What’s all this about Grace Darling?

Posted on: July 7th, 2011 by Trevor | 5 Comments

Well, we’ve crossed the Ts and dotted the Is on our latest play, Amazing Grace, and it’s been another fantastic experience. The completion date was June 24, 2011.

Having been brought up with the story of Grace Darling (me in Newcastle and Trevor in Leicester), the epic tale of this working class heroine from Northumberland has always been one of my favourite stories.

A few years ago I mentioned my fixation on Grace Darling to Trev and he revealed a similar interest. It was an amazing co-incidence and we knew we had to do something to pay tribute to her.

My notes show we started outlining work in July 2010. Prior to that we read anything we could get our hands on about Grace: books, plays, correspondence supplied by the Duke of Northumberland’s estate; old television programmes, articles and information on the internet, where Grace Darling has 22 million entries (Queen Victoria – an empress – has 23 million).

So what is so special about Grace Darling?

Born in Bamburgh, Northumberland, on November 24, 1815, she was the seventh of nine children and lived with her parents on Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands (or “Fern” Islands as they are colloquially referred to and spelled on older maps).

On September 7, 1838, aged 22, Grace and her father, William, selflessly rescued nine people shipwrecked on the notorious Harcar Rock. As a result of her bravery, Grace became the first woman to be awarded an RNLI Gallantry Medal and was catapulted into national and international stardom.

Overnight she became the first Victorian heroine. Patronised by London’s press, royalty and the aristocracy, her image was everywhere (on soap, annuals, chocolates etc) while plays, poems and songs were written about her. She died in 1842, aged 26, of TB – four years after the historical rescue.

Lots of tosh has been written about Grace in order to embellish the dramatic aspect of her personal story. The truth is, three months after the rescue she responded to the pressure of fame by becoming a recluse in the lighthouse, where her social position was to do domestic work for her mother and father. She died having never encountered romance.

We wanted to contrast today’s short-lived celebrity with a real celebrity but without resorting to using an X Factor type show or reality TV, all of which have been done to death.

But how could we tell the story of Grace, whose total existence was played out within Northumberland, having probably never travelled further than Berwick in the north and Alnwick to the south?

From a strict Christian background, there was no romantic attachment in her life and, unless we turned the large family into a singing troupe fleeing from marauding Scots or got birds and sea animals to help her make beds and wash dishes, there wasn’t much drama other than the heroic rescue itself.

The framework we decided on was to base it in the present on the set of a film being made about Grace Darling. This allowed us to include film as a backdrop and we’ve produced a script that is something completely different from our previous work. Of course, it will still be a very funny play but we have managed to stay true to the story of Grace Darling in an entertaining and dramatic way.

Research included a trip to Longstone lighthouse and numerous visits to the picturesque Bamburgh with its magnificent village, castle, coffee shops, pubs and restaurants (sometimes I question why I’m a writer, life is so tough).

We were also kindly invited to the RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh to read a rare book by Grace’s older sister Thomasin who, sick of all the rubbish written about Grace detailed the true story of her sister in 1880. Holding the book, Grace Darling: Her True Story, felt like a direct link with the past.

What I particularly liked from the book was Grace’s response to the Duke of Northumberland when he enquired about her attitude to marriage. Her retort was “I have not got married yet for they say the man is master and there is much talk about bad masters” and that she intended to keep her own name: “…any husband should take it. It is a name of which my sons will be proud”.

This, from a woman in Victorian times whose social role was to be subservient and to know her place. Until the Conveyancing Act of 1881 married women (unmarried women weren’t considered worthy of inclusion) had no legal control of their finances or property – that was a man’s job! There was also a class issue involved. Given her national fame and the vast amounts of money being sent as gifts from well wishers, the Duke of Northumberland (as opposed to her father) became her patron, dealing with her finances and shielding her from many unsuitable marriage proposals.

At one point,  more than £1,000 had been sent to Grace from people all over the UK. Donations of £5 and £10 were common place from middle-class well-wishers while working people donated smaller amounts of their hard-earned money. The Duke, the wealthiest man in Northumberland, generously donated £1 (one pound) and invited Grace and her father to tea at Alnwick Castle – with the servants! Grace never touched a penny of the money.

To his credit, the Duke of Northumberland did go on to initiate the modern Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in 1854 (it was established as a charity in 1824 but less efficient), so there is a strong possibility that Grace acted as a catalyst for what is today the selfless charity that saves many thousands lives a year off UK coastlines.

I was amazed to learn that the Grace Darling Museum last year received more than 30,000 visitors, such is her lasting popularity. She is buried in the grounds of the beautiful St. Aidan’s Church (opposite the museum) and a stunning cenotaph celebrates her life.

There are lasting tributes to Grace throughout the UK and the world. Many countries have sea rescue heroines who are regarded as their own “Grace Darling” and her heroic act is part of the UK national curriculum. The 5’3” unassuming north eastern lass is featured on a stained glass window in Liverpool Cathedral, there’s a blue plaque to her in Hull (where the doomed SS Forfarshire sailed from), a tree has been planted for her in Battersea Park, London, an RNLI rescue boat in Seahouses, Northumberland, bears her name, while a 19th century painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall,  Northumberland, depicts her rescue. There is even a monument to her in St Thomas Church in Exeter, Devon (more than 300 miles from her lighthouse home) and a pub is named after her in Melbourne, Australia.

October 20, 2012, marks the 170th anniversary of Grace’s death but her bravery, fortitude and memory will live forever. Amazing Grace is our humble contribution to that incredible heritage.

5 Responses

  1. Vicki Daniel says:

    I have a book with a moroon hard cover ,titled ,Our Queen with Walter Scott as the author ,but inside the says ,by the Author of Grace Darling. London Paternoster Square 1897. I would love to know more information on this book ,if you could help , thankyou…Vicki

  2. sally Parish says:

    My Grndmother tells me that the bell for the Forfarshire was in her family home bought by her grandfathers privte collection in the name of hulme, Hyme Dykes in Ponteland New Castle.
    The house has now been sold and i wondered if anybody knew of its exsisitance?

    Im just curious really as i remember seeing the bell on my childhood visits to the house.

    many thanks

  3. cheryl margaret watson says:


    I am absolutley fixated by GRACE DARLING………………….my Mother aways said we were related but as a kid I
    was not that interested but I am now.

    Darling name was used a lot in our family.
    My Grandparents left Fife for South Africa…………………….the connetctrion will be by marriage…

    I will be going to spend my April birthday in those areas to keep on esearching,

    When are we going to see this play in London?

  4. cheryl margaret watson says:

    In Durban South Africa I was taught this story of Grace, as I said my Mom told me she is related somewhere…
    I moved to London and from about 2003 I have done research on scottish ancestors……to look for this connection. I wil pay a geneologist in Scotland.
    but I enjoy all the travels to the coast and the excitment..
    I have seen the original paintin hidden in a gallery protected.
    Her medal was bought at a auction..pity Fife did nto buy it..too expensive, we should have helped…….

    I would love to speak to people connected to Grace Darling.
    I have just read that Sir W, Darling is related.
    I am so facinated by her……….
    I met a lady in Scotland that has a real silk painting of her………………..
    if only we spoke to Grandparents!!!
    if only.
    they say my late aunt in Zimbabwe has DARLING IN HER NAME AFTER GRACE….
    any information I would love………………
    I am in South London

  5. Lynne Walker says:

    I pass by the monument to Grace Darling every day on my way to and from work in Exeter and I was always puzzled as to why it is there. It looks like a normal (Victorian) grave headstone and is against the wall of the church behind railings. As I am always in my car I have never been able to stop long enough to read the inscription properly. Thanks to your page I now have an answer!

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