The wonder of Grace Darling’s 1838 rescue of nine shipwreck survivors captured hearts the world over. Nicole Cama shares the story of the ‘Heroine of the Farne Islands’ and its tragic conclusion.
What is it about the lighthouse that captures our imagination? true, the lighthouse is a sturdy, dependable symbol of nautical safety, yet often there seems to be less attention afforded to those responsible for tending a lighthouse. there is one story I believe encapsulates the persona of the lighthouse keeper.
As the sun rose on 7 September 1838, a 23-year-old woman named Grace Horsley Darling was peering out a window of Longstone Lighthouse in the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland in England, when she spotted a shipwreck. According a report by her father William Darling, the lighthouse keeper, Grace spotted the wreck at about 4.45am. It wasn’t until 7am that they were both able to observe people moving on a nearby rock and decided to launch a rescue effort. Over the next two hours, Grace and her father battled strong winds and intimidating swells in their 20-foot (6-metre) boat to rescue nine people from the wreck of SS Forfarshire. As they paddled perilously close to the rock, William leapt across to assist the survivors while Grace faced the difficult task of manoeuvring the vessel on her own. Within days of the rescue, word spread of Grace’s heroic deed. Her story of survival during what was considered a suicidal mission spread to neighbouring towns before it travelled across the Atlantic to America and finally to Australia, where it was first reported in newspapers in February the following year.
Over the next few decades artistic works were created in her honour. One such work is the quickstep dance “Wrecker’s Daughter” (1840), from the Australian National Maritime Museum’s collection. The image on the cover, depicting Grace near the bow of the boat with her father, captures the drama of her story. She is holding an oar determinedly and fearlessly peering into the distance at the sinking vessel, despite the gale-force winds. the cover of the ballad “Grace Darling”, also from the museum’s collection, is just as theatrical: the sinking vessel appears oversized with Grace and her father, minuscule in comparison, shown rowing near the lighthouse towards the desperate scene. this image is accompanied by the lyrics:
My gentle child! ‘Twere worse than madness
To tempt the billow this fearful night;
Again to sleep, to rest betake thee
Await, await the morning’s light.
I cannot sleep, their shrieks appal me
Oh! Father, heard ye that piercing cry?
Arise, ye, hasten, the day is breaking
Look out, look out, a wreck I spy …
The boat is launch’d thro’ breakers roaring,
Like to some wild bird, the frail skiff flew.
That gentle girl, with love unshaken
Has saved from death that hapless crew …
All accounts, paintings, ballads and poems written about Grace seemed to view her connection to the lighthouse as an intrinsic part of her identity. The lighthouse keeper is perpetually depicted as the silent, unwavering guardian of the seas. Yet in addition to that image is the romanticised and perhaps stereotypical view of the rough-and-ready nature of seaside dwellers. Implicit in that stereotype was the focus on these people as inherently solitary and unassuming. Perhaps that is exactly what artists and writers felt was most remarkable about Grace; the very fact that she was unremarkable. In February 1839, The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser noted that despite her ‘peculiar’ situation of ‘solitude and seclusion’, ‘we find her evincing a depth of feeling, and a nobleness of soul, which we might look for in vain amongst many of those of either sex who are pampered in the lap of luxury….’
In 1841, the writer Charles Ellms noted in The Tragedy of the Seas that despite her ‘isolated abode’ in that ‘lonely spot in the middle of the ocean’, she exhibited ‘noble heroism’. Ellms’ description of meeting ‘the heroine’ after the disaster reads like something out of a romance novel: Grace was ‘high aloft, lighting the lamps, whose revolving illumination has warned so many an anxious mariner of the rocks and shoals around. At the side where we alighted, a bold cliff is to be ascended ere you reach the lighthouse.’ Ellms’ final comments seem to allude to these characteristics yet again, emphasising the enduring qualities of Grace’s story and how it evidently transcends the lighthouse itself:
Eminent poets, dramatists, and painters, have vied with each other in extending her renown. And the name of Grace Darling is destined to live in story, long after the ponderous blocks of granite, which compose the Longstone lighthouse, have crumbled from their foundation, and been ground into sand by the attrition of the surrounding ocean.
Grace died of tuberculosis in 1842, four years after the sinking of Forfarshire. In light of the numerous tributes to Grace following her death, Ellms’ prediction is particularly poignant
NOTE: This article was first published in Inside History magazine, Issue 18, (Sep–Oct 2013), pp 52–53. Reproduced courtesy of Inside History magazine.