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A neighbour was taking a short break in Northumberland, and told me that one of the reasons she was excited about it was because, growing up, she had a picture of Grace Darling on her bedroom wall. She would not have been alone; Grace Darling was a perfect Victorian heroine who braved a violent North Sea storm to save survivors of a shipwreck, and her image used to be ubiquitous. Even now, most people know her story. It is certainly hard to travel along the Northumberland coast without hearing her name, and in the village of Bamburgh, where she was born on 24 November 1815, and died on 20 October 1842, Grace Darling is still omnipresent.
Named Grace Horsley Darling after her grandfather, she was born in his cottage, the seventh of nine children to William and Thomasin Darling. William was a lighthouse keeper on the Farne Islands, a small, wild, rocky, archipelago off the Northumbrian coast and a notorious ships’ graveyard. The Darlings lived in a small cottage attached to the lighthouse on Brownsman Island, a mile or so off-shore. Conditions were primitive and, apart from seabirds and seals, they were the island’s only inhabitants. There, they grew their own vegetables, kept chickens, collected eggs and eiderdown and caught fish. The children were educated at home, but also helped out – including watching passing ships. And this was Grace’s life from the age of three weeks, until she was 10. It was an unusual childhood, by any standards. Then, in 1826, the family moved to a new lighthouse on Longstone, the farthest Farne Island from the mainland, about 5 miles out, which was better positioned to guide vessels enduring the treacherous seas.
Longstone is a bleak place. Family accommodation was inside the lighthouse, just a few feet from the unpredictable North Sea. The Darlings lived in a downstairs kitchen-living room, with three circular bedrooms above. On the very top, 80 feet or so above the waves, was the lantern, pulsing its guiding light out into the darkness. Nothing grew on the island except seaweed; the Darlings had to row three-quarters of a mile or more across the rock-punctuated water to collect vegetables from their patch on Brownsman.
The SS Forfarshire was a two-masted paddle steamer that plied the east coast, ferrying passengers and cargo between Hull and Dundee. On 5 September 1838, she set out from Hull with an assorted cargo of textiles, engineering parts and soap and about 60 crew and passengers. One day out of port and a problem developed with the boilers, which began to leak; the crew attempted repairs but, the following night, 7 September, her engines stopped. A storm blew up. The captain tried to continue under sail, and they got as far as Berwick, but gale-force winds drove Forfarshire back south. Captain Humble thought he might find shelter in the lee of the Farne Islands, but in the early hours of 8 September the hapless vessel struck Big Harcar, an island of rock about a mile from Longstone. It was 4am; in driving rain and spray, one of the ship’s boats with eight crew and a passenger on board, got away. Later, they were rescued by a passing sloop and taken to Tynemouth. Meanwhile, Forfarshire, at the mercy of the raging storm and sea, broke in two: the stern portion sank, drowning all below deck and sweeping anyone above into the churning water. Among those lost were Captain Humble and his wife. The ship’s bow section, though, became wedged on a rock; somehow, a few surviving passengers and crew managed to get themselves, and each other, onto the rock itself.
Grace Darling and her parents were alone in the lighthouse that night. Grace was awake, watching the storm from her window through the spray of waves breaking hard on the lighthouse walls. Peering into the dim gloom, she made out a shape on Big Harcar. It was a wreck; she fetched her father. It was hard to see anything in the wet darkness, but as daylight came they saw through a telescope that people – not many, but some – were stranded on the rock. It was 7am and the gale had not abated. William reckoned that neither the North Sunderland lifeboat nor local fishermen could put to sea with any certainty in those conditions; yet there was no time to lose. He would attempt a rescue himself, but couldn’t do it on his own and the only person who could help him was his 22-year-old daughter, Grace. So, together, they launched the coble – a traditional open rowing boat used by fishermen – and Thomasin watched them set off through the waves, past the jagged rocks, the long mile toward the cold, soaked and traumatised survivors.
When William and Grace reached Big Harcar, they found nine desperate people on the rocks, including a woman, Sarah Dawson, who was clutching the lifeless bodies her two children. There was also another corpse on the rock, that of the Reverend Robb. While William somehow manoeuvred himself out of the boat to help get people aboard, Grace paddled the oars, keeping the vessel as steady as she could in the rolling sea and preventing it from smashing itself to bits. They could only take five more people in the coble; the rest would need to wait for a second trip. It beggars belief how William and Grace got anyone aboard the little boat in those conditions, but they did – including the distraught mother, who had to leave her children behind, and an injured man. Once back at Longstone, Grace and Thomasin set about looking after those that had been rescued, while William, with two crew members (who must have been immensely tough) returned to fetch the remaining four men. The journeys back and forth, in a small rowing boat in those atrocious conditions, must have been terrifying. It was two days before the seas subsided sufficiently to allow the survivors of the Forfarshire to be transferred to the mainland.
Four short years after that dramatic rescue, Grace Darling contracted tuberculosis and died, in her father’s arms. She was just 26. She is buried in St Aidan’s churchyard, her parents alongside, opposite the cottage she was born in and a few hundred feet from the cottage where she died. Both buildings are still there, with plaques above the doors noting their significance. Hundreds are said to have attended Grace’s funeral – though, ironically, three of her brothers were unable to make it from Longstone due to a severe storm. Later, an extravagant, canopied, memorial containing a life-size effigy of Grace was erected nearby, financed by public subscription. There’s another memorial to Grace in St Cuthbert’s chapel on Inner Farne. In 1938, one hundred years after the events of that fateful night, the Grace Darling Museum opened next door to her grandfather’s cottage and across the road from St Aidan’s. Run by the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), the museum tells Grace’s story and houses personal items, items from the Forfarshire – and the actual coble that William and Grace used on the morning of 8 September 1838. People visit Bamburgh for all sorts of reasons: to wander along the fabulous beach, go to the iconic castle, pay homage to St Aidan in his church – or simply because Bamburgh is a jolly nice place. But they also go for Grace Darling.
Shipping losses are always big news in a maritime nation and Victorian Britain was no exception. It did not take long for the tragedy of the Forfarshire to hit the front pages, but it’s the human interest angle that breathes life into stark facts – and that was what the public craved. So the story of two people risking their lives for others, particularly when one of the rescuers was a young woman, would have been irresistible – and would still be irresistible today. Such things also sell newspapers, of course. Not surprising, then, that the picture of a small rowing boat, braving the violent storm which could have swamped it even more easily than it did the larger vessel, and the image of young Grace Darling single-handedly keeping the coble steady while her father helped the survivors aboard, was immensely powerful – and appealing.
Indeed, while everyone wanted to know about William and Grace Darling, and both were honoured and rewarded, it was shy Grace who unintentionally caught the national imagination. People wanted to know what she looked like and artists, like Victorian paparazzi, clamoured to paint her portrait. She was asked for locks of her hair and received proposals of marriage (all of which she turned down). She became an unwilling celebrity, seemingly aided by accounts that became increasingly melodramatic, and unlikely. One, apparently, spoke of Grace being prompted to wake her father in the lighthouse on hearing “the cries of the sufferers on the remaining part of the wreck” – which was clearly absolute tosh. Another is said to have claimed that, “One of the old seamen was moved to tears when he saw a young female of slender appearance periling her life for their preservation”. It is hard to credit that any newspaper these days would entertain fabrications of any kind, of course. Anyway, ultimately, images of Grace Darling in mid-rescue even appeared on souvenir trinkets, pottery, chocolate boxes and the like. Historic England point out that Grace’s fame eclipsed that of William, who was referred to as “Grace Darling’s father” when he was involved in further rescues, notably that of the Scottish sloops Success in 1853, and the Trio (not far from where the Forfarshire struck), in 1860.
Other heroes and heroines pass on almost unnoticed, but Grace Darling didn’t; and in death she achieved a near angelic veneration wholly appropriate in an area of Britain famed for its saints. She seems to have been defined by that one event, and something about her and it struck a chord with Victorian – and later – ideals. Perhaps she was seen as a model Victorian woman: devoted, brave, domestic, chaste; Christian. You couldn’t make up a more suitable name, either: Grace Darling sounds like something from a sentimental romance, albeit maybe of the mawkish kind. “Nurse Darling, come over here, will you?” “Oh, Doctor…let me just put down this oar.” I wonder whether one reason for her celebrity was because she did not come from a privileged background, but from plain, ordinary, folk. She could be one us, one of the first working-class heroes. Sadly, it also helped, of course, that she died young; without the opportunity to gather life’s baggage, she will forever be youthful and uncorrupted.
Whatever, one thing that struck me, listening to pompous piffling puerile politicians strutting their stuff on the news, is that Grace Darling has been remembered long after most prime ministers and presidents have been gratefully forgotten. And that’s something of a comfort, don’t you think?