Friday, 24 July 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Grace Horsley Darling (24 November 1815 – 20 October 1842)

Now, there will be some out there who, on seeing that name, will be sniffy enough to be questioning how, precisely, this lighthouse keeper’s daughter has any connection whatsoever with academia or the arts. For those sceptical few, let us point out straight away that her likeness was captured in paint by at least six known and nameable artists, including the Pre-Raphaelite, William Bell Scott, and once in marble; others were inspired to write poetry about her exploits, including Wordsworth and Swinburne, and more yet brought her into the dramatic arts, music and song. Cadbury’s even used her name and image on chocolate. Her contribution to the arts is, therefore, immense but, besides that, her heroics are also a matter of History and thus her place within these rolls is both deserved and assured, whilst her name (and so her adventure also) remain instantly recognisable to this day.

Grace Darling was born in the tiny village of Bamburgh, Northumberland (north of Newcastle and actually nearer to Berwick), the seventh of nine children – well, there was no television and there wasn’t a lot else to do on a lighthouse in those days. Her grandfather, Robert Darling, was also a keeper, who had been appointed to the Brownsman Island light in 1795 when his son, William (later Grace’s old man) was nine and, being the only boy amongst six older sisters, the lad was naturally expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Which he did. By the time he was nineteen, he must’ve decided that having half a dozen older women about the place wasn’t quite enough because, on 1 July 1805, he married Thomasin Horsley, who was then thirty one. Thomasin was one of twins – she would produce two sets of her own – but, rather creepily, her own twin sister died at birth: she would have been called Grace.

Two months before our (perhaps fatefully named) Grace came into the world, Grandpa Darling went up to the Great Lighthouse in the Sky and William succeeded him as master of the Brownsman light. Brownsman is one of the largest of the many Farne Islands, some of the first inhabitants there being the early Christians (Lindisfarne is quite close) and, amongst them, a goodly smattering of saints looking to get away from the rat-race, including St Aidan, St Aethelwold, St Bartholomew and St Cuthbert. It is believed that Christianity originally entered these islands via that rugged coastline. Alas, however, so too did a marauding bunch of Vikings not long later, which probably explains why the last hermit, Thomas De Melsonby, died there as long ago as 1246. The island was the sort of place where you’d pretty much need to keep your vest on all year round, being a touch blowy, so much so that the trees gave it up as a lost cause and never grew there. Though there was enough coarse grass to graze a few sheep and goats, while rabbits were introduced (always a fatal mistake) to make a change from the mostly-fish diet. There was also a notable colony of seals (still there), along with thousands upon thousands of seabirds (two hundred and ninety species, complete with eggs, of course), including guillemots, eider duck, terns and puffins – so many of the critters that you’d’ve thought your average hermit wouldn’t’ve been able to hear himself meditate half the time. And, what with all that guano stacking up, the vegetable garden did pretty well also. Life on Brownsman, for those hardy enough, was all very cosy and self-sufficient but there was one tiny problem: the light was in the wrong place and so ships kept on sinking.

William, being a practical man, though perhaps not a very farsighted one as it turned out, got on to Trinity House to get something done, so they decided to build another light, a whacking great eighty three footer, in the right location, the trouble being that this happened to be on Longstone Rock, which pretty much describes the place, seeing it was a barren wilderness (a long stone rock) where nothing grew and no birds nested. In January 1826, when Grace was ten, she was taken there with her family, where she would spend the rest of her life, as she was the youngest daughter and the expectation would that she’d be the one to look after the aging parents in their dotage. Meanwhile, all the older Darling siblings thought this as good a time as any to leg it away sharpish like, by seeking their livelihoods elsewhere or getting married. These were Thomasin (dressmaker) – Grace’s favourite, who, forty years on would pen Grace Darling, Her True Story, to scotch the exaggerated stories – and Mary Ann (married but died at thirty five), twins (1808); Elizabeth Grace (1812), known as Betsy, who only made thirty two, though it’s rumoured that she sat for some of Grace’s portraits; Robert (1814), who would call his own daughter Elizabeth Grace; then our Grace (another Grace: Grace Horsley, the exact name of the mother’s dead twin); then twins George Alexander (lived to a ripe old eighty three) and William Brooks (also there that fateful night but arrived too late).

The family continued to look after Brownsman, which they used as a kind of pantry, popping across daily – a row of a mile over open sea – to pick up vegetables and tend to the livestock and, by her early teens, Grace was well used to making this journey on her own. She would also collect birds’ eggs (for eating and baking with) and the plentiful eider down, out of which her mother would make quilts. Formal schooling was out, it being impractical and she being a girl (that’s how it was back then), but her father taught her the rudiments of maths, history and geography, plus a thorough grounding in scripture and the Bible. Storybooks were out but, oddly enough, Rabbie Burns was very much in, though the Bard of Ayrshire was a champion of Scottish Folks Songs (he wrote Auld Lang Syne, as it goes), something the old man was highly keen on himself, being no mean turn on the fiddle and tin whistle and even penning his own airs, lively little jigs, by all accounts, that would keep the children on their toes when he made them dance to them. Grace herself was known to have a fine singing voice.

More importantly, William taught them all the practical skills that they would need for life in an island lighthouse, such as maintaining the lantern, mending fishing nets, recognising the various types of ships and watching for hazards, and all about the natural world that surrounded them, including birds, fish, seals and the pattern of the tides. Of course, back in those days, there was no Shipping Forecast or sitting down to the News to catch the Weather, so you had to predict it yourself, by watching the skies and the behaviour of the wildlife and the changing rhythms of the sea. But not by using seaweed. That old wives’ tale was, more than likely, nothing more than an old keeper’s tale, put about because they so much of the stuff lying around that there was no hope of ever clearing it away, unless they told the gullible tourists that, if they took some to hang up by their doors, they could tell the weather with it. When that one began to wear a bit thin, some grizzled old wily lightsman then hit on the idea of suggesting that seaweed was, in fact, edible, something that, even to this day, some people adhere to still, munching their way through platefuls of the ghastly stuff in the belief that it’s doing them a power of good. What a pile of kelp.
The very nature of the work meant that sea rescues were a regular item on the agenda for the lighthouse keeper, a duty that was pretty much part of the job description. Old man Darling went out on a goodly number of such escapades in his time, braving wild storms and crashing seas in order to save complete strangers. And yet nobody’s ever heard of him. Grace Darling, on the other hand, takes part in one and becomes a national, if not worldwide, celebrity. Doesn’t seem fair somehow. Still, William didn’t seem any too fussed about it and simply got on with doing what he had to (salvage bringing in a welcome extra bob or two) and was more than happy when his resourceful girl was on hand when it really mattered, as were all those who were plucked from the briny that fateful night. He would be fifty two at the time, incidentally, and she not yet twenty three.

Wednesday 5 September 1838. At Hull, the Steamship Forfarshire stood ready, loaded with passengers cargo, bound for Dundee, though the exact number of those on board was never known. She was actually a paddleboat and, it is said, that there were some concerns voiced about the engines and seaworthiness of this particular vessel, even before the off, so Captain John Humble thought he’d set their minds at rest by bringing his wife along for the trip, to show them there was nothing to worry about and give the old girl a bit of an adventure and a cheapish treat. Neither of them would be aware, however, that they only had one-way tickets.

Meanwhile, back at the Longstone Lighthouse, the only residents were William, old Mrs Darling and Grace. William Brooks, the only other of the siblings still living there, happened to be away fishing in Seahouses just then, though you’d’ve thought he got enough of that sort of thing at home. It was, as the phrase goes, a dark and stormy night. In the early hours of 7 September, the Forfarshire, whose dodgy engines had finally packed up, leaving her drifting helplessly under sail, had struck Big Harcar and broken in two, one half of which had sunk, taking all those within down with it. Grace, on watch at an upstairs window, spotted what had happened and immediately roused her father. Together, the two scoured for any signs of life but could see none, not until daylight came creeping in around seven, at which they at last saw survivors clinging to the rocks. The plucky Grace was at once all for rushing to the rescue but the old man, knowing the vicious rocks, the deadly tides and all too aware of just how bad the storm was, hesitated: he could not make it alone, which meant taking one of the women along and, as Thomasin was sixty four, that only left Grace. Who was already down at the lifeboat getting her ready to put out, what is known as a coble, a flat-bottomed, high-bowed open boat typical of the North East coast, designed especially for conditions prevalent on those waters and allowing launch and landings on their shallow sandy beaches, still with something of the old Norse influence about them.

Away they went. For as long as they could, they stuck to the shelter of the leeside, going the long way round, making it nearly a mile in distance – how all those trips across for potatoes and carrots were paying off now, with Grace doing her share of the hefty rowing, until, eventually and at long last, they had made it across to the stricken vessel. There they saw nine, perhaps ten, survivors, more than they had expected. More than one trip would be needed. Now came the ticklish part: Grace would need to keep the coble as steady as she could – on a surging swelling tempestuous sea – whilst her old man leapt ashore and began to organise affairs. No time for any sentimental rot about women and children first in this case (there was but one woman, a Mrs Dawson, clutching her two children, both of whom were dead) as William knew he would need to take some burly seafaring sorts along, to help with the rowing, both back to Longstone and on the return trip for the rest. Four men and Mrs Dawson were selected for the first trip but the bodies of her children would have to be left behind. Grace then remained at the light with her mother, tending to the survivors, whilst the (totally overlooked by History) heroic William took three of the men back to Harcar to pluck the remainder to safety. By nine, it was all over. At which point, the Seahouses lifeboat, with William Brooks aboard, turned up at Harcar, only to find there was nothing left to rescue but the bodies of the children and an old dead vicar. Then they found that it was too dangerous to head for home and had to make for Longstone too, where the weather deteriorated again and they all found themselves stuck for the next three days. Nine other survivors, who had got away in a lifeboat, were also picked up elsewhere that night.

All in a dawn’s work for your average lighthouse keeper and his family. But the word of it soon got out. And then came the aftermath. Back in those days, we liked our women to be decorative (where possible) and put them to use as wives and mothers or else for good old skivvying purposes (which is why there wasn’t much point in educating them in the first place), so a girl rowing out through a tempest to save souls in distress was a sensation. An uneasy Grace became the nation’s heroine. Public subscriptions and donations flooded in, totalling some seven hundred pounds, including fifty from Queen Victoria, then only nineteen herself. Gifts too, so much so that her unexpected wealth meant that the Duke of Northumberland had to be roped in to look after it all for her. Then there were the letters, asking for autographs, locks of her hair, strips of the dress she wore that night, or simply to kiss the paper on which they were written and then send it back. Oh, and a few proposals of marriage too. All of which she felt dutybound to answer. And then there were the portrait painters, the paparazzi of their day, with over a dozen of the blighters being dispatched to bring back her likeness. Following on from which came the rubberneckers, who would sail close enough to Longstone to catch a glimpse of her and then just stand there gawping, though others landed unannounced and made themselves at home. Even the Duke of Wellington got to hear about it and had to have it from the horse’s (well, William’s own) mouth, seeing that, up to then, he’d been Britain’s Number One pin-up following Waterloo, so his not insubstantial hooter must’ve been put right out of joint.

Now, if there are two subjects that artists liked at that time, they were shipwrecks and young maidens. Put the two together and you can’t go far wrong. Before very long, droves of painters were hotfooting it over there to get her down on canvas, the odd thing being that the Darlings got on rather well with their unexpected guests, though, after only a month, William had to set a limit on the number of sittings Grace would endure, a goodly number being needed for each portrait. Thanks to the weather, Henry Perlee Parker got stuck on the island for a week (he wouldn’t be expecting a storm, now would he?), during which he became firm friends with the family, shedding tears when he finally left, and he even named his own daughter after Grace, while Grace herself would later send a frock as a gift for her young namesake. Thomas Musgrave Joy, possibly the best-known of the brushmen, came too and he was weeks at it, asking William to describe where each person involved had been sitting in the coble, so he could record an accurate image. (“Very pleasant he was,” the family recorded). Unlike Thomas Brooks, who didn’t do his version until thirty years later and then he came up with one of Grace alone in the coble, waves crashing, her sleeves rolled up and with the windswept hair. This remains one of the iconic images. Which evens things out a touch: the old man gets more or less forgotten, whilst the heroine, being a woman, is remembered mainly for the fact that her hair was a bit untidy during the rescue. John Reay, when he came to do his picture of the adventure, ended up shipwrecked himself and had to be rescued, though William Brooks is said to have remarked about his effort that “it would be a difficult matter to have more striking likenesses.”

Then there was William Batty, something of your prototype marketing executive, in that he set the none-too-high standard for every other one of those charlatans to imitate, though he was actually the owner of a circus. In the November of that year, with the rescue still fresh in people’s minds, and what with his entrepreneurial spirit (which we seem to have sadly lost these days), he thought that there’d be a swift buck to be made by having the proceeds of one performance dedicated to Grace Darling, from which he sent her twenty pounds. And then expected her to turn up in person and thus provide him with a load of gratis publicity, to which she at first agreed. Batty then bunged her full reply in the Caledonian Mercury, possibly even with the words, Roll Up, Roll Up, appended somewhere to them. The ladies of Edinburgh, who just happened to be collecting funds for Grace themselves, were outraged and energetically dissuaded her from “exhibiting herself for the applause of the vulgar with Mr Batty’s well-trained quadrupeds.” (His horses, we suspect, though, with a rogue like that, you never can tell). Grace was horrified by the whole episode and broke down in tears, even feeling guilty for the wrong-feeling it was all causing. William wrote to Batty, telling him where he could stuff his offer, which was somewhere the sun don’t shine: Arbroath. Not that it mattered. Batty was worth a cool half million when he died.

After that there were the Women of Hull in 1841 or, to be more precise, a group of ladies representing the Port of Hull Society, who wanted Grace to turn up so they could raise cash for shipwrecked mariners (the Forfarshire had sailed from Hull, remember, a rather tenuous link they hoped to profit out of) but she turned ‘em down flat. So they wrote again. And again. Six times in all, the last hinting broadly that the Queen was coming so the least Grace could do was to show up too. She referred them to the Duke of Northumberland, just to get shot of them. But, once again, she was left feeling guilty and wretched. In the end, even the church wanted a slice of the Darling action, seeing as how she’d always insisted that it was God who had helped her to find the strength and courage to do what she did, so wasn’t it payback time now, young lady? She feared they would try to raise her into a religious icon but, like all the rest, it was secular self-profit that was their sole motivation. Though the thought did nothing to alleviate her suffering from this relentless publicity and, let’s never forget, she was the first celebrity of this kind, certainly the first woman. There was nobody to tell her how to cope.

By 1842, William Brooks Darling had been appointed assistant keeper to his father at Longstone. Having taken up the same hobby as the old man, he needed somewhere to house all his many offspring, so some cottages were ordered to be built. Meaning loads of workmen to build them. Plus Mary Ann, the widowed sister, had moved back with her daughter. All in all, you’d’ve got more space and privacy at Batty’s Circus. What with all this going on, not to mention the incessant attention paid to her every move, Grace needed a break to get away. A holiday, maybe. And where else for that but on a lighthouse? On the inappropriately named Coquet Island, where her brother was in charge of a new light. When she turned up at Seahouses to board the steamer, her appearance caused enough unseemly clamour and unwanted attention for her to have to hide below decks. Returning via Alnwick to visit cousins, she got a proper soaking in the rain and fell ill, a condition not helped by the confined and airless premises in the aptly-named Narrowgate. The Duchess of Northumberland then sprang into action, moving her to better accommodation, tending Grace herself and arranging for the attention of her own physician. However, the personal touch from so great an eminence only caused Grace more distress and anxiety, plus an endless stream of well-intentioned but entirely blockheaded visitors did nothing to aid recovery from what had now been diagnosed as tuberculosis. She was fading fast. So they moved her back to Bamburgh to be with her sister, Thomasin, but still the idiot well-wishers refused to leave her alone. By now, she was occupying a box bed, and such was the mental state she had been driven to that she kept the sliding door closed most of the time, just to keep them all out.

She knew the end was not far. She asked for her family; her mother made a highly rare excursion away from Longstone to be there. From her sickbed she distributed gifts and mementoes to them, never once being heard to complain. On the evening of Thursday 20 October 1842, Grace asked to be raised from her pillow. There she died in her father’s arms at 8.15pm. She was just twenty six. A young woman, hounded to death by our insatiable lust for celebrity. Maybe, had she known, she would have thought twice before getting into the coble that night. But we doubt it. She was, after all, a True Giant.


Grace Darling Chocolates: By Benjobanjo23 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
Grace Darling: By Thomas Musgrave Joy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Brownsman Island: Andy F [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Longstone Rock: Mick Knapton at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons 
Robert Burns: Alexander Nasmyth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Kelp: By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons 
William Darling: By Thomas Musgrave Joy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
SS Forfarshire 1835: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Grace Darling Portrait with Signature: By Eva Hope - No image credit [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Duke of Wellington: Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Rescue at the Forfarshire: By Thomas Musgrave Joy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Batty’s Grand National 1851: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Duchess of Northumberland, 1839: By Thomas Overton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Grace Darling Monument: By Nicholas Jackson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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