The strange tail of the Chalvey Stabmonk

Few people today will have heard of the bizarre ‘Stabmonk’ ceremony that took place annually on Whit Monday in Chalvey where a plaster-cast effigy of a monkey was given a mock funeral and burial. The first printed reference to the Stabmonk is from 1865 [1] but it may have already been around for many years by then. The ceremony continued to be held until the early 1960s. It’s said to commemorate an incident in which a real monkey was brutally murdered in Chalvey Grove. This was in an era when a monkey would have been a very rare and unusual thing to encounter.

Origin of a peculiar ceremony

The traditional story [2] goes that there was once an enclave of Italian travelers living around Thames Street in Windsor, one of whom made his living as a street entertainer by grinding an organ. As he played, a cute little monkey dressed in a smart red jacket would dance and collect coins. One Sunday in spring, the organ grinder went to ply his trade in Chalvey Grove, hoping to make a few coppers. As he played, a crowd of children gathered, but they began to tease the monkey. The monkey retaliated by biting the finger of one of the children, who ran home. The child’s father, who was drunk at the time, seized up a knife, ran to where the organ grinder was performing and stabbed the monkey to death.

The aggrieved organ grinder so greatly bewailed the loss of his livelihood that local people took pity and decided to organise a collection to buy a replacement monkey. Much more money was raised than necessary and so the additional proceeds were used to hold a funeral ceremony for the monkey. The little bloodied and dusty corpse was taken in a solemn procession around the village, before being buried. A wake followed where free beer was provided for the mourners.

Later that year, the villagers of Chalvey began to discuss how they might celebrate the holiday of Whit Monday. They decided that as such a good time was had at the monkey funeral, the whole occasion should be repeated. To solve the problem of not having a corpse, a skilled plaster-worker was procured to create a cast from the cadaver, which on exhumation was found to be sufficiently intact for the purpose (possibly due to embalming). A collection was again made, but this time the entire proceeds were spent on the victuals.

The Chalvey Stabmonk is stored in Slough museum’s collection and hasn’t made a public appearance in many decades.

Although the consumption of beer formed a major part of the proceedings, the ceremony became quite elaborate over the years. One feature was the ‘election’ of the Stabmonk mayor; this being the first man to become drunk enough to fall into Chalvey brook (usually with assistance). The ‘Mayor of Chalvey’ would retain his title until the following year. Attesting to the ceremony being a rowdy affair, on one occasion the local policeman who had come to keep an eye on the event got pushed into the brook. The policeman took this in good spirit and declared himself to be the new mayor [3].

Speculation on an inner story

Traditional games formed part of the festivities and the men of Chalvey competed with the men of Cippenham in quoits, shotput and a tug-o-war which took place over Chalvey brook. The funeral procession went around the village led by pallbearers in top hats and tails who transported the plaster Stabmonk on a small carriage under a tasselled canopy. Next came the Chalvey banner which celebrated Chalvey’s ‘industries’ – taking in washing, making babies, drinking beer and working in the treacle mines. The latter was a euphemism for certain activities that took place in the quagmires that surrounded the village. Behind the banner came the ‘official’ mourners. These included the previous year’s Stabmonk mayor who led two boys on chains with blackened faces and who danced like monkeys, a mounted highwayman and various others. The funeral procession ended in Chalvey Grove where a grave had been prepared. The burial itself was a private affair, closed off from all except for a select few who were all Chalvey men born and bred. It is recorded that the police in the 19th century had tried to prevent this part of the ceremony from taking place [1]. It has been said that the reason for this was that the burial ritual involved some form of obscenity, which brings us to the subject of the monkey’s tail.

The shape of the Stabmonk’s tail was changed in 1934 after the original one was (apparently) accidentally snapped off. Prior to this, the tail, which protrudes upwards between the legs was much shorter and bulbous at the end, giving it a distinctly phallic appearance. Before 1934, the Stabmonk’s modesty was preserved during the funeral procession by placement of a green cloth cut in the shape of a fig leaf. For the burial ritual, the cloth was removed. Today, the significance of these details is lost but it can be speculated upon. There were certainly versions of the story in which the monkey had escaped from the crowd and entered a bedroom through a window. A possibility is that its death came about through being caught in the performance of some lewd act. Those who were in the know could take secret delight in the vulgarity of the actual story while the bitten finger was the sanitised version that could safely be told to everyone else. In the 1930’s, however, the ceremony was attracting interest from wider afield and was being attended by increasingly important dignitaries. Perhaps difficult questions were being asked and a decision was made to further conceal the truth and the tail was modified accordingly.

A connection to witchcraft

Witchcraft – A hereditary tradition, a book published in 2017 [4] offers an alternative perspective on the Stabmonk ceremony: that it was in fact organised by a local witchcraft cult which persists to the present day. Although the members of this secret and incredibly ancient sect refer to themselves as Stabmonks, the name is not connected to the murder of a monkey, this being a myth created to disguise the practice of their mystery rites. In the lore of the cult, the name Stabmonk is a derivation of Sabazios Mone. Sabazios is a deity whose worship originated among the Thracian tribes, an Indo-European Bronze-Age culture that inhabited the Balkan Peninsula before 1200 BC. The second word Mone, is an archaic British word meaning Lord. Although elements of the cult of Sabazios influenced the Greek and Roman pantheons, specific veneration of this deity took place in Greece and spread through the Roman Empire. As with other mystery cults, it was practiced in secrecy even before the suppression of them by the Christian Roman Empire began in the 4th Century. The most significant archeological evidence for the ubiquity of the Sabazios cult is the widespread distribution of artefacts known has the Hand of Sabazios. This is a hollow-bronze life-size casting of a hand with the index, middle finger and thumb raised. Various objects are depicted on the hand including reptiles and a pine cone.

The Hand of Sabazios. Source: Alcuni monumenti del Museo Carrafa. Public domain.

The Stabmonks believe that their cult was brought to Britain in 1103 BC by a band of warriors who had been displaced by the fall of Troy. They were led by an individual named Brutus who went on to found London as his seat of power. It is strange that no archaeological or historical trace of a cult that has been practiced in Britain for three millennia has been found, but perhaps the story of the origin is allegorical, or worship was localised to Chalvey. It is a premise of the book that such lore and beliefs can be handed down in an hereditary manner, leaving no trace in recorded history. Strict secrecy was necessary in order to avoid persecution under the witchcraft laws which were only repealed in 1951. To this end, the sect has operated on similar lines to other clandestine organisations, with each initiate only knowing the identity of a small few others. It was also necessary that nothing should ever be written down concerning the sect and its practices that could be used to identify or convict followers.

According to the Stabmonks, the Chalvey ceremony had been held since antiquity. It would have originally taken place on May Day, which was once the pagan feast of Beltane marking the start of summer. The various aspects of the ceremony have pagan significance although most of the participants would have been unaware of this. The election of the Stabmonk mayor is one example. In the time of the Celts there was a tradition that under some circumstances a religious sacrifice of the life of the local king or chieftain was required. In time, this was superseded by a belief that a lesser individual could be anointed as a proxy king who could be subsequently sacrificed in the place of the real king. A useless individual such as the village drunk would be selected. He would have some fixed period of ‘rule’ during which he would enjoy certain privileges before the time of his sacrifice arrived. Although this sounds similar to the film “The Wicker Man”, a difference is that the proxy king would probably have been a willing victim. The book goes on to ascribe significances to other elements of the Stabmonk ceremony. An alternative explanation for the simian form of the plaster Stabmonk is not offered by the book, leaving one to conclude that its existence was merely to reinforce the myth of the monkey stabbing, rather than being an effigy or idol of the god Sabazios.

Further research

An article that also attests to the ancient origins of the Stabmonk was published 1963-64, titled “The True History of the Stab Monkey”. It was written by Michael HH Bayley, a chartered architect who was an authority on the history of the local area. A great deal about the Stabmonk had been related to him by his father and grandfather (brother in-law to Ernest Headington, proprietor of Cippenham Court Farm). The article was published in the bulletin of the Middle Thames Archaeological and Historical Society (MTAHS), and according to Fraser’s History of Slough [3] it attempted to trace the origin to the religious rites of Dionysus (i.e. to ancient Greece). The traditions of Dionysus and Sabazios are known to have been closely related, and in fact, the pine cone which is always present on the thumb of the Hand of Sabazios is a symbol of Dionysus.

In our attempt to access The True History of the Stab Monkey, we made contact with MTAHS, but it went silent as soon as we asked about the article and no further communication was forthcoming. We also contacted Mr Dathen, the author of Witchcraft (which cites the article), but he was unable to help, having only been granted access under supervision by a source he didn’t wish to divulge. We were given access to Mr Bailey’s draft of a 1992 article titled “The Chalvey Stab Monk” [2], which although based on the earlier work, omits the more esoteric details. In this respect, some of the handwritten edits are intriguing. For instance, Mr Bailey speculated that the Stabmonk is a relic of the old religion, but this had been toned down to an old religion.

Mr Bayley’s 1996 book Kecks, Keddles & Kesh [5] states that that the plaster model was in fact a copy of an earlier idol which was of the same form as used in worship of Dionysus Sabazios. The classic Greek beer god was popular with the late Roman army and there is evidence that there was once a Roman military presence in Chalvey, including traces of a wooden fort on Chaddle hill with numerous Roman artefacts found nearby. It is theorised that the cutting of the area’s many early water diversions could have been carried out under the command of retired militarians. If the worship of Sabazios had been introduced to Chalvey by these veterans then it arrived here over a thousand years later than suggested by Witchcraft.

Final thoughts

It is well over half a century since Michael Bayley first brought up the question of whether the apparently simple story of the slaying of a monkey covered up a deeper and more ancient tradition. No real evidence in support of this has ever come to light. All that exists is conjecture and folklore passed down by word of mouth, which is in general, notoriously unreliable. It would be remarkable if new facts were to ever emerge favouring one scenario or another, but if this does ever happen HCOCV look forward to reporting the details to our readers.

References

  1. Windsor & Eton Express, 10th June 1865.
  2. The Chalvey Stab Monk by Michael Bayley. Draft for Berkshire Old and New, No. 9, 1992, published by the Berkshire Local History Association. From the personal collection of local historian Elias Kupfermann.
  3. The History of Slough by Maxwell Fraser, 1980 edition, Chapter 5: The Manor of Chalvey. Pages 40-45.
  4. Witchcraft – A hereditary tradition by Jon Dathen, Llanerch Press. 2017, ISBN 9781861431745.
  5. Kecks, Keddles & Kesh – Celtic Language, Lovespoons and the Cog Almanac. Michael Bayley, 1996, Capall Bann. ISBN 1898307628.

HCOCV gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Elias Kupfermann on this article.

Do you remember the Stabmonk ceremony or can you help us add to our knowledge about it? If so, please get in contact and leave your details with us at HCOCV.

1+

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *