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Elsie Marley

[ Roud 3065 ; Ballad Index StoR070 ; DT ELSMARLY ; Mudcat 24231 , 40847 ; trad.]

Elsie Marley is a tune and song printed in J. Collingwood Bruce and John Stokoe’s Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882). They noted:

This ballad has come down to us with a double claim for preservation from oblivion in the merit of the lively tune itself and the frolicsome spirit of the song, which, whilst gently satirising, at the same time preserves the memory of one who, in her day, had attained some notoriety as a general public entertainer.

Elsie (or Alice) Marley was the wife of an innkeeper at the Barley Mow Inn, Pictree, near Chester-le-Street, where her buxom presence and lively humour were doubtless the means of attracting all ranks of society, from the pitman to the viewer, and from keelmen and sailors to tradesmen and gentlemen.

The ballad was founded upon a true incident in the life of our heroine, and speedily became so popular all over the district that when Joseph Ritson published his Bishopric Garland in 1784, he considered it of sufficient importance to be included in that collection. A happy temperament, a comfortable life, and an extensive circle of friends did not, however, suffice to save poor Elsie from a share of the “ills that flesh is heir to,” for in Sykes’ Local Records, under date 5 August 1768 we read: “The well-known Alice Marley, who kept a public house at Pictree, near Chester-le-Street, being in a fever, got out of her house and went into a field, where there was an old coal pit full of water, which she fell into and was drowned.“

Elsie Marley is also printed in Mary and Nigel Hudleston’s Songs of the Ridings (2001).

Tom Clough played the tune of Elsie Marley on the Northumbrian pipes on 4 January 1929. This track was included in 1976 on the Topic anthology of classic recordings of traditional music from the North-East of England, Holey Ha’penny, and in 1996 on the Topic CD The Northumbrian Small Pipes.

The High Level Ranters sang Elsie Marley in 1968 on their Topic album of dance and song from North-East England, Northumberland For Ever, and in 1976 on their Topic album Ranting Lads. They noted:

Words from Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812). Tune from The Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882). Elsie Marley was the wife of an innkeeper at The Swan Inn, Picktree, in County Durham. The song seems to have been written in the early 18th century after she had her pockets picked of 20 guineas whilst in Newcastle, paying bills and visiting the fair. By all accounts she seems to have been a very convivial and popular host.

Steve Turner and Bob Morton sang Elsie Marley in 1975 on Canny Fettle’s Traditional Sound Recordings album Varry Canny. They noted:

Elsie Marley was the notorious landlady of the Swan Inn at Picktree, near Chester-le-Street. The song, with has almost become our signature tune, was first published in Ritson’s Bishopric Garland, 1784, and since then has appeared in most Northumbrian collections. Again, the tune—which contains a number of un-vocal leaps due to the influence of the small-pipes—has a number of Irish counterparts.

Andrew Cronshaw played the tune of Elsie Marley on his 1977 Trailer album Earthed in Cloud Valley.

Alan Fitzsimons sang Elsie Marley on the 1981 Greenwich Village anthology of songs about the women of Tyneside over the past two centuries, Aall Tegithor Like the Foaks o’ Shields.

Ushna sang Elsie Marley in 1998 on their Fellside album of Northumbrian music and song, Twice Brewed. They noted:

Elsie was the wife of the innkeeper at The Barley Mow, Picktree, near Chester-le-Street, around 1755. Her fair looks, buxom presence and lively humour attracted all manner of folk to the bustling public house. From the humble pitman to the colliery owner, keelmen and sailors, tradesmen and gentlemen, Elsie’s charms succeeded in winning their custom. Aged about fifty when the incident described in the ballad occurred, Elsie was conducting some business near the premises when she realised she’d lost her pocket (purse). Hurrying back to the inn she announced her distress to the company there present. “Oh, hinnies”, she exclaimed, “I’ve lost my pocket and all my money!” Her husband, as if inspired, roared forth in reply, “D’ye ken Elsie Marley, honey? The wife that sells the barley, honey? She’s lost her pocket and all her money, aback o’the bush i’ the garden, honey.” The rest of the song’s verses were added later by an unknown hand, and it became popular throughout the district.

Although immortalised in verse, Elsie herself suffered a sad end. Ill with a fever, she quit her house and wandered into a nearby field. Here was located an old coal pit full of water and, not in full possession of her faculties, she fell into it and was drowned.

Nancy and Sandra Kerr sang a few verses of Elsie Marley in 2002 on Nancy Kerr and James Fagan’s Fellside CD Between the Dark and Light. They noted:

We often sing Elsie Marley and My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up with Sandra, and it is great to have her with us on these two well-loved Tyneside ditties. They’re both from the Northumbrian Minstrelsy.

The Tabbush Sisters sang Elsie Marley on their 2003 album This Close….

Kathryn Tickell played Elsie Marley as part of her tune set Herd on her 2004 CD Air Dancing. This track was also included on the BBC Folk Awards 2005 anthology.

Frank Edgley played Elsie Marley on the 2005 Anglo concertina anthology Anglo International!.

Anna Tam sang Elsie Marley on her 2021 CD Anchoress. She noted:

Recorded in the 1792 Durham Minstrel. Elsie was an alewife of The Swan pub in 18th century Picktree, County Durham. The song and tune were famous in her lifetime—she is mentioned in the Newcastle Chronicle on her death as “remarkable for the celebrated song composed upon her” and in 1765 a racehorse was named after her I’m so delighted to perform this with my dad Roy [Chilton].

This video shows Frankie Archer singing Elsie Marley at Manchester Folk Festival on 13 October 2022:

Elsie Marley is also mentioned in the traditonal song Byker Hill and in Peter Knight’s song Harvest of the Moon.


Elsie Marley in Northumbrian Minstrelsy

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Di’ ye ken Elsie Marley, honey,
The wife that sells the barley, honey;
She lost her pocket and all her money,
Aback o’ the bush i’ the garden, honey.

Elsie Marley’s grown se fine,
She won’t get up to serve her swine,
But lies in bed till eight or nine,
And surely she does take her time.

Elsie Marley is so neat,
It’s hard for one to walk the street
But every lad and lass they meet
Cries—Di’ ye ken Elsie Marley, honey?

Elsie Marley wore a straw hat,
But now she’s getten a velvet cap;
The Lambton lads mun pay for that,
Di’ ye ken Elsie Marley, honey?

Elsie keeps rum, gin, and ale
In her house below the dale,
Where every tradesman, up and down,
Does call and spend his half-a-crown.

The farmers, as they come that way,
They drink with Elsie every day,
And call the fiddler for to play
The tune of Elsie Marley, honey.

The pitmen and the keelmen trim,
They drink Bumbo made of gin,
And for to dance they do begin
To the tune of Elsie Marley, honey.

Those gentlemen that go so fine,
They’ll treat her with a bottle of wine,
And freely they’ll sit down and dine
Along with Elsie Marley, honey.

So to conclude, these lines I’ve penned,
Hoping there’s none I do offend,
And thus my merry joke does end,
Concerning Elsie Marley, honey.

Nancy and Sandra Kerr sing Elsie Marley

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Do you ken Elsie Marley, hinny,
The wife that sells the barley, hinny;
She lost her basket and all of her money,
Aback of the bush in the garden, hinny.

Elsie Marley’s grown so fine,
She won’t get up to feed the swine.
She lies in bed till eight or nine,
Surely she does take her time.

Elsie Marley is so neat,
It’s hard for one to walk the street
But every lad and lass they meet
Says, “Do you ken Elsie Marley, hinny?”

The farmers, as they come that way,
They drink with Elsie every day,
And call the fiddler for to play
The tune of Elsie Marley, hinny.