Heroes of History: Grace Darling

Grace darling to the rescue, image from the RNLI museum

Grace Darling was a Victorian heroine.  She was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who helped her father in a daring and dangerous rescue of shipwreck survivors off the coast of Sunderland. During her short lifetime she was a media celebrity. To this day she retains an enduring popularity.

Grace was born in 1815, the seventh of nine children. She grew up on the tiny, windswept Brownsman Island in the Farne Islands. It was a tough, isolated, self-sufficient life, in which the whole family were intimately familiar with nature at its most savage and unforgiving.

Longstone Lighthouse

On 7th September 1838, Grace and her parents were alone at Longstone lighthouse. Gale-force winds whipped the sea into huge waves that lashed the lighthouse and the surrounding rocks. During the night Grace spotted a huge black shape against one of the rocks out to sea. It was a shipwreck and survivors were clinging to the rock. The sea was far too rough for a lifeboat to come out from the mainland. The family had a little rowing boat, which usually took three man to man in rough weather.  Father and daughter decided there was little choice. They would have to row over to the rock together, or watch the survivors die. It was a mile of hard rowing over huge waves, whipped by the wind and spray, steering a careful course between the rocks. Grace then single-handedly held the boat steady on the waves as her father helped the weak and exhausted survivors onto the boat.

Portrait of Grace Darling

The Darlings rescued nine people in two trips. Later on the lifeboat did arrive from the mainland but the storm was still so severe that they could not return. The survivors and lifeboat crew had to remain crowded into the lighthouse for three desperate days, with not nearly enough provisions.

In total, 43 people died in the wreck of the Forfarshire.

News of the rescue spread and soon there was a media frenzy. Presents, donations and fan mail came flooding in, including £50 from Queen Victoria. Artists came to paint the Darlings and tourists swarmed around the lighthouse.

Grace Darling chocolates

Fame quickly got tiresome. Unscrupulous traders tried to get Grace to endorse their products. The rescue inspired popular plays, poetry and novels galore. The infamously bad poet McGonagall had a go, and Wordsworth’s poem is little better. An incredible range of Grace Darling memorabilia was produced and Cadbury’s even sold a Grace Darling chocolate bar. Grace was mobbed whenever she went to the mainland. All this was difficult to cope with for a young women who had grown up so isolated. Grace was very unhappy with her fame, and died of tuberculosis in 1842 at the age of 26.

Grace remained popular into the 1970s, partly thanks to the folk music tradition and George Linley’s Grace Darling Ballad, by far the most successful of the artistic attempts to bring her story to life.  She fell out of favour after that, but has recently been put on the school history curriculum, probably to correct the idea of Victorian women as helpless shrinking violets.  No doubt Michael Gove will decide this is political correctness gone mad and remove her again.

If you want to know more, visit this excellent website about Grace, full of information and lovely pictures.

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