Grace Darling, the reluctant Victorian heroine
I first heard the name Grace Darling when a friend of mine was involved in a singing group named after the reluctant Victorian heroine. Initially, I’d misheard their name and wrongly assumed they were the Grey Starlings, which made some sense as birds sing, right? Having finally clarified that their real name was not in fact related to feathered creatures, I was intrigued to find out more about her, but shelved it in my mighty ‘to do’ list that never seems to get any shorter.
Her name entered my consciousness again in recent times as she was on the curriculum at my seven-year-old daughter’s infant school when they were studying Victorian heroes. The story had fascinated her and it seemed fortuitous that we would spend a week’s holiday near Seahouses and Bamburgh where there’s a free Grace Darling Museum, refurbished in recent times.
Virtually everywhere you go in this part of the world you feel the presence of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Her face, pinched in concentration as she rows through the stormy seas, is immortalised in an oil painting that appears on the museum’s leaflets.
While touring the inner Farne islands on a catamaran, we passed the island where she lived with her family on a lighthouse. This was the place where she rowed out with her father in terrible conditions to rescue the survivors of a stricken steam paddler. It was humbling to walk in her footsteps. She was only in her early 20s when she carried out her rescue.
We had wanted to go to the Farne Islands on the first day of our holiday, such was the eagerness to see where Grace lived and see some puffins at close range. However, the catamaran Serenity Two was fully booked as it was a Bank Holiday. The puffin numbers are lower than usual this year; the dumpy birds seem to be staying out at sea because of the poor weather.
Luckily, a few days later the puffins had graced the islands with their presence. There were Arctic terns, too, making an unholy din as they were nesting and they clearly disliked the human interlopers. I had my head pecked by a cross Arctic tern and my husband was pecked twice. A seal languished on the beach, basking in the sun.
Thanks to the research of my youngest daughter, Ella, I can tell you that Grace Darling was born at her grandfather’s cottage in 1815. She was taken, shortly after, to Longstone Lighthouse, a new lighthouse built near the Farne Islands – a notorious spot for shipwrecks – where her father William was lighthouse keeper.
One night in September 1838, Grace was minding the lighthouse during rough seas. The SS Forfarshire, a ship that was supposedly unsinkable, hit Harcar rock in the early hours of the morning.
Grace woke her parents and she and her father rowed their coble for nearly a mile in terrible conditions to rescue the survivors. They found nine survivors clinging to a rock. Grace held the coble steady in the raging winds while her father led the survivors into the boat. They couldn’t all fit in. Among them was a woman who was clinging to the bodies of her two dead babies.
William and some of the sailors returned to rescue any other survivors from the shipwreck but no one was alive by the time they reached them. Food supplies were low and many of the survivors had to sleep in outbuildings.
Grace Darling became a reluctant heroine and was celebrated in the media in Victorian times. Four years later, she died of TB and her sister Thomasin became the keeper of her sister’s memory.
Perhaps the most amazing part of Grace’s legacy was the rescue helped start what became the RNLI, which still saves hundreds of lives every year. My daughter, Ella, said she’s a good role model too. I tend to agree with her.
The museum at Bamburgh has Grace’s coble as the centrepiece of its exhibits. Her name is painted on the side. Above the coble, a film runs on a loop telling her story. My daughter listened intently to the narrative, never boring of it.
There’s her Christening robe and the pink dress she shared with her sister, plus a lock of hair bleached blonde by the sun. She was tiny, which made the rescue seem all the more remarkable.
Letters written by Grace indicate how innocent she was: her father disapproved of books (other than the Bible) and had a deep religious faith.
Grace is buried at St Aidan’s Church, overlooking the North Sea, and an elaborate memorial is housed in the churchyard. It was a suitably grey and cloudy day when we visited, with temperatures in single figures, which seemed apt.
I wonder what Grace Darling would think if she realised that, more than 170 years on, her memory is still being kept alive.
By Helen Carter
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.