Grace Darling – Victorian heroine

Grace Darling's heroic rescue mission

Grace Darling in the famous painting by William Bell Scott

Grace Darling was one of the most famous heroines of the Victorian period in England.

She was a national treasure, an icon, a heroine.

Everybody knew the name of this ordinary woman who lived in a lighthouse on a remote island in northern England.

So why were the Victorians captivated by her?

Grace’s courage in saving five people from drowning in a severe storm off the Northumberland coast in 1838 was legendary.

Her exploits were truly remarkable for a woman living in the repressed Victorian era when ‘the fairer sex’ was supposed to stay at home and undertake womanly duties.

Heroic tale

I’ve been fascinated by Grace’s story since I was 10-years-old when we learned about her exploits at school.

Her tale of courage against the odds was exotic and exciting. A true ‘Girl’s Own’ adventure.

No wonder it fired national pride then and still does now.

It’s also a great story – a bit like a Hollywood movie… with an action packed plot and characters you can empathise with.

Humble lighthouse keeper’s daughter becomes a national heroine after saving the lives of shipwrecked passengers in a Biblical storm… you couldn’t invent a better screenplay.

Grace’s tale is full of adventure, danger, and risks.

Grace Darling's heroic rescue mission

Grace Darling’s heroic rescue mission

Her mission through the billowing seas in a tiny, open rowing boat with no cover and very little protection from the elements was remarkable.

Victorian paintings of Grace wearing a billowing skirt, shawl and lacking any credible safety equipment as she undertook this dangerous rescue struck a chord.

Grace was portrayed as a romantic figure, a watery heroine riding the waves like a working class Britannia.

But for me, she was the very epitome of a modern woman with her no-nonsense, action heroine style and her swashbuckling exploits.

The lighthouse family

Lighthouse on the Farnes

Unpredictable weather – lighthouse on the Farnes in fog

Grace Darling lived on the Farne Islands which were notorious for their tempestuous waters and shipwrecks.

She spent her youth living in two lighthouses on the Farnes – Brownsman and Longstone – where her father William was the keeper.

The islands lie next to a dangerous stretch of coast on the north east tip of England, swept by winds and lashed by storms in winter.

Even today, a boat trip can turn into a slightly hairy experience as I found out when I embarked on the island ‘cruise’ one foggy day last year.

During the early hours of 7 September, 1838 Grace was looking out from an upper window at Longstone when she saw the wreck of a ship which had been torn apart on a nearby rocky island called Big Harcar.

The ill-fated SS Forfarshire, which was carrying 62 passengers and crew, had hit the rocks and was sinking.

The appalling weather conditions and storms made a rescue attempt difficult… but Grace and her father took decisive action.

They knew the seas were too rough for the lifeboat at North Sunderland so decided to take out a rowing boat.

Grace Darling displayed phenomenal courage and determination in rowing the 30 foot long coble to rescue survivors.

After she had taken five survivors back to the lighthouse, her father made a second trip to rescue the remaining passengers.

Both the Darlings were feted as heroes but it was Grace’s story that hit the headlines around the world.

Grace became a Victorian superstar as her fame spread far and wide even though she felt uncomfortable with her new-found celebrity status.

Theatre plays, shows, songs and poems were produced to celebrate her exploits – and she became a poster girl for British heroism.

Even today a film company is hoping to raise finances to make a movie of her extraordinary story.

Looking for Grace Darling

Here’s my tips on how to follow in Grace Darling’s footsteps on a visit to Bamburgh…

Start at the Grace Darling Museum on Radcliffe Road to get an overview of the life and times of Grace Darling.

The museum is signposted from the Castle Green and lies to the north side of the village. Entry is free.

Two exhibition rooms rooms provide a snapshot of Grace’s life including family mementoes, paintings and a three-dimensional cutaway model of the Longstone lighthouse.

The highlight of the small but well-presented display is the original coble (a type of rowing boat) in which Grace Darling made her daring rescue of the passengers from their sinking ship.

On the way out, pick up the Grace Darling trail leaflet which has information on the historic sights in the village.

Grace Darling Museum

Grace Darling Museum

Leave the museum and walk up the street to see the adjacent cottage where Grace Horsley Darling was born on 24 November, 1815 in the house of her grandparents.

Grace was the 7th child of William and Thomasin Darling.

Grace Darling's birthplace

Grace Darling’s birthplace in Bamburgh

Cross over the road to the church of St Aidan where there is an elaborate Gothic memorial to Grace in the graveyard.

This was erected in 1844 after her death following demands for a public memorial – although the original figure was taken inside the church in 1885 following severe weathering.

The memorial was reconstructed with a new figure of Grace looking out to sea and the Farne Islands, her home at the time of the rescue.

Wander into the cemetery and you’ll see the Darling family grave (surrounded by a low iron railing) which is the last resting place of Grace and other family members.

Grace Darling tomb

Grace Darling’s tomb

Go inside the church where you’ll find the original figure of Grace from the churchyard memorial and a stained glass window dedicated to the heroine.

In the windows she is depicted holding a set of oars like a guardian angel of the seaways.

The church records show that the funeral of Grace Darling took place on Monday, 24 October, 1842.

Legend has it that a violent storm marked her burial, preventing three of her brothers travelling from the Longstone lighhouse for the funeral.

Memorial to Grace Darling

Memorial to Grace Darling

Leave the church and turn back into Bamburgh village. Cross the village green and walk down Front Street for about 50 metres until you see a corner shop called The Pantry.

This is where Grace Darling died on 20 October, 1842 from tuberculosis at the tragically young age of 26 years.

It was only four years after her triumphant rescue mission.

Grace Darling's death house

Grace Darling’s place of death in Bamburgh

Cross over the road and take a left down a side road called The Wyndings where you’ll discover Wynding House, an imposing Victorian house.

This was home to Grace’s family after William Darling retired from his lighthouse duties in 1860.

Continue down the street until you come to a car park on the right. Cut through the parking area to the sand dunes and turn right along the beach.

After a short walk you’ll see the impressive sight of Bamburgh Castle in front of you.

On the morning of the rescue in 1838, a lookout saw the wreck of the SS Forfarshire and immediately raised the castle flag and fired a cannon to let the ship’s crew know that they had been spotted.

A rider was sent to nearby North Sunderland to raise the lifeboat crew – they didn’t arrive till three hours later, after a difficult journey.

They found that the survivors had already been rescued by Grace Darling and her father, William.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast

Keep on walking and you’ll see superb views of Inner Farne as you look out to sea (don’t forget to take binoculars).

Look further beyond the island and you’ll see the Longstone lighthouse in the distance as well as the rocky shores of numerous small islands that make up the Farnes.

Try to transport yourself back 175 years and imagine Grace Darling rowing across the seas to rescue the shipwrecked survivors of the Forfarshire.

Inner Farne

Inner Farne – battered by waves

Then head back into Bamburgh village  and drive about six miles down the coast to Seahouses.

Take a boat trip from the harbour to the Farne Islands to get a real sense of what Grace Darling experienced when she lived on the islands.

Boat trips vary in length but most of them take in Inner Farne, the Longstone lighthouse and most of the locations featured in Grace Darling’s rescue mission.

Farne Islands boat trip

Farne Islands boat trip

Look out for spectacular views of wildlife on the rocks and in the sea including seals, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and cormorants.

But pick your time of year when the storms have abated – otherwise the Grace Darling experience will become all too real!

Farne Islands

Go wild on the Farne Islands

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