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Grace Darling – The RNLI’s Hidden Heroine

07 September 2021

At the age of 22 Grace Darling became a national heroine because of her brave actions one stormy night in September 1838.

Grace was one of nine children born to the keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse (located on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast). By 1838 all of Grace’s brothers and sisters had left the lighthouse to marry or work on the mainland. As the youngest daughter, the expectation would have been that Grace would stay at home and look after her parents as they got older.

It was 4.45am on the morning of 7 September 1838.  All night, a horrendous gale had been blowing and the Farne Islands were being battered by huge waves.  The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks was deafening and the wind was howling furiously. Grace had been up for some time as she was keeping watch so that her father could sleep for a while.  As she peered out across the sea, something caught her eye.  A closer look revealed – to her horror – that a ship was wrecked on the Harcar Rock, a kilometer away. She ran at once to tell her father.

The ship was the Forfarshire, a luxurious passenger ship with about 60 people on board.  The first class passengers would have been travelling in style, but the ship’s engines had broken down earlier on in the day, and the storm was so strong that the captain was unable to stop the ship from being pushed onto the rocks.

There was a loud crash, and the Forfarshire was split in two, right across the middle of the ship. Most of the passengers and crew were in the stern of the ship and were immediately swept away. The bow, however, was stuck on the rock and 12 people clung to the wreckage. Tragically, three died waiting for daylight.

Grace and her father knew that the nearest lifeboat in North Sunderland would not have been able to reach the people in time, so Grace convinced her father to let her help row their small wooden boat to rescue them.  The whole situation was fraught with danger.

In true Victorian fashion, Grace first removed her copious petticoats before stepping into the boat. She was a very slim girl and could only manage one oar. Her father took two. The journey was hard, but they both knew it would be even more difficult on the return journey against the tides. Grace and her father prayed that the survivors would be well enough to help them.

They rowed for nearly a mile without stopping. When they reached the people clinging to the rocks, they took five on board, the maximum number who would fit into the boat. Once again, Grace and her father faced the cold, raging seas on the return journey, although this time it was a little easier with the men to help them although they had been clinging to a rock in freezing seas for some hours by this time. On arriving back at the lighthouse, Grace and her mother took care of the survivors. Incredibly her father, William Darling, and two of the men went straight back out into the storm to rescue the remaining survivors. They all had to wait in the lighthouse for three days until the storm passed over.

The rescue by Grace and her father was reported in many newspapers. Grace became famous very quickly and was given many awards recognizing her bravery among them was an RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry in recognition of those deeds – the first woman ever to receive such an award.

In her honour and as part of the the RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, is RNLB Grace Darling, a 35ft 6in Liverpool Class Twin-Screw Lifeboat (1954 – 84). Grace Darling was the last of 21 Liverpool class lifeboats to be built between 1931 and 1954. She was stationed at North Sunderland for 13 years, close to the home of her famous namesake.

Discover more stories of brave, heroic women in our Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard exhibition, showing in No. 1 Smithery until 31 October 2021.

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