Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Daring Rescue in 1838

England's legendary lighthouse hero, Grace Darling, assisted her father on this day in 1838, rescuing the survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire off Longstone Lighthouse on the rugged and stormy Northumberland Coast.

Grace was 22-years-old at the time, a woman of delicate frame and health, but a dutiful daughter with a sense of honor and pride in her father's work as a lighthouse keeper. Longstone Lighthouse was not a preferred assignment. It sat out to sea on a dreary rock. It was damp, cramped, and lonely. Thus, Grace, who had spent much of her childhood on lighthouses, was shy. But she loved the Longstone Lighthouse and the gray, unpredictable North Sea.

During an overnight storm on September 7th, 1838, the Forfarshire ran onto rocks within site of the lighthouse. Grace, reportedly, was the first to see it. 

When her father said he must rescue the crew, Grace asked to go. She knew she could help with the rowing and hold the coble (long, flat-bottomed rowboat) steady in stormy seas while her father got the survivors on board.

The two set off. It was rough going, and they had to take a somewhat circuitous route to fight the wind and waves. The survivors sent up a cheer when they saw the Longstone keeper and his daughter approaching. All nine were rescued in two trips and brought to the lighthouse.

Grace did not accompany her father on the second trip due to fatigue. She was not well and would later be told she had tuberculosis.

The story of Grace helping with the rescue was picked up by newspapers of the day, some of them tabloid-like. The story of a young, slender, pretty girl rescuing the shipwrecked was big news! Grace was quickly propelled into the limelight, and as expected, some of the facts were construed to make Grace seem like Wonder Woman. Some stories barely mentioned her father, who was the true rescuer.

Grace became the idol of her day. Her likeness was painted many times, and she appeared on myriad trinkets--china, broaches, sailing cards, clothing, and more. I have in my lighthouse collection, a thimble with Grace on it. My mother recalled the Grace Darling dress for little girls sold in the old Sears & Roebuck catalog; it was pink and frilly. Grace was indeed portrayed as girlish and feminine, but also tough.

The public was mad for her! Street markets hawked swatches of cloth said to be from her clothing, pieces of hair said to hers, bits of ribbon, buttons, and anything with her image on it. Grace took it all in stride, for she was far from much of the mania on her quiet lighthouse. Still, reporters came to the lighthouse as well as visitors. Grace quietly but shyly met them and downplayed her role in the rescue. For her it was a duty, something expected of lighthouse families.

By 1841, Grace was very ill and was diagnosed with consumption, another name for tuberculosis. Doctors felt the damp conditions at the lighthouse aggravated her lungs, so she went ashore in 1842 to live with her sister in Bamburgh. Within weeks, she was completely bedridden, gasping for breath, thin, and unable to eat. She quickly declined and died. She was just 26.

The entire world learned of Grace Darling's passing through major newspapers. She was mourned over all of England and beyond its shores. Buried in a simple grave in St. Aidan's Churchyard in Bamburgh, it wasn't long before the public demanded a memorial to Grace Darling. A fund was set up and grew fat with contributions. Even Queen Victoria contributed. The money was used to create a handsome memorial that now stands about 20 yards from Grace's actual grave-site. The memorial has her resting in stone on top of her grave with her hands folded. Due to weathering, the stone effigy of Grace was moved inside the St. Aidan's Church, which also had a stained-glass window made to honor her.

Today, Grace Darling's brief life and briefer brush with fame are preserved in the Grace Darling Museum at Bamburgh (shown below). The town has totally embraced her as a tourist attraction. Replicas have been made of the coble she rowed; tourists find it amazing anyone would take such a small boat into the tumultuous North Sea. The museum gift shop is full of Grace Darling trinkets, but the museum itself is well-done, representing the true Grace Darling, but also the mania surrounding the legendary Grace Darling. 

I am thankful to the museum for all the images used in this blog entry.

Grace Darling's story lives on! Year 2015 was the bicentennial of her birth.

Here are the words to the "Grace Darling Song"---

Twas on the Longstone Lighthouse,
There dwelt and English maid;
Pure as the air around her,
Of danger ne-er afraid;
One morning just at daybreak, 
A storm-tossed wreck she spied;
And tho' to try seemed madness,
"I'll save the crew!" She cried.

And she pulled away o'er the rolling sea,
O'er the water blue --- "Help! Help!"
She could hear the cry of the shipwrecked crew,
But Grace had an English heart;
And the raging storm she brav'd --
She pulled away, mid the dashing spray,
And the crew she saved.

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