For Women's History Month we're telling the heroic story of Grace Darling. Today our Assistant Curator Nick Ball looks at the woman behind the legend.

Our story begins with the Forfashire paddle-steamer and the chain of events that led to it's wrecking. Catch up with the story in our last blog here

Grace Darling

Grace Darling, from the National Maritime Museum
 
Watching the events unfold through the window of the Longstone Lighthouse on that cold September night was the 22 year old Grace Darling. She was the daughter of the William Darling, keeper of the lighthouse. William Darling worked for Trinity House and lived on the island with his wife and children.
 
Grace was born in Bamburgh on the mainland on 24 November 1815, but she had spent nearly all her life on the Farne Islands, living a somewhat idyllic life of scrambling about the islands with her eight siblings, of which she was the 6th, and being taught to read and write by her parents. Grace shared in William Darling’s fondness for music, history, geography and Christianity. 
 
Longstone Lighthouse
Longstone Lighthouse
 
By most accounts it was a happy childhood, with Grace helping her mother with the housework and her father with the duties of Lighthouse keeping for which he received a £70 a year salary from Trinity House as well as bonuses for help with rescuing and salvaging shipwrecks. 
 
It was a lonely, but enjoyable life for a child said to have had a love of the outdoors. By the age of 22 there’s no doubt that a young woman like Grace would have known how to handle a boat. 

The Rescue

On that fateful September night in 1838, Grace could see the wreck of the Forfarshire being beaten by the waves. With her siblings away, Grace and her parents were the only people at the Lighthouse. 
 
Grace and her father thought it would be too rough for the lifeboat to set out from the nearby village of Seahouses, so they decided they would have to row their own small boat across to help the survivors.
 
It is sometimes claimed that Grace pleaded with her reluctant father to embark on the rescue, but this is unlikely. What is clear is that they both would have known the risks of heading out in a small boat in those conditions, and neither could have done it alone. 
 
Grace Darling
 
Grace later wrote:
I was the first that saw the Distressing affair and amediately acquainted my father…. I was very anxious and did render every assistance that lay in my Power but my Father was equally so and needed not to be urged by me he being so Experienced in such things.
 
As they launched their small boat the strong winds meant they were forced to keep to the more sheltered side of the islands, which meant they had even further to row – a distance of nearly a mile.
 
Grace Darling boat
Model of a 21ft coble, similar to the boat Grace Darling used
 
As the Forfarshire had run aground, the waves beat mercilessly against her, breaking her in two. The stern half sank, drowning nearly all of the passengers at the back of the ship but a few who managed to escape on a lifeboat. 
 
The forward end of the ship had stuck fast to the rock, and twelve of those that were at the bow of the ship- seven passengers and five of the crew remained clinging perilously to the wreck.
 
Grace Darling rescue
 
As the tide went down the survivors managed to get off the wreck onto the rocky island. Three passengers died of exposure, two children and the Reverend John Robb. The only surviving woman, Sarah Dawson, was still clinging to her two dead children as Grace and her father reached the island.
 
Grace steadied the boat while her father helped four men and Sarah Dawson into the boat. William and two of the rescued men rowed back to the lighthouse, where Grace looked after the survivors. Her father and the three men returned to save another four survivors.
 
Grace Darling print from the National Maritime Museum
 
The Forfarshire had been carrying 63 people and Grace and her father saved all of the 9 still alive on the Harcar rock.
 
William Darling wrote a rather restrained report to Trinity House explaining the events of that night:
We agree that if we could get to them some of them would be able to assist us without which we could not return; and having no Idea of a Possibility of a Boat coming from North Sunderland, we amediately launched our Boat, and was Enabled to gain the rock where we found 8 men and 1 woman, which I judged rather too many to take at once in the state of the Weather; therefore took the Women and four Men to the Longstone; two of them returned with me and succeeded in bringing the remainder, In all 9 persons, safely to the Longstone about 9 o’clock.
 
Grace Darling's lighthouse
 
Once back at the Longstone lighthouse, the survivors were cared for as best they could with limited resources, having to remain on the island until the weather calmed. 
 
Those who had abandoned ship in the lifeboat were picked up the next day by a sailing vessel. 
 
We continue the story next week when we look at the fame that followed Grace's sensational actions