A mug showing Grace Darling's daring rescue. Image from Hull Museums.

A mug showing Grace Darling’s daring rescue. Image from Hull Museums.

Grace Darling was born on 24 November 1815 in Northumberland, northeast England. She was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper and lived with her eight siblings on an island just off the coast in Longstone Lighthouse.

In the morning of the 7 September 1838, aged just 22, Grace was looking out of her bedroom window when she spotted the wreck at sea. The steam ship Forfarshire had smashed into rocks near the island of Big Harcar on its way from Kingston-upon-Hull to Dundee. Survivors were clinging to rocks but were in serious danger of being swept away and drowning.

Grace and her father went to their rescue, using a small rowing boat to row the mile-long stretch in the stormy conditions. On their first trip they managed to rescue three men and a woman. Grace then remained at the lighthouse while the three rescued men and her father returned for more survivors. In total, they managed to save four more people. Although some of the Forfarshire’s passengers had managed to escape in a lifeboat before the ship sank, most of the 62 passengers and crew on board had perished.

A Sunderland Lustre Ware featuring Grace Darling. Image from Hull Museums.

A Sunderland Lustre Ware featuring Grace Darling. Image from Hull Museums.

News of Grace’s part in the rescue captured the British imagination, and Grace became an early media celebrity. Her and her father were awarded medals by the organization that would become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), money was raised for her and her family and many portraits were painted of her likeness and imaginings of the event. Commemorative souvenirs, such as Sunderland-ware pottery and Staffordshire flat backs, were created. William Wordsworth even wrote a poem based on the rescue.

In 1842, Grace became ill while visiting family and despite the best efforts of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland (the Duke was the president of the RNLI), Grace died of tuberculosis on 20 October 1842, aged just 26.

Grace Darling captured the imagination of the public likely because she was female, and so young – the Victorian mindset probably underestimated what someone like her could achieve.

Her bravery remains remarkable; Grace and her father risked their own lives to save strangers, with none of the sea safety equipment we have today. What is equally remarkable, however, is how Grace so unwillingly captured the Victorian imagination.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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