in his book “Typee” and more famously about whaling in “Moby Dick”. Melville was originally a teacher just like Jimmy’s father in Monkey Boy.

Ghosts and Barrels of Rum

Sailors of the time were a very superstitious lot. They believed in all sorts of crazy rituals and had many ghost stories. You may find it hard to believe, but the story of Admiral Melmoth Fury haunting the ship from his barrel of rum is actually based on true events surrounding the death of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson was shot by a sniper during the Battle of Trafalgar. After the battle, a great storm blew up, and as the ship struggled to shore at Gibraltar, Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of brandy, strapped to the mast. Legend has it that Nelson’s crew drank the cask dry after his body was removed. At Gibraltar, Nelson was transfered to an especially made lead-lined coffin, and was brought back to London preserved in spirits of wine.