For Women's History Month we've been looking at the story of Grace Darling. In the final part of our series, Assistant Curator Nick Ball looks at the fame that followed Grace's heroic actions.

Yesterday we looked at the event that made Grace Darling famous, today we pick up as the story breaks to the wider public. Read our last post here
 
The courage and heroism of Grace, aged just 22 at the time, caused a sensation. The news of the rescue soon spread across the country and Grace almost instantly became a national heroine. Her fame reached an unprecedented level, and Grace became the subject of newspaper articles, novels, paintings and plays. 
 
Grace Darling, from the National Maritime Museum
 
Grace was in almost every newspaper in Britain both local and national and she was showered with honours, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Silver Medal for Gallantry and the gold medal of the Royal Humane Society. Her fame even prompted a donation of £50 from Queen Victoria. 
 
The objects connected to Grace took on an almost cultish or religious quality in the eyes of her admirers. They became relics for veneration. Her story was the topic of many ballads and she entered the wider folk tradition of the nation and in the nascent consumer capitalism of Victorian Britain her image and name was even used to sell soap.  
 
Grace Darling print from the National Maritime Museum
 
To understand her fame, it is necessary to take into account the historical context of the time. It was a time of great progress and excitement in Britain and the Empire, steam powered travel was just taking off, a young queen had just ascended to the throne the year before, and despite some major unrest amongst the working class, Britain was entering a period of peace and prosperity. 
 
However, the advances in technology did not result in a reduction of the dangers of sea travel. The increasing number of shipwrecks after the introduction of steam power meant the nation was gripped by a sense of panic at the number of deaths that occurred at sea. In 1836 a Select Committee of the House of Commons into the ‘Causes of Shipwrecks’ reported that between 1833 and 1835 there were 1, 573 vessels stranded or wrecked, and another 129 lost or missing.
 
Painting of a shipwreck at the National Maritime Museum
 
Within this context Grace was a young woman was doing her bit to help, and someone people of all classes could rally around. 
 
The Newcastle Cronicle declared:
This perilous achievement stands unexampled in the feats of female fortitude. From her isolated abode… she made her way through desolation and impeding destruction… to save the lives of her fellow beings.
The Times asked:
Is there in the whole field of history, or fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?
However, I think the incredible fame accorded to Grace can be seen as a product of the age. Victorian society never imagined that a young woman such as Grace would be able to perform such a feat of bravery. 
 
It was an ‘unexampled feat of female fortitude’. In the Victorian social world of separate spheres, Grace, as a woman, was in some sense an interloper in the masculine sphere of the sea. 
 
What is most strange, is that a society which regularly condemned female attempts to involve themselves in what were seen as traditional male activities, embraced and celebrated Grace. 
 
The widespread appeal of Grace, and the longevity of her story, was perhaps due to the way her story could be changed to suit the needs of different groups. 
 
She could be both the embodiment of Imperial femininity with her sense of duty in the face of danger; she could be the epitome of Christian charity in her selfless act; and she could represent the ordinary people as the working class girl -turned heroine.
 
She remained famous throughout the 19th century and in 1938 a Museum dedicated to Grace and seafaring in the region was founded at her birthplace, Bamburgh. 
 
That her femininity undoubtedly contributed to her fame doesn’t diminish the bravery of the rescue.  The heroism of Grace cannot be doubted, and is emphasised by the great loss of life on that stormy night. 
 
Grace Darling
 
Adding to her appeal is the way Grace herself didn’t embrace her fame or seek fortune through it; instead she sat for a number of portraits, and answered as many letters as she could from her numerous admirers both male and female. It was noted that she was rendered almost bald by the number of requests for locks of her hair! 
 
Grace Darling purse
Purse containing a lock of Grace Darling's hair
 
She never married, despite numerous requests but instead remained at the Longstone Lighthouse to assist her mother and father. 
 
In 1842 she was taken ill on a visit to the mainland, after a short period of deteriorating health she died of tuberculosis in October 1842. She was buried at St. Aidan’s churchyard in Bamburgh.
 
Her death served only to cement her fame and she remained forever the infallible young woman of the rescue. 
 
See all our objects relating to Grace Darling here