'Hanging Tunes': York execution ballads

Workshop with Vivien Ellis
Thursday 12th May 2022, 10:15am - 11:45am 29-31 Coney Street
Portrait of Vivien Ellis



Be transported back to early modern York, and join thousands gathered to watch a hanging at Knavesmire gallows. You may encounter highwaymen such as William Nevison, Spence Broughton, or even Dick Turpin, riding to their execution, sitting on their coffin, wearing a shroud. Or women such as 19-year-old Mary Thompson, hanged for murder in 1841, later found to be wrongly accused. You may hear a ballad-hawker singing the stories of these criminals about to meet their doom, often in the voice of the accused themselves. Perhaps you’ll buy a copy for a penny, to sing later.

Execution ballads were set to popular melodies, such as ‘Fortune My Foe’, known as ‘the hanging tune’. Across Europe all news was conveyed by song, and York was part of the thriving trade in cheap printed literature. Execution ballads provide a window for us to encounter and re-imagine the past; sometimes graphically violent, often compassionate, even satirical, but always compelling.

This is a workshop exploring execution ballads from York, 1650-1850, many of which were printed in and around Coney Street. Songs are taught by ear, with participants invited to listen or join in.


Singer Vivien Ellis draws on her work as a performer of early and folk music, and a community music leader, to create enjoyable, social, relaxed, historically informed, and inclusive singing events with people of all ages and experiences.

Vivien has performed early, traditional, and new music with groups including The Dufay Collective, The Broadside Band, The Mellstock Band, Sinfonye, The Carnival Band, and the duo Alva. She has appeared in seasons with The Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and her voice has featured on radio, film, and TV. She has toured throughout the UK and Europe, North and South America, Canada, and Australia, appearing in major festivals and concert series. She has made numerous recordings as a soloist, including 'Cancionero', a program of early Spanish music with The Dufay Collective, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Vivien also works extensively as an educator and community music leader with a wide range of groups, alongside being a part-time care worker. Since 2014 she has worked with a user-led charity, The Mental Fight Club, based in the London Borough of Southwark, where she has led a free, drop-in singing group, The Dragon Café Singers, supporting health and wellbeing through singing and song-writing. Vivien has developed new models of community music engagement drawing on early & folk music, including 'ballad walks', and has created a new model of GP education in arts and health, on which she co-wrote a paper, ‘Creating Health’, for the journal of the Royal Society for Public Health.

Booking information

This event is free to attend, but requires booking. 35 places are available.


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