Grace Darling

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Grace Darling and the sinking of the Forfarshire.

Grace_DarlingThe story of Grace Darling is well known. It’s often published in magazines that cater to young girls, possibly being thought to be inspirational.

But why did she achieve such fame? Are the stories about her true?

It’s certainly the case that she helped her father – a lighthouse keeper – to rescue nine people from a wrecked ship of the coast of Northumberland in 1838 but are parts of her story mythical? Were there other heroines who were similar?

The Forfarshire

The Forfarshire was a steamer which set sail on September 5th from Hull to Dundee. Steam ships were a novelty in those days and the Forfarshire was very grand indeed.

The ship was sumptuously appointed with luxurious staterooms and lavish public salons.  Although much smaller, you could call it the Titanic of its day. On that September voyage, sixty two people were aboard.

On the first day of the voyage, the boilers started leaking. and the weather was becoming bad. Shortly after this, the engine broke down. Instead of turning the ship to the nearest port, Captain Humble called for the sails to be hoisted. This was fatal for the ship because steamboats had notoriously bad steering abilities when under sail. Just before four in the morning of September 7th,the ship ran aground on the perilous Big Harcar Rock in the Farne Islands and broke in two. Thirty five people died, nine escaped in a lifeboat and a further nine were stranded on the rock itself.

Longstone Lighthouse

The lighthouse was three quarters of a mile away from the rock where the people were stranded. The lighthouse keeper was William Darling. Together with his daughter Grace – his son being away – he rowed to the rock and rescued the eight men and one woman who were trapped there.

According to legend, Grace was woken by the cries of the people on the rock. This is unlikely to be true because of the distance and the sound of the crashing waves. It is also said that William Darling had to be persuaded by his daughter to go to their aid and that he said the weather was too bad to do so. This too is most unlikely as he had a long and exemplary record. With son William away and a 21 foot rowing boat to handle, Darling had two choices. He needed help to row the boat and his choice was between his twenty two year old daughter and his wife who was in her sixties.

Mrs Darling had borne and brought up nine children and she was no longer a young woman. It must have been an easy decision. Grace should be the one to help him row the boat. Mrs Darling helped him manhandle the rowing boat into the water and he and Grace set off to rescue the people stranded on the rock.

The stranded survivors

The one woman on the rock was in a pitiful state as her two young children had died in the accident. Four of the survivors were members of the crew and the other four had been passengers on board the Forfarshire. One of the crewmen had been injured. William Darling jumped onto the rock and helped the woman, Mrs Dawson, into his boat. He got the injured crewman aboard too. The three able bodied crewmen helped him to row back to the lighthouse while Grace tended to the injured man.

Mrs Darling and Grace then looked after him and Mrs Dawson at the lighthouse and William and two of the crew members rowed back to the rocks to rescue the remaining men.

When the news of the shipwreck and the rescue was first reported, there was no mention of Grace. The newspapers’ priority was to ascertain who was to blame for the tragic accident. It was decided that Captain Humble had made the wrong decision. They also discovered that the other nine people who had escaped in a lifeboat were all crewmen with the exception of one man. They were deemed cowardly.

So when they heard that a twenty two year old girl had been involved in the rescue it made a great heart-warming story that restored the readers’ faith in human nature – they made the most of the story. One of the first to report about Grace exclaimed that even though she was ‘only twenty two year of age!’ she displayed a heroism that ‘in a female transcends all praise’. (My slightly grumpy italics).

One paper gloated “Is there ever in the whole field of history, or fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?” Um yes, of course, is the answer – but the fact did not stop the newspapers. England went crazy. The Duke of Northumberland  set up a trust for Grace and Queen Victoria donated £50. Well-wishers arrived at the lighthouse and even a number of portrait painters who wanted to capture Grace’s likeness.

Four years later, Grace died of tuberculosis. The Duke of Northumberland had remained interested in her life and had her attended to by his own physician but in vain. An elaborate tomb was created for her and over the years her likeness appeared chocolate boxes, tea tins and any manner of ornaments.

Other girl heroes

What’s unusual is that Grace Darling story should have become so famous. Other girls, some only teenagers, have been equally heroic if not more so.

  • Maebelle Mason was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper working on the Detroit River. She was just fourteen when, with her mother, she rowed into a fierce current to rescue and drowning man
  • Kate Moore of Connecticut started trimming the lamps at the Black Rock Lighthouse when she was twelve. She remained there until she was in her eighties and saved at least twenty one lives
  • Abbie Burgess was the daughter of the keeper of the Matinicus Rock Light in Maine. At fourteen years of age she was in charge of keeping the lighthouse alight during the terrible gale of 1856. The light never faltered even though the lighthouse keeper’ house was completely destroyed.
  • Kate Walker was the keeper of the Robbins Reef Light, New York. She was less than five feet tall and weighed less than one hundred pounds. She rescued more than fifty people. On one occasion, she rowed out alone to rescue the crew of a sinking schooner
  • Ida Lewis was the daughter of the keeper of the Lime Rock lighthouse in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island. When she was sixteen her father had a stroke and she took over his job. That same years she single-handedly saved four men who were clinging to an overturned boat


Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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1 Comment

  1. Many unsung heroes go unremembered and it’s surprising what people can do when pushed to the limits

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