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Darling, Grace Horsleyfree

  • H. C. G. Matthew

Grace Horsley Darling (1815–1842)

by Harold Perlee Parker, 1838


Darling, Grace Horsley (1815–1842), heroine, born at Bamburgh, Northumberland, on 24 November 1815, was the daughter, and the seventh of nine children, of William Darling and his wife, Thomasin, née Horsley. William Darling in 1815 succeeded his father as keeper of the lighthouse on Brownsman island, one of the lonely Outer Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast; in 1825 he took over the new Longstone lighthouse there. He was a man of strong religious principles, who brought up his children puritanically; he objected to light literature and regarded cards as the devil's books, but he had a taste for music and natural history. Grace Darling helped her father, effectively acting as assistant keeper and often sharing the watch. She sometimes slept in the lighthouse in the room below the lantern. In the early morning of 7 September 1838 the steamer Forfarshire, sailing from Hull to Dundee, was wrecked on one of the rocks, and forty-three of the sixty-three persons aboard were drowned. At about 5 a.m., as dawn broke at the lighthouse, Grace Darling spotted the wreck and several survivors huddling on a rock; she called her father. Bad weather prevented action until 7 a.m. The Victorian story—that Darling acted only on Grace's passionate entreaties—is a legend; it was at once clear to him that, with the lifeboat unable to leave the shore, he had the chance of sole salvage rights if he could reach the ship. Darling launched a coble more than 20 feet long and he and his daughter rowed the heavy vessel to the wreck, knowing that it would be impossible to return without the help of some of the endangered survivors. Four men and a woman were successfully taken off by Grace and her father and brought to the lighthouse. Darling then returned with two of the rescued men and brought off four men who had been left: nine people were rescued.

The reports of this gallant exploit produced an outburst of enthusiasm. The Humane Society voted gold medals to Darling and his daughter. The Treasury gave £50 to Grace. A sum of £750, produced by subscription, was invested for the benefit of Grace, and £270 for the benefit of her father. Applications for locks of hair came in until Grace was in danger of baldness. Her dress was cut to pieces and sold. The proprietor of Batty's circus tried to engage her, and advertised her appearance on the stage. Darling wrote to the papers complaining that he and his daughter had had to sit for their portrait seven times in twelve days. Summer visitors came to the Farne Islands to see her and the site of the rescue, 'Grace's deed', as it came to be called. William Wordsworth celebrated the ‘deed’ in some embarrassing verses; A. C. Swinburne's are little better.

In some respects Grace welcomed her fame. It gave her a wider dimension to her life and she gained from good advice from her senior trustee, the duke of Northumberland. She remained at the lighthouse: a national heroine but also a curiosity. Her rare visits to the mainland posed many problems, and there are some indications that she began to find her reputation oppressive. She was always rather delicate and was beneath average height. She suddenly developed a bad cough, and died on 20 October 1842. She was buried in St Aidan's churchyard, Bamburgh, with an elaborate cenotaph. When St Cuthbert's Chapel on Great Farne Island was restored in 1848, a plain stone monument to Grace Darling was erected in it. Her mother died in 1848; her father, who had been allowed to retire on full pay in 1860, died on 28 May 1865.

Grace Darling, 'the girl of the windswept hair', caught the nation's imagination. Her famous ‘deed’ occurred just as national press reporting had begun to look for copy of this sort. Unsatisfactory lives written by Eva Hope (1880) and by Thomas Arthur (1885) for the Religious Book Society reinforced the errors and romance of the story. Her sister, Thomasin, arranged the publication of the more satisfactory Grace Darling, her True Story: from Unpublished Papers in Possession of her Family (1880) and of The Journal of William Darling, Grace Darling's Father (1887). Constance Smedley's biography (1932) was the first scholarly account, followed by that of Richard Armstrong (1965). One of the series of paintings by William Bell Scott at Wallington House, Northumberland, attractively depicts the ‘deed’.


  • C. Smedley, Grace Darling and her times (1932)
  • R. Armstrong, Grace Darling: maid and myth (1965)


  • Northumbd RO, letters, notes, and cuttings


  • L. Corbaux, lithographs, 1838 (after drawing by E. Hasting), NPG
  • D. Dunbar, marble bust, 1838, NPG
  • M. Gauci, lithograph, pubd 1838 (after G. Harrison), BM
  • H. McCulloch, portrait, 1838, Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead
  • H. McCulloch?, oils, 1838, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • H. P. Parker, portrait, 1838, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland [see illus.]
  • H. P. Parker, two pencil and watercolour drawings, 1838, NPG
  • J. Reay, portrait, 1838, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • R. Watson, watercolour sketch, 1838, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • T. M. Joy, oils, 1839, Dundee City Art Gallery
  • R. Smith, recumbent effigy, 1846, Bamburgh cemetery, Northumberland
  • J. W. Carmichael, two watercolours, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • C. Cook, stipple (after G. Cook), BM, NPG; repro. in New Monthly Belle Assemblée (1843)
  • D. Lucas, mezzotint (after oil painting by H. P. Parker and J. W. Carmichael), Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • H. P. Parker, oil sketches, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • H. P. Parker and J. W. Carmichael, oils, Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
  • W. Taylor, lithograph (after J. Reay), Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland