Grace Darling was 22 when her life changed.
On the night of 7 September 1838, a steamship called the Forfarshire was sailing from Hull in Yorkshire to Dundee in Scotland. The ship’s engines failed and around 60 crew and passengers were in peril in a storm.
The captain, looking for shelter, mistook the Longstone Lighthouse for the lighthouse on Inner Farne, nearer the shore. A large wave swept the ship up in the air and it crashed down onto Big Harcar rock.
Half of the ship sank within 15 minutes and dozens of men, women and children lost their lives. Some hadn’t even had time to escape their cabins. Nine people made it into the ship’s lifeboat. Another nine survivors scrambled onto the rocks, away from the raging sea.
From the vantage point of Longstone Lighthouse at 4.45am, Grace Darling saw the outline of the wreck. As dawn came at 7am she spotted survivors moving on Big Harcar rock.
Grace and her father, William, thought that conditions would prevent the launching of the North Sunderland lifeboat. They both saw it as their duty to try and rescue the survivors.
They took one oar each on their wooden rowing boat, a coble. The tide and wind were so strong that they had to row for nearly a mile to avoid the jagged rocks and reach the survivors safely.
William leapt out of the boat and on to the rocks, which left Grace to handle the boat alone. To keep it in one place, she had to take both oars and row backwards and forwards, trying to keep it from being smashed on the reef. On the rocks, William found eight men, including one who was badly injured. There was also a woman holding two children, both of whom had died.
The boat only had room for five people – the injured man and the woman, plus three men, William and Grace. The three men and William rowed together back to the lighthouse. Grace stayed at the lighthouse and looked after the survivors with her mother.
Her father and two of the Forfarshire crew returned for the other four men.
Both Grace and her father were awarded gold medals from the Royal Humane Society, and Silver Medals for Gallantry from the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). She was the first woman to receive an RNLI Medal. Queen Victoria even sent her £50.
The story hit the front pages of all the newspapers. In story-telling terms, the tale has much to commend it. Like many classic tales, it boils down to a hero overcoming a monster, in this case the raging sea.
The brave rescuers were celebrated all around the world. It was Grace who got the attention, as an unlikely hero in most people’s eyes. A woman demonstrating strength and bravery was headline news. ‘Is there in the field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment, with this?’ wrote The Times in 1838. She became a celebrity.
It was more than 15 minutes of fame and Grace didn’t enjoy the attention. Her life changed and she couldn’t go anywhere without being approached by fans. Her story takes a tragic turn.
Without cameras, many people were desperate to know what Grace looked like. She found that writing thank-you letters and sitting for portraits left her little time to get on with her life. She was humble and hated the limelight and the countless requests for locks of her hair, a common request in Victorian times. Grace longed for her old simple life, working in the lighthouse with her family.
Four years after the famous rescue, in 1842, Grace became ill with tuberculosis. On 20 October that year, Grace died at the age of 26. Hundreds of people, rich and poor, crowded the Northumberland village of Bamburgh to say goodbye.
Her story became all the more powerful and enduring due to her celebrity and tragic early death. It has helped keep her memory alive. She has inspired works of art – countless poems (including one by William Wordsworth), books and paintings.
Some works have been more accurate than others. In the late 19th century she was depicted as the epitome of Englishness, when her father was actually Scottish. Some paintings depicted Grace as a statuesque figure with flowing blonde hair – she had brown hair and was 5ft 2.
What is undisputed fact is that Grace and her father courageously put their own lives at risk for the sake of others.
Grace and William were humble and pragmatic about their lifesaving. In their eyes, they were simply doing their duty. It’s a story that’s mirrored by other brave lifeboat volunteers through the ages – ordinary people doing something extraordinary.