Sarah Bancroft…"The Nightingale”

Sarah and four daughters - circa 1895

 Here’s an interesting if rather sad story about a lady called Sarah Ellen Bancroft born in Keighley, Yorkshire in 1860.
Sarah was the daughter of John and Margaret [ne:Walbank] Bancroft and was baptised at Keighley Primitive Methodist Chapel on 9th May 1863.
Sarah's baptism at Keighley Primitive Chapel, Keighley

 Her father John, earned a living in the various heavy engineering businesses in the town as an iron turner in a foundry and later as a mechanic and he and Margaret had four children in their short marriage, before Margaret died in 1862, age 24 years, of consumption [TB] after only four years of marriage, leaving Sarah without a mother at only two years of age.
Margaret Walbank
John Bancroft

Margaret's burial card

 Her father, John, married again, fairly shortly and had a further five children with his second wife Sarah Burwell and died in April 1907.
Sarah when she grew older moved to nearby Bradford to work in one of the many mills in the town as a weaver, where she met her future husband Fred Priestley a Loom Fixer. They were married on 5th July 1885 at St Peter’s Church, Bradford, now known as Bradford Cathedral.

Sarah's marriage to Fred Priestley

Fred Priestley

Fred and Sarah went on to have four daughters in quick succession, Emily b 1886, Olive b 1887, Margaret b 1889 and Alice b 1892 but then things seemed to go badly wrong with the marriage because in 1893 Fred left the family and emigrated to the US, where his brother was living.
There was various rumours passed down the family about why Fred left his wife and four small children so suddenly. One rumour says he thought he had killed someone accidentally, which was eventually proved to be incorrect. Another rumour was that he and Sarah just did not get on. Whatever the reason, Fred left the English shores for America and set up a new life in Massachusetts and remarried at least twice more.
Whatever the reason for Fred Priestley sudden departure it left Sarah and her four small children in a very desperate situation because after emigrating, Fred never supported his family and as there was no welfare state at that time, just the workhouse, Sarah had to take matters into her own hands…with her voice!
Her eldest daughter, Emily, a small child at the time accompanied her mother at night and explained in later years that her mother had a wonderful contralto voice and would go around the streets of Bradford and surrounding areas, heavily disguised in black cloths and wearing a black veil singing for the few pennies that people would toss to her. This earned her the nickname of “The Nightingale”. Emily said ‘Mother was a weaver, so with her voice and weaving she raised the four girls. She had many good friends, which helped us considerably...She used to go out at night heavily veiled. I went with her a few times and took up the pennies the people gave us. She used to do this when she did not know where to get money to buy food for us four girls. I was about eight years old at that time.’

Fifty years later in 1949, someone wrote a letter to the Bradford newspaper looking for more details about Sarah’s story and many people wrote in with their memories of her from so long ago. Here are a few of the letters to the newspaper:

‘Re your paragraph in “City Topics” about the woman “nightingale” who thrilled the Bradford people with her lovely singing. I was not at all surprised to see this referred to, for when I read about it, my mind too went back to when I heard the woman singing in Shipley during the same period, as your correspondent stated. I lived in Shipley then, and well remember her beautiful singing. She came almost nightly, a very intriguing and mysterious personality. Whether she sang just for the joy of singing, or to overcome some great sorrow, one can only conjecture, but the evidence of her sombre clothing and her wearing of a veil rather point to the latter. She sang in the church lane neighborhood, and after her singing was seen to board one of the steam trams of that period in Bradford. The fragrant memory of that sweet singer still lingers.’

‘Re your paragraph about the “nightingale.” I heard her sing from the balcony of a building in the Haworth district. If I remember rightly it would be about the year 1894. She was attired in black and heavily veiled. I well remember two of the songs she rendered…” Killarney” and “Lead Kindly Light”, the last named being sung before taking her departure on from the railway station. No one knew who she was or where she came from. She was a beautiful singer and delightful to listen to.’

‘I have been very interested about the recent letters re the “nightingale” as I heard her sing many times when I was a girl over 50 years ago at Bradford Moor. We used to open all our doors and then after the children had taken the lady some coppers she used to go quietly away. She had a beautiful voice but we never saw her for she wore a veil. My mother asked her one cold night to come in and have some tea but she drank it by the gate and would not come in. I remember my mother saying that she was well educated and had some children but as her husband was ill she could only leave them at night, and she had to keep them by singing.’ [This last sentence if obviously incorrect, as her husband had by then deserted the family.]

As Sarah’s family started to grow up, her eldest daughter Emily did not get on too well with her mother, and decided to emigrate to the US in 1904 to be with her father, even though they had had no contact with each other in the previous ten years.
Sarah and three daughters
Following on from this,one daughter Margaret married in Bradford and converted to the Baptist faith whilst Sarah and her two remaining daughters, Olive and Alice seem to have converted to the Mormon faith [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] and in 5th October 1909 all three of them also emigrated to the US on the Cunard Ivernia, sailing from Liverpool to Boston, and settled in Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormons.

All three daughters married in the US, and in 1912  Sarah got divorced from Fred Priestley
and remarried a John Curtis, a man originally from London.

Sarah in later life
She died on 16th October 1920 from cancer at the age of 59 years, and was buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Sarah's death certificate

Sarah's gravestone

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