A Victorian Heroine
The story of Grace Darling would have been familiar to all Victorian children. Her story had all the elements to stir the Victorian heart. She was young, she was pretty, and she was brave.
Grace lived with her father William, and her mother Thomasina, in the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands. The Farne Islands were off the coast of Northumberland and were in an area known as a shipping graveyard because of the large number of ships that came to grief on the dangerous rocks. During the night of 7 September 1838, when Grace was 23, there was a violent storm and. looking out of a window in the early hours, Grace spottted a boat wrecked on the nearby island called Big Harcar. They could see the wreckage of the Forfarshire, a paddle steamer, which had broken in two on the rocky island. It had been travelling from Hull to Dundee. Grace and her father discussed what to do. They knew that it would be impossible for the lifeboat to come out from Seahouses, the nearest lifeboat station, as the weather was too bad. They decided to take a 21 foot, four seater rowing boat, known as a coble, across to the island by an indirect route which they thought would be safer as it was more sheltered.
After rowing for a mile, Grace kept the boat steady while her father helped four of the men survivors and just one woman into the boat. The woman, a Mrs Dawson, had lost her two children in the wreck. They rowed the boat back to the lighthouse, where Grace stayed to make them as comfortable as she could. Her father rowed back to the wreck with some of the men, to bring back the remaining survivors.
When the lifeboat eventually made it to Big Harcar, they found all the survivors had been rescued, but they recovered the bodies of Mrs Dawson's children and also a vicar who had also perished. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated again, and the lifeboat crew, one of whom was Grace's brother, decided to take shelter at the lighthouse. It was three days before the weather had improved enough to return to shore.
The Forfarshire had been carrying 63 passengers, and nine had escaped in a lifeboat and had been rescued by a passing ship, which with the nine survivors in the lighthouse made a total of 18. The story of the heroic rescue travelled around the nation and Grace Darling received much acclaim as well as a large financial reward. The story so captured the public imagination that plays, stories and poems were written about the heroine. (Here is a poem by William McGonagall) Grace even had to fight off numerous portrait painters, remeber these were the days before press photography. Within five weeks of the event, seven portraits had been painted, and William Darling had to write to the press asking that any future portraits be taken from the ones already completed.
As the story was passed on, it was embellished and a legend was created. Claims were made that Grace had urged her father to make a rescue for which he was showing reluctance. Then it was suggested that the cries of the crew and passengers on the sinking ship had awoken Grace who had then awoken and alerted her father. This would have been a remarkable occurence if it were true, for the cries would have had to have travelled over the noise of the storm and then penetrated the thick walls of the lighthouse. A newspaper claimed that "One of the old seamen was moved to tears when he saw a young female of slender appearance risking her life for their preservation".
The story had every possible element to make it striking and memorable. The remoteness of the island, the strong might of the sea, and a heroine who fulfilled every aspect of Victorian rectitude: a loyal, devoted daughter who willingly served her father as a housekeeper. William Darling, Grace's father, who had been as much involved in the rescue was cast aside, and in many accounts was just referred to as "her father". Even after William Darling carried out other heroic rescues later in life, the public still wanted Grace.
Grace Darling Memorial
As soon as the story became known, members of the public wrote to Grace Darling requesting locks of her hair or scraps from the dress she wore for the rescue. She cut so many locks that her friends feared she might have to resort to wearing a wig while her hair grew again. Even Queen Victoria wrote, praising the young girl's courage and enclosing £50, a large amount in those days. By the mid-eighteenth century, in the start of the Industrial Revolution, many products were being made depicting a likeness of Grace Darling. Chocolate boxes, tea caddies and children's annuals all helped to spread the story of Grace Darling.
Sadly Grace Darling didn't live long after the rescue and she died of tubercolosis in 1842, just over four years later. Even her death seemd somehow heroic with Grace dying in the arms of her father. Her death froze the story in time. Grace was forever the devoted young maiden, never destined to marry or have children.
The legacy lives on with the RNLI naming lifeboats in her honour, and there is a museum celebrating her achievements. She also is commemorated in musicals and songs up to the present time.
In reality Grace Darling was an unremarkable woman who had been in the right place at the right time. She certainly had not sought fame, and regarded her actions as those anyone would have done in her situation. Her sister, Thomasina, some forty years after the wreck, wrote a book in which she tried to separate fact from fiction and provide a more accurate account, but the truth is that the Victorian people and those of future generations preferred the legend and put Grace Darling forever on the pedestal.