A gale of chilly wind propelled us down the steep slope from Bamburgh Castle along Radcliffe Road as we scurried past snails, rushed by rose-covered cottages and passed up petting jacketed dogs on walks. I was on a mission to see Grace in less than 30 minutes.
Few knew this gentle girl, but when duty called, her courage made her a national heroine, prized far and wide throughout the United Kingdom for her bravery and modesty. Meet Grace Darling.
Grace’s story begins on November 24, 1815, when she was born in Bamburgh, the seventh of a lighthouse-keeper’s nine children. Grace’s life took a fateful turn during the stormy early morning of September 7, 1838, when the 22-year-old looked out of an upstairs window of Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast. She spotted the wreck of a steamship on a nearby island called Big Harcar. The SS Forfarshire, carrying more than 60 crew and passengers, had hit Big Harcar and broken in half, and one of the halves had sunk overnight.
Grace and her father, William, jumped into action to rescue the survivors. Since the North Sea was so rough, they decided to take a coble — a rowboat designed for working in shallow waters — instead of a lifeboat for the half-mile journey. When they reached the wreck, Grace held the coble steady in gale-force winds while her father helped the first five of nine survivors climb aboard. William and two of the Forfarshire crew returned to pick up the remaining survivors, while Grace and her mother stayed behind in the lighthouse, caring for those who had been rescued first.
News traveled fast about Grace’s bravery while risking her life to rescue others, and she soon became famous. Several artists came to the lighthouse in order to paint portraits of her that would accompany newspaper stories about the event in those pre-photography days. Tourists came to Bamburgh hoping to get a glimpse of Grace. Others wrote to her asking for locks of her dark brown hair that they could plait and place into memorial brooches. The attention was so great that the Duke of Northumberland stepped in to ensure her well-being.
Grace and her father were awarded with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Medal for Gallantry in risking their lives to save others; the medal was the first to be awarded to a woman. Queen Victoria sent her £50. “The girl with windswept hair” was immortalized in verse, including Grace Darling, by William Wordsworth, the soon-to-be Poet Laureate. Porcelain figurines depicting Grace, the Longstone Lighthouse and the rescue were cast. Cadbury and Rowntrees produced “Grace Darling” chocolates. “Grace Darling,” one of the first hybrid tea roses, was introduced. An artistic depiction of Grace and her father in their coble even appeared on Lifebuoy soap wrappers.
Four years after her brave deed, Grace died of tuberculosis and was buried outside St. Aidan’s Church in her hometown of Bamburgh. According to the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian scholar best known for writing The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Aidan of Lindisfarne built a wooden church in Bamburgh in AD 635. The dying Aidan is said to have rested on a wooden beam that is still stored for safekeeping inside the present church.
In 1844, Queen Victoria contributed to a public fund-raising drive to build a monument to Grace in the churchyard that could be seen by ships in the North Sea as they passed Bamburgh. Made of Portland stone, it depicted a recumbent Grace holding her coble’s oar,
… at rest under a Gothic-style canopied roof. The quick-weathering stone had to be replaced in 1885, and the original monument was moved into the church. In 1993, it was completely rebuilt in the same style.
At the same time as the memorial was rebuilt, a stained-glass window commemorating Grace was installed in the north transept of the church. Flanked by the figures of Charity (holding a heart) and Hope (clutching an anchor), Grace grasps her oar, representing the virtue of Fortitude. Click here to see it.
Grace’s story continued to inspire after her death. When Sir Walter Trevelyan and his wife, Pauline, decided to create a large sitting room in the central hall of Wallington, their Northumberland home, in 1853, they hired Pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott to create eight scenes illustrating events in Northumbrian history. Grace Darling Rescuing The Men of the Forfarshire, completed in 1860, commemorated the Darlings’ brave deed.
The Grace Darling Museum opened in Bamburgh in 1938, and continues to tell her story through a model of the Longstone Lighthouse, personal artifacts that belonged to Grace and her family, such as this antimacassar she knitted,
…and the famous coble. William continued to use the coble, originally called The Darlings but rechristened Grace Darling after the rescue, until about 1856, when he passed it on to his son, George. When it was too far gone to be used any more, George sold it, but kept the oar that Grace had used. The coble’s new owner traveled the United Kingdom with it, exhibiting it in places as far afield as London, Liverpool and Glasgow; it eventually ended up in the collection of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Click here to see and learn more about the coble and nine other objects associated with Grace, such as a dress and a locket that belonged to her.
The Grace Darling Bamburgh Village Trail passes Grace’s birthplace on Radcliffe Road; St. Aidan’s Church; and the Victoria Hotel, the site where the first inquest was held four days after the Forfarshire wreck.
For more on Grace Darling, see see Grace Darling: Victorian Heroine, by Hugh Cunningham; Grace, by Jill Paton Walsh; and Grace Darling: Heroine of the Farne Islands, by Eva Hope.