Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2018

Will the Real Ida Lewis Please Stand Up?

The History Mystery of the Rowboat Heroine

By Debra Baldwin


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This 1877 wood engraving of Ida Lewis was ...

The people of Great Britain are extremely proud of their Lighthouse heroines, Grace Darling being chief among them. Grace lived a very short life, having been born in the Farne Islands in 1815 and dying in 1842 of “consumption” or tuberculosis, which was a common malady of the times. She was the daughter of English lighthouse keeper, William Darling, who tended Brownsman Island Lighthouse shortly after Grace was born, and then transferred to the new Longstone Island Lighthouse after it was completed in 1826.

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Scholars thought that the painting of the rowboat ...

Grace’s claim to lighthouse fame was in assisting in the rescue of survivors of the shipwrecked Forfarshire, a paddlesteamer that ran aground on a low rocky island near the lighthouse in 1838. Grace went with her father out into heavy seas in the station rowboat to rescue a group of passengers and crew who were stranded on the rocks as a storm was gathering. Grace and her father received the Silver Medal for bravery given by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, which today goes under the name of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. She was a national hero and heavily publicized in newspaper accounts and biographies.

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Carte de Visites appeared around the latter half ...

We, here in the “Colonies,” are also very proud of our lighthouse heroines, Ida Lewis being one of our stellar examples. There are many similarities between Ida and Grace Darling, so much so that Ida was referred to as the “Grace Darling of America” in many publications.

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Many newspaper articles and books were published ...

Idawalley Zoradia Lewis was born in 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island to Captain Hosea Lewis who became a lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock Light in 1853. The family, including Ida, came to live with him there in 1857. When her father became permanently disabled shortly thereafter, Ida helped take over the lighthouse duties and became adept at using the heavy rowboat.

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American heroine Ida Lewis kept the light for 54 ...

In 1873, Hosea Lewis died, and while Ida’s mother was officially appointed keeper, it was Ida who did the work. She was appointed keeper after her mother’s death in 1878 and continued in the post until 1911 when she died of a stroke at age 69.

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British heroine Grace Darling was born in the ...

Ida Lewis made her first rescue when she was but 12 years old. Her most famous recorded rescue occurred in 1869 at the age of 27, when a small boat carrying two soldiers and a small boy overturned in the harbor during a snowstorm. Ida rushed to the rescue without coat or shoes, and taking her younger brother with her, she was able to save the two men. For this rescue, she received the Gold Congressional Medal for Life-Saving and gained widespread public fame. Over the 54 years she lived at Lime Rock Lighthouse, she saved between 18 – 25 people. Newspaper articles and biographies of her also abounded.

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This circa 1860s stereoview image shows Ida Lewis ...

In 1877, a book entitled Women of the Century was written by Phebe Hanaford and published in Boston. A biography of Ida Lewis was included in the book, along with a wood engraving illustration of her rowing in a small open boat with her hair flying in the wind. The engraving has “Ida Lewis” written directly under it.

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Longstone Island Lighthouse was where Grace was ...

However, it is the same image used in 1890s Stevengraph silk postcards, and carte de visites (CdV’s) in the same era. The CdV’s had both heroine’s names printed on either end of the card, so you could choose who you wanted it to be depending on where the card was sold and simply cut off the other end.

But who actually created the image first? Was it an engraver in America or Britain who did the artwork? And was it originally intended to be Grace Darling or Ida Lewis?

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which actually has a Grace Darling Museum as part of their many campuses, has on display a painting of Grace Darling, painted by Thomas Brooks, that is the same image as the Ida Lewis/Grace Darling engraving. However, it is undated. Was this the original source? British scholars thought the painting dated to the 1880s, so the Ida Lewis image would have been first.

The answer was found in an engraving of the rowboat heroine, done by famous British printmaker George Zobel. The printing plate at the bottom of the print had also been engraved with all the credit information, and was part of the print: “GRACE DARLING Painted by T. Brooks, London: Published April 1st 1870 by B. Brooks, 18 Hatton Garden, Engraved by G. Zobel.”

In one of the rowboat planks in the engraved image, Zobel had written “Brooks 1868,” which gave the actual date for the undated painting in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution!

Zobel’s engraving came across the ocean sometime after 1870 to be formally published here which would have allowed anyone to use it for the 1877 Hanaford book wood engraving. The image has been used many times and in many publications since then to represent Ida Lewis.

Truth be told, the facial features actually resemble Ida much more than they do Grace.

But whether the image is of America’s Ida Lewis or Britain’s Grace Darling, it still represents the determination and bravery of young lighthouse heroines who saved lives without fear for losing their own. Of this, both nations can be proud.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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