Monkey business causes mayhem in Dalkeith

Elephants in the River Esk at Ironmills, Dalkeith.
Elephants in the River Esk at Ironmills, Dalkeith.

Last month I said that 1935 was the year of the circus in Dalkeith, but a circus which came to Ironmills two years earlier, on July 20, 1933, caused a sensation, writed Alan Mason (Dalkeith Historical Society).

It may not have been the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, but the story became a legend in Dalkeith – the story of “The Great Monkey Escape!”

Pongo the monkey which went on the run in Dalkeith

Pongo the monkey which went on the run in Dalkeith

Apparently, the trainer had bolted the monkey cage door but neglected to lock it and, as the Advertiser reported,

“One of the monkeys withdrew the bolt, opened the door and made his exit, to be followed immediately by the other inmates, and they fled in the direction of the High Woods,” (the High Woods being the woods above Ironmills.) “Young Dalkeith, ever ready for adventure, joined in the hunt, and Tarzan’s call of the wild could be heard all over the area.”

I’m sure all the men of my generation will remember the days of our youth when, for weeks after a Tarzan film had been shown at the local pictures, we’d run around beating our chests and doing the Tarzan call as performed by Johnny Weissmuller or Lex Barker.

Anyway, back to the monkeys. Seven had escaped. Three of the fugitives were caught straight away, one was seen in a garden in Glenesk Crescent and another at the bowling club, feeding on the shrubs.

As darkness fell, a rumour spread that they had been seen again in the High Woods, a wild rush was made in the direction, and Tarzan’s call could be heard yet again. The following day, the circus folk claimed that they had all been re-captured, but that was proved wrong when one monkey was seen “disporting itself in the gardens in Eskbank Road”.

The following week, it was still at large. The Advertiser reported that, “Entering the back kitchen of a dwelling in the Abbey Road quarter, the monkey investigated the kitchen and seized a substantial hunk of bread. The maid, on seeing the intruder, emitted a scream and Jacko escaped.”

Another monkey, said to be one of the Dalkeith escapees, was reported to be on the loose in the Roseburn area of Edinburgh. It turned out that there had been two monkeys still at large in Dalkeith. One had been caught and was being taken in a basket to Edinburgh Zoo when it had managed to escape again! Really, you couldn’t make it up!

The one remaining Dalkeith monkey stayed on the run until mid-September. After spending some time at Ironmills, it had been spotted in the Palace grounds, then again in Abbey Road. It was finally trapped at Hardengreen Farm when the rain and cool weather forced it to seek shelter.

So ended the monkey’s summer holidays, but that wasn’t the end of the story!

By this time the circus was long gone, so John Dunn, the manager of the SMT bus depot in the High Street, decided to take it as a pet. Mr Dunn was originally from Fife and had been a professional footballer with Raith Rovers.

When he moved to Dalkeith he still played for Raith but trained with Hearts, and when he retired from football he set up Dunn’s buses which operated between Musselburgh, Tranent, Elphinstone, Dalkeith and Cousland. Dunn’s buses were taken over by SMT in 1932.

At first he kept the monkey in the office, but eventually he took it home to Hope Cottage in Newton Village. Although Mrs Dunn had asked him to bring it home, she wasn’t fond of it and always referred to it as a dirty little brute and would have nothing to do with it. The monkey sensed the bad feelings and would shake his fist at her whenever he saw her.

The family called the monkey Pongo, and daughter Bunty, who was about 12 or 13 at the time, adored the monkey and always went to see him every morning before going to school. She always took a titbit for him and he would sit on her shoulder and look in her pockets to find it.

Unfortunately Pongo also disliked Bunty’s younger brother, Tommy, who was about seven or eight years old. He was frightened of Pongo and Mrs Dunn told Tommy always to have a stick when the monkey was around, but the inevitable happened and Pongo bit Tommy on the leg. Mrs Dunn was naturally furious and the monkey had to go. Bunty was very upset and always cherished happy memories of Pongo.

Bunty went on to serve at Bletchley Park during the War, married a farmer and became Bunty Sommerville, and for a time owned Marlene the Hairdresser’s shop in the High Street (now our MP’s constituency office). Sadly, she passed away last year and is fondly remembered by all of us who knew her.