At the age of 22, Grace Darling became a national icon. Living with her parents on a small island off the Northumbrian coast, she became an unwitting celebrity when in 1838, the steamship Forfarshire was wrecked on a neighbouring island.
Grace and her father rescued the ship’s few survivors, rowing their hardy boat almost a mile through stormy weather to reach them. Grace’s actions quickly captured the hearts of Victorian society, so much so that her story has endured for almost 200 years, today immortalised in a museum in her birthplace, Bamburgh.
Who was Grace Darling, and why did she become so famous?
Daughter of a lighthouse keeper
Grace Darling was born on 24 November 1815, in the Northumbrian town of Bamburgh. She was the 7th of 9 children born to William and Thomasin Darling. The family moved to the Farne Islands, about a mile off the northeastern coast, when William became lighthouse keeper for the most seaward island, Longstone.
Each day, William cleaned and lit the lamp atop the jolly red-and-white-striped Longstone Lighthouse, warding ships through the scattering of 20 rocky islets that make up the Farne Islands.
The number of islands rising above the surface is dependent on the changing tides, and creates a treacherous pathway for nearby ships to pass through. Illustrating such, between 1740 and 1837, 42 ships were wrecked there.
As she grew older and increasingly helped her father tend the lighthouse, Grace became entitled to a £70 salary from Trinity House (the lighthouse management authority). She would also have been very capable of handling a rowing boat.
At first light on 7 September 1838, as wind and water whipped at the lighthouse window, Grace spotted a wrecked ship amidst the waves. The Forfarshire was a heavy paddle-steamer carrying around 60 cabin and deck passengers, which had split in half on a rocky outcrop of the islands known as Big Harcar.
The paddle-steamer had left Hull on the 5 September, newly repaired after suffering a series of boiler malfunctions on a previous journey. Yet not long after she set off for Dundee, engine troubles once again caused leaking in the Forfarshire’s boiler.
Captain Humble did not stop for further repairs, instead recruiting the ship’s passengers to help pump boiler water out of the hold. Just off the Northumbrian coast, the boilers stalled and the engine stopped completely. The ship’s sails were hoisted – an emergency measure for steamships.
As the Forfarshire approached the Farne Islands early in the morning, Captain Humble may have mistaken the two lighthouses – one on the closest island to land and the other, Longstone, manned by Grace and William Darling – for the safe distance between the mainland and innermost island, and steered towards the light.
Instead, the ship crashed into Big Harcar, where both ship and crew were mercilessly battered by the storm.
Grace spotted the distressed ship and rallied William to head for their small rowing boat, the waves already too rough for the lifeboat. The Darlings kept to the shelter of the islands as they rowed the mile to where the Forfarshire had wrecked.
Thrown against the rocks, the ship had broken in two. The stern had quickly sunk, drowning almost all of the passengers. The bow was stuck fast upon the rock, with 7 passengers and 5 of the remaining crew clinging to it.
The surviving passengers had managed to get onto a nearby island by the time Grace and William reached them, although the children of Sarah Dawson, as well as the Reverend John Robb, had died of exposure during the night.
Grace helped 5 survivors into the boat and rowed back to the lighthouse where she could take care of them. Her father and 2 men returned for the remaining 4 survivors.
The darling of Victorian Britain
News of the rescue spread quickly. Grace’s bravery was recognised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which awarded her a silver medal for gallantry, while the Royal Humane Society awarded her a gold medal. The young Queen Victoria even sent Grace a reward of £50.
Grace was featured in newspapers across Britain, drawing visitors eager to meet her to the tiny island of Longstone. Those who could not make the journey could still see Grace’s face as part of numerous advertising campaigns, including Cadbury’s chocolate bars and Lifebuoy Soap.
Why did Grace become such a sensation? Foremost, Grace was a young woman. By rowing out to rescue the wrecked crew of the Forfarshire, she had displayed courage and strength, traits viewed as typically masculine. This fascinated Victorian society.
However, Grace’s daring also fed the view that women were innately caring. Her image aligned with the famous nurse of the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale, reinforcing Victorian gender stereotypes whereby men went out to fight while women saved lives.
Secondly, Victorians were well aware of the dangers of seafaring in an age of rapid technological development and intense imperial expansion. The news was full of the feats and failings of sea travel, so Grace racing to her fellow countryman’s aid struck a chord due to nationwide anxieties about disasters at sea.
Grace died from tuberculosis in 1842, just 4 years after the rescue of the Forfarshire. Her premature death cemented the romantic image of a brave young woman willing to sacrifice her life, and allowed stories of the rescue to become exaggerated.
Accounts of the rescue increasingly depicted Grace as having to persuade her father to help the wrecked ship, when according to Grace’s own words he had been as willing as she was to go. Paintings and sculptures fed this version of the story, depicting Grace alone in the rowboat.
Grace Darling was an ordinary young woman who, like her father William, showed extraordinary courage in an emergency. Indeed, despite her almost cult-like following after 1838, Grace spent the remainder of her life living and working beside her parents on Longstone.