Grace Darling, the Lighthouse Heroine

Artist Thomas Musgrave Joy captured the moment when Grace Darling and her father reached the shipwreck survivors
Artist Thomas Musgrave Joy captured the moment when Grace Darling and her father reached the shipwreck survivors

by Ray Setterfield

November 24, 1815 — It would be wrong to describe Grace Darling as an unsung heroine – songs have been composed about her right up to 2017, books have been written, a choir has been named after her and more than 200 years after she was born on this day a website dedicated to her is thriving.

Grace was born in the town of Bamburgh in the North-Eastern English county of Northumberland. Her father, William, was the main keeper of the Longstone lighthouse on the nearby Farne Islands – a collection of rocks and small islands lying off the forbidding cliff of Bamburgh and notorious as a ships' graveyard.

Countless vessels had come to grief here, many of the Farne rocks bearing names hinting at their ability to tear ships apart, among them the Fang and the Knivestone.

In September 1838 the Forfarshire, a luxury paddle steamship with 61 passengers on board, foundered on the rocks about three quarters of a mile from the lighthouse and broke in half. Only the bow and fore sections of the ship remained.

Grace, who lived in the lighthouse with her father, her mother, Thomasin, and eight brothers and sisters, was looking out of a window in the early hours when she saw the wreck of the Forfarshire and counted 13 survivors clinging to a rock.

She told her father that they must mount a rescue. But with his sons away and only Grace and his wife in the lighthouse at the time, William at first refused to do anything, pointing out that the sea was far too rough and their only vessel, a 21ft open rowing boat, needed a crew of three strong men at the best of times.

But Grace would not take No for an answer so she and her father soon set out on their perilous rescue mission.

When they got to the wreck site there were only nine survivors. They told the Darlings that 13 had made it to the rock in the night but four had been swept away.

As the storm continued to rage, Grace held the rowing boat as steady as she could while her father helped five of the survivors, including a woman, into the rocking craft. William, helped by two of the rescued crew, then rowed them back to the lighthouse.

He returned with two of the rescued crewmen and picked up the remaining four survivors.

The rescue against all the odds caught the imagination of the public and Grace was showered with praise – and gifts – the role of her father being largely ignored.

The young Queen Victoria, just nineteen at the time, sent Grace £50 as a token of her esteem. Among the sacks of fan-mail there were requests for locks of her hair or pieces of the dress that she wore during the rescue. Shops began to sell Grace Darling-themed plates, postcards and even boxes of chocolates!

Her story and her fame spread across Europe and then even further afield. Accounts of Grace's heroism were published in Japan, America and Australia. One of the oldest surviving pubs in Melbourne is the Grace Darling Hotel, opened in 1854.

Sadly, Grace fell ill with tuberculosis in 1842 and was taken to her place of birth, Bamburgh, where she died. She was just 26 years old.

Published: November 7, 2018
Updated: September 11, 2020

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