Grace Darling

Grace Darling, born November 24, 1815, in Bamburgh, United Kingdom off the coast of Northumberland, England would later be named a national hero in the tragedy of the S.S. Forfarshire. Raised in a small village, she spent the majority of her life on the Farne Islands with minimal interaction with the mainland. Grace lived with her parents, William and Thomasin Darling, from whom she learned how to read and write. She was the 7th of 9 children in her family of five brothers and three sisters. Despite never formally going to school, Grace had a curious nature, was willing to learn new skills, and picked up a variety of seafaring talents. Grace was homeschooled by her parents, acquiring background knowledge in science, math, religion, and geography from her dad. Sharing similar interests of history, music, and Christianity, Grace had an especially close relationship with William. She spent her childhood tending to the lighthouse on Longstone Rock, keeping watch for ships, maintaining the lantern, as well as logging weather patterns. Grace also helped out her mother around the house with mending clothes and cooking. In contrast to her quiet, isolated upbringing, Grace’s world takes a drastic turn with her encounter with the S.S. Forfarshire. Her bravery would inspire a generation to come and bring unparalleled fame, causing a sensation that moved the nation greatly.

Figure 1. Print of Grace Horsley Darling (1852)

Figure 2. Newspaper clipping in remembrance of Grace Darling (1914)

“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.”

declared by The Newcastle Chronicles

Even a decade later after the shipwreck, Grace Darling is still widely commemorated for her efforts. Her story is retold over and over again, passed down through generations. Celebrations of her bravery continue to reverberate throughout British history.

Figure 3. Front page of sheet music collection made in honor of Grace Darling, created by H. Eberbach (1884)

The case of the S.S. Forfarshire is uniquely set apart from other shipwrecks due to the selfless act of Grace Darling which sparked a wave of fervent British nationalism and pride. On September 7th, 1838, Grace spotted the disaster of the S.S. Forfarshire that occurred after a combination of engine failure, neglected check-ins, and rough weather on a watch one evening. That night, her siblings were away, so only her parents were with her at the lighthouse. Not being able to fall asleep that night due to the raging winds, Grace was kept wide awake.3 Despite the reluctance of her father and protests from her mother, Grace was insistent upon her decision to go out to sea. By the time Grace had witnessed the wreck of the Forfarshire from the lighthouse window, the steamship had already been punctured by Big Harcar Rock and split into two.4The bottom half of the ship had been tethered to the rock, leaving survivors stranded. Rowing out to the wreck in a small boat, William took action to assess the severity of the situation, while Grace manned the boat, keeping it steady.4 On the first trip back to the lighthouse, two crew members, an injured man, and woman were taken. While William and the crew members went back to save the rest of the survivors, Grace monitored the conditions of the rescued.4 In the two rescue trips and stragglers who abandoned ship, Grace and her father saved 9 people.1

Following the rescue mission, Grace’s popularity surged as news and media outlets shed light on the S.S. Forfarshire from the perspective of her act. Her story was retold nationwide and met widely with words of praise and admiration, even receiving the Queen’s attention.2 Grace was offered honors including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Silver Medal for Gallantry, gold medal of the Royal Humane Society, as well as monetary rewards. Although Grace was allotted a great sum of money, she refused to accept it, a fund was created to financially support her family.5 Amidst the commotion surrounding the story was the rise of various forms of popular culture and media dedicated to Grace. She was a major pop-culture icon in her day inspiring the rise of mass porcelain pieces, souvenir spoon collections, and she even received immense attention from children who would leave flowers at her grave due to her youthful stature.6 From songs, paintings, and museums dedicated in her honor, Grace Darling became a national hero to be celebrated. Her sheltered life quickly became swept up into the limelight as everyone wanted to meet the heroine of the shipwreck. 

“We are happy to learn that a subscription has been commenced here for the purpose of rewarding Mr. Darling and Miss Grace Darling for the heroic and humane manner in which they proceeded, in the midst of the storm, to the rescue of the passengers and crew of the Forfarshire, left on the wreck.”

reported by the Dundee Courier (a local Scottish news station) and published in the London Evening Standard on September 28, 1838.

During the 1830s, Great Britain had just seen the ascension of a new queen, with the country heading towards industrial and economic development. The progression of steamship travel received great attention during this time along with other technological innovations. Thus, the heroine story of Grace Darling showcased a courageous act of selfenesses that was used to support British pride. Her story remains as a testament to challenging the societal norms for women during the Victorian era. Even the Mercantile Gazette reported on her appearance noting that “She is not the amazon that many would suppose her to be, but as modest and unassuming a young woman you can imagine.” This shows a stark contrast of strength being tied to masculinity, which Grace did not fit into the perceived standards. Historians have also taken her actions to reinforce Victorian ideals of femininity in which women are natural caregivers in times of need. Regardless, Grace Darling evoked a prominent rise in British pride and her legacy still remains to this day.

Footnote Citations

  1.  “Grace Darling.” 2024. 2024.
  2.  “September 22, 1838 (Page 3 of 4).” The Standard (1827-1900), Sep 22, 1838.
  3. “Grace Darling, Heroine of the Farne Islands.” 2024. 2024.
  4. ‌“1838: Grace Darling – Timeline – Our History.” 2015. 2015.
  5. “GRACE DARLING.” Examiner no. 1813 (Oct 29, 1842): 696.
  6. Malloy, Mary, Author and Historian at Harvard Museum Studies Program