Grace Darling, Northumbrian Heroine
Guest blogger Laura Porter finds historical inspiration from her stay at Doxford Hall, Northumberland.
At a recent stay at Doxford Hall Hotel & Spa near Alnwick, Northumberland, my room was named ‘Grace Darling’ and I discovered a Victorian heroine from the area.
Grace was born in nearby Bamburgh in 1815, the seventh of nine children and the fourth daughter. Her father, William Darling, was a lighthouse keeper and the family lived at the lighthouse with him. In 1826, when Grace was ten years old, her family moved to the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands in Northumberland and Grace was educated at home.
On the night of 6/7 September 1838, when she was 22 years old, only Grace and her father were at the lighthouse and there was a dreadful storm that stopped her younger brother returning from a fishing trip at Seahouses.
In the early hours of 7 September, Grace saw the shipwreck of the SS Forfarshire from the upstairs window at Longstone Lighthouse. It had broken in half, and one of the halves had sunk during the night. With her father, they used a telescope for hours looking for survivors and when daylight broke around 7am they spotted people on Big Harcar, a nearby low rock island.
The pair risked their own lives by taking an open fishing boat even though the storm wasn’t over. They rowed for over a mile through gale force winds and during a two hour period they rescued nine survivors, a mix of passengers and crewman. Their courage became legendary.
From her remote lifestyle on the beautiful Farne Islands, Grace was thrust into the media spotlight, and portrait painters (like today’s paparazzi) used the modern technology of the day to reproduce her image on mass-produced mementoes, which made her story spread wider and last longer.
Queen Victoria heard about this brave young woman and wrote to Grace to praise her conduct and awarded her £50 (the equivalent of around £4,000 today) for her courageous actions. She also received the RNLI’s Silver Medal for Gallantry, while gold medals were awarded to both Grace and her father by the Royal Humane Society.
A beautiful maiden and devoted daughter, Grace sadly died of tuberculosis in 1842, aged just 26 years old, which only perpetuated her angelic status. William Wordsworth wrote a Grace Darling poem and many songs were written about this heroine including this one. Even the lifeboat at Seahouses is called Grace Darling.
The RNLI founded the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh in September 1938, exactly 100 years after that courageous night. At the museum you can see the actual coble boat from the rescue, pieces of the wrecked SS Forfarshire, Grace’s dresses, letters and family belongings as well as a plethora of trinkets produced to honor her bravery.
Grace is buried in the churchyard at St Aiden’s Church in Bamburgh and there is a stained glass memorial window in the North Transept of the church, as well as a memorial in the churchyard.
I hope to return to Northumberland in the summer as I’ve still not visited Bamburgh Castle and Waren House Hotel looks like a great place to stay nearby. And as I’ve also not had fish and chips at Seahouses, it would be so very wrong not to go back soon.
Laura Porter writes the About.com London Travel site which is an online travel guide for visitors to London. She also writes every month for the Visit Britain Super Blog. Laura has lived in the London area all her life and can’t imagine ever wanting to live elsewhere (although she now has a real fondness for Northumberland). You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook too.