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Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine
Grace Darling symbolised everything the RNLI stands for; risking her own life to save others, selflessness and courage
Grace Darling and her father William's courageous rescue of nine people from the wreck of the sinking SS Forfarshire in 1838 is one of England's lesser known, but still awe-inspiring, legends. Grace Darling, only 22 years of age at the time, went from being a shy, hardworking woman to one of the country's, and even the world's, most talked about celebrities.
Grace Horsley Darling was born on 24 November, 1815, to mother Thomasina and father William. William Darling, already lighthouse keeper at Brownsman Island1 was a doting father. As Grace grew up he taught her reading, writing, mathematics and basic geography. She also learnt needlecraft, cooking and cleaning duties along with general upkeep of a lighthouse, accompanying her father in collecting salvage and maintaining the lanterns of the light. On trips around the island with her father, she was also educated about the natural flora and fauna, particularly the varieties of birds found on the Farnes, like the puffin and eider duck. The Darling family was a large one, with Grace the seventh of nine siblings. Sometimes times were tough, which hardened the young Grace.
On 18 February, 1826 (when Grace was ten years old), the Brownsman Light was put out. A lighthouse on Longstone Island had been built to warn newer steamships of the dangers of rocks in the waters around the Farne Islands. The Darling family moved out to Longstone Lighthouse, travelling backwards and forwards from their old home on Brownsman Island with food and vegetables. Grace also tended to the native eider ducks, her mother using the down from the ducks to fill their mattresses; some ducks quite probably made their way to the Darling dinner table. Grace's already considerable skills around a lighthouse were put to good use by her father; Grace becoming a strong and resourceful woman, able to repair fishing nets, row confidently and keep up with her father when asked to do physical and menial chores. Her elder brothers and sisters left Longstone to fulfil lives either on the mainland at Bamburgh or elsewhere leaving Grace, her younger brother William Brooks and parents to lead a simple but successful lifestyle on Longstone Island.
The SS Forfarshire
On Wednesday 5 September, 1838, the SS Forfarshire (a newly built steamship travelling from Hull to Dundee in Scotland with a complement of 63 passengers - crew included - and a cargo of cloth, hardware and soap) began to have problems with its boiler. A leak flooded the engine room and the steam build up from the hot water prevented the crew from reaching the boiler to make repairs. At this time the Forfarshire was just north of the Farne Islands, and a storm was closing in. At 1.00am on 7 September, the ship's engines stopped and the vessel began to drift in the heaving waters. Sails were hoisted and the crew attempted to steer the sluggish steamer towards the inner sound of the Farne Islands. The captain pushed the ship closer to the narrow inlets and it struck a rock. The combination of the heavy winds and rock tore the ship in two; its stern separated completely and with most of the passengers below decks sheltering from the storm, there was little time for them to reach the lifeboats.
On the night of 6 September, William Darling checked the Longstone Light a little after midnight and, realising a storm was brewing, asked Grace to help him lash down and secure all the equipment, including their coble. After this was done they retired to bed. Grace though, still awake at a little before 5am, looked out of the lighthouse window and noticed a black shape out on the rocks - the Forfarshire run aground. Waking her father, they attempted to spot lifeboats and in the early morning light figures could be seen on the largest rock, 'Big Harcar'. William Darling assumed the nearest lifeboats at Bamburgh could not be launched due to the heavy seas, as was the case with the North Sunderland Lifeboat. Grace convinced her father that with lives to save they must row out to Big Harcar and do whatever possible.
Grace and her father untethered their small coble - a craft that needed at least three people to row properly in the rough sea - and began to make their way towards the large rocks off Longstone Island. Nine bedraggled figures were huddled on Big Harcar and William realised that to reach them he would have to leap from the coble and leave Grace in charge of the small boat. He did just that and while the storm worsened, Grace kept the coble close to Big Harcar, rowing almost constantly against the tide and waves while her father tended to the survivors of the Forfarshire.
On the rock William found eight men, one of whom was injured. There was also one woman clutching her two children. Both were dead. A further lifeless man lay nearby on the rock. William and three of the men rowed the boat back to Longstone, taking with them the now exhausted Grace, the injured man and distraught woman. They then returned for the other four survivors. Thomasina Darling provided all with warm food, blankets and dry clothes. At 11.00am, the Sunderland Lifeboat crew arrived at Big Harcar, finding only the dead man and children. They then carried on to Longstone where they were surprised to find nine souls from the broken steamship2.
Following the rescue, both William Darling and his daughter Grace became household names. Without leaving her home on Longstone Island, Grace became a national treasure. Poet William Wordsworth wrote of her:
All night the storm had raged, nor ceased, nor paused,
Grace was also the subject of several books and paintings. Her fame could be compared to that of solo yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, but instead of the paparazzi, she had to dismiss hordes of well-meaning portrait painters and suitors. Women of the Victorian era were not seen as strong, capable types able to perform feats of incredible strength, both physically and mentally. Because of this Grace was even offered a starring role in William Batty's circus - which she flatly refused. However, many respected the amazing feat and £725 was collected by well-wishers for Grace (£50 of which came from Queen Victoria), with a further £175 for her father. The chocolate manufacturer Cadbury even released 'Grace Darling'-branded chocolate boxes to commemorate the rescue.
The Royal Humane Society awarded Grace and her father a Gold Medal of Bravery shortly after the event. Grace and her father had to row not across the open sea, the quickest route to the stricken steamer, but around the rocks — a distance of about a mile (1.7km). Grace's skill in keeping the small rowboat steady while William Darling assisted survivors aboard was incredible, for anyone, in the violent storm. Her bravery award later sold for £38,900 at Sotheby's3 in 1999. Sotheby's medal specialist Edward Playfair said of the medal:
It is the ultimate life-saving medal. In terms of carrying out a single feat of bravery, she is probably Britain's greatest heroine and this is the premier award for an act which did not only make an impression in this country but also abroad.
A Quiet End
Unfortunately, in 1842 Grace developed tuberculosis and left her post at Longstone Light to convalesce with her sister in Bamburgh. On 20 October, just short of her 27th birthday, she passed away in her father's arms and was buried at St Aiden's churchyard in the town. Not long of life, she quickly became the heroine of Longstone Light, forever a young woman who risked her life to save those survivors of the ill-fated Forfarshire. In 1938, the centenary marking the dramatic rescue, the Grace Darling Museum was opened adjacent to the churchyard in Bamburgh. To this day the Royal National Lifeboat Institution continues to name lifeboats in her honour and preserve her memory4.
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