THE DEVONSHIRE NIGHTINGALES
Many people will be unaware of the fact that in Colebrooke cemetery lie two Colebrooke celebrities of international repute. The sisters Florence and Bertha Salter were farmers’ daughters born at Broomhill Farm in 1870 and 1872. Florence and Bertha first performed in public in 1890, when they gave a concert at Crediton Town Hall, which was a great success. Then, at the suggestion of Mr Jekyll of Exeter, who had given them singing lessons, they went to Brussels to study. They performed in Brussels in 1893 before Queen Marie Henriette of Belgium and her daughter Princess Clementine. The sisters also performed at Biarritz, in front of, amongst many other celebrities, King Oscar of Sweden. This concert resulted in glowing reports in the French press. One report said:
“This concert surpassed anything we have had the chance of listening to before in Biarritz. The Misses Florence and Bertha Salter possess vocal organs of exceptional merit. The high and sweet soprano of Miss Florence Salter stood out in delightful contrast to her sister’s perfect deep contralto notes, the two voices harmonising most charmingly. They sang with unceasing verve throughout, and the audience was enchanted, and enthusiastic applause greeted them at the finish. These talented ladies sing with equal facility in several languages, and their pronunciation is faultless. It was indeed a treat to hear this perfect style of singing, instead of the objectionable tremolo so much cultivated by the French school.”
During the next 20 years, they travelled widely throughout Britain and became known as “The Devonshire Nightingales”. Occasionally they would visit the continent where they still retained their popularity. Neither sister married and in the 1901 census, they were living at Lower Porchester St, Hyde Park Square, Paddington. They were described as “classical vocalists”. By the 1911 census, they had moved to Elm Park Mansions, Park Walk, Chelsea and were also described as “professional vocalists”. The last record of a concert by the sisters appears to have been one given in aid of the military hospital at Colchester in September 1917. They continued to live in Chelsea until the 1930s when they moved back to Devon to live in Dawlish. Florence died there in 1942 and was brought back to be buried at Colebrooke with a request to be buried as near as possible to her parents, who were buried just to the northwest of the church in the old churchyard, on the site of the Old Bell Inn. Florence was buried in the cemetery by the hedge adjoining the church path. Bertha later moved away from Dawlish and at the time of her death in 1959 was living at East Wyke, South Zeal, near Okehampton. She was also brought back to Colebrooke and, in line with her wishes, her grave lies as near as possible to her beloved sister. Both graves have identical granite kerbing surrounds with lead lettering as follows:
FLORENCE SALTER “Singer” born February 2nd 1870 died October 6th 1942
And on the foot
“Glory be to God on High”
BERTHA SALTER “Singer” born May 24th 1872 died March 13th 1959
And on the foot
“And one clear call for me”
The inscription on the foot of Bertha’s grave is the second line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “Crossing the Bar”. This poem had been set to music by various composers including Sir Hubert Parry (of Jerusalem fame) who was a great admirer of the sisters. Programmes of the time reveal it was a favourite in Bertha’s repertoire.
Florence’s will revealed that she had left a painting of herself by Jean Ballantyne to Exeter University.
Until recently this painting, initially mistakenly identified as being of her sister Bertha, had resided at the university together with various ephemera relating to the sisters. It has now been correctly titled, restored and hangs in the Devon and Exeter Institution together with more information regarding the sisters. It was thought that the artist Jean Ballantyne may well have been John Ballantyne a leading 19th Century portrait painter, born in Kelso 1815 and died 1897, who for reasons unknown sometimes had his paintings listed under the name Jean Ballantyne. His last known paintings date from the 1880s by which time he had retired to Wiltshire in poor health and financial difficulties. He was supported by a small pension provided by his younger brother Robert. Robert was better known as R M Ballantyne the Victorian juvenile adventure story writer of “The Coral Island” and numerous other books. It has recently been established that the portrait was in fact painted by Jean Ballantyne, the daughter of R M Ballantyne and a close neighbour of the sisters when they lived in London. She’d also had a painting of her younger sister Isobel Ballantyne exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1903.
Isobel had singing lessons from Bertha and would sometimes perform with the sisters under the name Belle Ballantyne until nasal problems forced her to give up her musical career.
© Neville Enderson