Grace Darling achieved great fame for the part she played in the rescue of survivors from a wrecked merchant ship in 1838.
Born in 1815, Grace heroically helped to rescue survivors from the Forfarshire, a vessel travelling from Hull to Dundee, which was wrecked on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland.
Who was Grace Darling?
Grace’s father, William, was keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse on one of the islands. On the evening of 7 September 1838, while looking out of an upper window of the lighthouse during a raging storm, Grace spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire. The paddle-steamer was carrying around 40 cabin and deck passengers and had completely split in two on a rocky outcrop of the islands, known as Big Harcar. The heavy winds, rain and waves battered the stricken vessel. Grace's actions would cause a sensation that gripped the nation, inspiring a generation and bringing unprecedented fame.
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.
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
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.
Is there in the whole field of history, or fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?
Heroism and gender
Grace’s actions were viewed as remarkable as they were unusual for her gender. Her brother would have been in her place had he not been away. Showing courage and risk-taking were viewed as particularly masculine traits. It was also considered quite a feat for Grace to steady the coble next to the rock as her father climbed out to get to the survivors. Women were associated with beauty, not strength. Many who met her were surprised by her appearance, expecting her bold actions to be matched by manly features. The Mercantile Gazette reported:
‘She is not the amazon that many would suppose her to be, but as modest and unassuming a young woman as you can imagine’.
Yet at the same time, the rescue was used to promote an ideal femininity. It was interpreted to support the view that women are care-givers. As Florence Nightingale became ‘the lady with the lamp’, in a similar vein Grace Darling was pictured with her coble. The historian Hugh Cunningham argues that these symbolic images helped to reinforce separate gender spheres. While men went to war, and made money, women performed pure and worthy deeds such as saving lives.
Parts of her story were even exaggerated, with some entirely made up. The first four books about Grace were fictionalized accounts. They romanticised her actions, making them more appealing to a sentimental early Victorian public.