Thursday, 17 September 2015

Grace Darling and her Heroism with a Rowing Boat in 1838

The 7th September 1838 is an unremarkable day in many ways and history records would not mention it except for the heroic efforts of Grace Darling.

A major catastrophe is in the making when the SS Forfarshire’s boilers stop working and it drifts, hitting some jagged rocks and tosses its occupants overboard as the ship is carrying 63 people. The vessel breaks in two almost immediately as it smashes into the Big Harcar rocks driven by strong gales. The weather is atrocious.

Fortunately nine of these Forfarshire passengers and crew do manage to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it sinks. Later that night they also happen to be picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into Shields.

Another group of survivors is not so lucky. They have been in the bow section of the vessel. The rocks holds them up long enough to escape before that section sinks but they still have to decide on what to do next.  All they can decide upon is to scramble over to the Big Harcar, a rocky island nearly one mile away from the lighthouse. Here surrounded on all sides by the devastating seas they wonder how on earth will they survive.

First light on the 8th, Grace spots the wreck of the Forfarshire from her bedroom window and immediately tells her family. As the morning light increases the family are able to see the survivors all huddled on the rocks.

The next problem though is how to rescue them. The father, William Darling wants to attempt a rescue with his sons but alas they are not at home so he decides he will reluctantly makes use of his 23 year old daughter, Grace Darling. Knowing the weather is too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), he instead takes a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-man Northumberland Coble) across to the survivors. To be on the safe side they take a long route that keeps to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. When they finally arrive Grace keeps the Coble steady in the water while her father helps four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat.

It is a difficult moment for Mrs Dawson as she faces the loss of her two children and having to leave them behind. Meantime Grace has to face the fear that at any moment her wooden craft might be smashed to pieces by the big tides. To keep it in one place, she takes both oars and rows backwards and forwards, trying to keep it from being smashed on the reef.

Once aboard, Grace and her father with the three rescued men row back to the lighthouse, while Grace and the fourth man comfort Mrs. Dawson. Here Grace remains while William Darling and three of the rescued crew members row back and recover the remaining survivors. Meanwhile, the lifeboat sets out from Seahouses, but arrives at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father. All they find are the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson's children and the body of a dead vicar. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they row to the lighthouse to take shelter. Their adventures do not end quickly either as the weather deteriorates so much that everyone is forced to stay at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.

When the newspapers hear this story they all publicise it and focus on the role of Grace. Her fame spreads so widely that men propose marriage to her, Queen Victoria gives her £50 and many people make requests for locks of her hair. Today however her fame rests with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who promote her achievements.

If you enjoy reading about brave women then check out

Mary Seacole - The Creole with a Teacup and the Crimean War, 1854-1856