7th September 1838. The Stuff of Legend: Grace Darling.
The British have many national heroes, think Nelson and Churchill. But also heroines: Florence Nightingale, and… Grace Darling.
It was Today in 1838, that Grace Darling aged 22 and daughter of the Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands, sighted the Paddle-Steamer SS Forfarshire in distress. It was on its way to Dundee from Hull.
Little did she know her actions would become the stuff of legend, as part of a team of rescuers, including her father, she helped save the lives of nine mariners, after the ship had hit the Harcar Rock about a mile offshore.
However the story was ripe for a good dose of Victorian sentimentality, initially whipped up by the local press, so this ordinary young woman, became, ‘Girl with the Windswept Hair’, ‘Maid of the Isles’.
In the process her father’s action-he was involved in two later rescues- was forgotten, being described as Grace’s father. But from the Press’s viewpoint, he wasn’t a young, a devoted daughter enshrining all the self-sacrificing, self-effacing Victorian model of domesticity of Grace.
Then in 1839, Jerrold Vernon wrote his book, described by Grace’s biographer Mary Smedley, as sentimental fiction. Another biography of 1875, by Eva Hope accused Vernon of invention.
Queen Victoria sent her £50 and other money poured in; Wordsworth and Swinburne both wrote atrociously, to modern ears, poems in her honour.
Requests for locks of hair and for paintings were made, so her father after seven commissions, suggested an image be taken from the others.
Also the fact that she died early made the story even more poignant for only four years later Grace died from consumption (TB).
This resulted in the nation taking her to its collective heart, and from then on all manner of memorabilia was produced, especially as transfer-printing on ceramics, now made it possible for her image to appear on jugs, mugs, plates, as well as on tins and advertising show-cards.
Thus, despite Grace’s obvious bravery, fact and myth became inter-twined, so much so, that when her sister Thomasina tried to put the record straight in 1880, her biography sales, were outmatched by those others of the wildly sensational.(1)
Both Grace and her father were awarded the Royal Humane Society Gold Medal. She died aged 26 on 20th October 1842 and buried in Bamburgh churchyard. This has a stone effigy showing Grace, her hair draping her shoulders, with an oar under her arm.
(1) ‘Grace Darling Her True Story’.
Ref: bbc.co.uk/myths and legends/tyne/article.
Ref: Rescue Image/Royal Humane Society.
Ref: vanishedaras.com/Book Image.