Digest>Archives> October 2002

Women of the Light

Grace Darling: The Reluctant Heroine

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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An old postcard of Longstone Lighthouse. ...

The name Grace Darling needs no introduction to even casual lighthouse buffs. The daughter of the keeper of England’s Longstone Lighthouse is a revered member of the pantheon of female lighthouse heroines, a rarefied group that includes Ida Lewis, Katie Walker and Abbie Burgess. But few on this side of the Atlantic know how this Victorian superstar earned her high standing in history and mythology. You may be surprised to learn that Grace Horsley Darling found her fame on the heels of a single act of bravery.

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One of the many 19th century portraits drawn of ...

Born in 1815 in Bamburgh, Northumberland, Grace spent her early years on Brownsman Island in the Farne Islands, where her father was assistant keeper. The Brownsman Island Lighthouse was deemed insufficient, and in 1826 William Darling became the head keeper at a new lighthouse established at Longstone, the desolate, outermost rock of the Farne Islands in the North Sea.

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This romantic painting of Grace can be seen at ...

Young Grace, like so many daughters and sons of lighthouse keepers before and after, learned to help her father with many tasks. She became expert at rowing the station’s coble, a flat-bottomed rowboat, often rowing with her mother ashore to visit a married sister. In all, Grace had six older siblings living on the mainland. Grace’s younger brother, William Brooks Darling, also helped at the lighthouse, but he was away fishing on the fateful day of September 7, 1838.

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The memorial at Grace Darling’s grave in St. ...

During the preceding night the luxurious two year-old steamer Forfarshire, on a voyage from Hull to Dundee with about 60 passengers and crew on board, had boiler problems that caused its engines to shut down. The vessel was under sail power when the captain apparently tried to seek shelter from a strong north-northeast wind under the lee of the Farne Islands. The Forfarshire was wrecked on Big Harcar (sometimes called Hawkers) Rock. Nine men - eight crew members and one passenger - escaped quickly in a lifeboat. It was later reported that the captain, with his wife in his arms, went down with his ship.

As day broke, Grace Darling spotted the wreck from her upstairs bedroom window. Her father surveyed the situation with his telescope. With little hesitation William and Grace Darling decided to row out to do what they could for possible survivors. Grace’s mother, 12 years older than her father, fainted as the two left to battle heavy seas in the little coble.

Reaching the rocks and the remains of the Forfarshire, the Darlings found fewer than a dozen passengers and crew still clinging to life. William clambered onto the rocks while Grace maneuvered the coble close by. They managed to load five people into the boat, including a woman whose small children had died in her arms. They also took an injured crew member and three able-bodied men.

After they returned to the lighthouse, Grace stayed with her mother and three of the survivors while her father returned to the wreck with two of the crew members. They returned with the remaining four. In all, the Darlings saved nine people - four crew and five passengers. About a half hour later a crew of fishermen - including William Brooks Darling - arrived at the wreck site and found only the dead. This crew joined the others at the lighthouse, and a total of 19 people waited out the rough weather at Longstone for the next three days.

Many of the early newspaper reports focused on whether the ship had been allowed to sail with faulty boilers, and also on the apparent cowardice of the crew members who quickly made off in a lifeboat. But soon the papers found a positive aspect of the story to latch onto - the selfless action of the 22 year-old woman who risked her own life for others. Quiet, modest Grace Darling became the subject of what can only be called a media frenzy.

In November 1838, Grace received a letter from the Treasury informing her that “Her Majesty has signified Her Pleasure.” Her Majesty was Victoria, who had become queen at the age of 18 only a year before. Three local branches of the Royal Humane Society awarded Grace silver medals, their highest award for bravery. The parent organization gave Grace and William Darling gold medals— the first time that they had ever bestowed that honor.

Grace Darling was a star for her time on the level of, say, Britney Spears or Princess Diana in our own day. But Grace was a reluctant superstar whose fame was not of her own choosing.

Within a short time after her heroic deed, 12 different artists voyaged to Longstone to paint Grace’s portrait. A bust of Grace sculpted by David Dunbar can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Wordsworth and many others wrote poems singing her praises. One poem called her the “Grace of Womanhood and Darling of Mankind.” She filled requests for locks of her hair until she barely had any left on her head. (There also appears to have been a lucrative black market dealing in counterfeit “Grace Darling locks.”) She was even offered 50 pounds and expenses to appear in a play (about a shipwreck, of course) in London.

Travel writer William Howitt met Grace Darling and is quoted in Jessica Mitford’s excellent biography, Grace Had an English Heart: “She is a little simple, modest woman... She is neither tall nor handsome, but she has the most gentle, quiet, amiable look, and the sweetest smile that I ever saw in a person of her station and appearance... Her figure is by no means striking; quite the contrary; but her face is full of sense, modesty and genuine goodness; and that is just the character she bears.”

Grace’s own words to an interviewer reflect her modesty and common sense. “You requested me to let you know whether I felt pleasure to be out in a rough sea,” she wrote, “which I can assure you there is none, I think, to any person in their sober senses... I have had occasion to be in the boat with my Father for want of better help, but never at the saving of lives before, and I pray God may never be again.”

The gifts and honors she received brought Grace Darling little happiness. She found it stressful to deal with the media attention and rarely went ashore.

In April 1942 Grace rowed to Bamburgh to visit her sister, and shortly after her return to Longstone she fell ill. Grace Darling died of tuberculosis in her father’s arms on October 20, 1842, four years after the wreck of the Forfarshire. William Darling survived almost to the age of 80, dying in 1865. He was buried by the side of his daughter.

Grace’s funeral attracted a huge crowd of mourners. She was buried in St. Aidens Churchyard in her native Bamburgh. A memorial was built over Grace Darling’s grave in 1844 by a London sculptor in the style of a 13th century canopied tomb, depicting her holding an oar as she sleeps peacefully. The memorial has undergone many restorations. When funds were needed for its repair in 1885, one of the contributors was Ida Lewis, the heroine of Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island. Ida Lewis, frequently called the “Grace Darling of America,” was born in 1842, the year Grace Darling died.

There is also a small museum in Bamburgh devoted to the life and legend of Grace Darling, with its central attraction being the coble used by Grace and William Darling in their famous rescue. Grace Darling has been celebrated as a fearless heroine, but perhaps the greatest respect we can pay her is to see her life as emblematic of centuries of lighthouse keepers, wives and children who have simply and quietly done their duty, usually in obscurity.

This story appeared in the October 2002 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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