My history hero: Miriam Stoppard chooses Grace Darling (1815–1842)

Miriam Stoppard, doctor, author and agony aunt, chooses Grace Darling (1815–1842)

Victorian heroine Grace Darling (1815–1842) with her father, lighthouse keeper William Darling. They are rowing from the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands off Northumberland, to rescue the passengers of the stricken ship 'SS Forfarshire'. (Photo by Nigel Dobinson/Getty Images)

In profile: Grace Darling (1815–1842)

Grace Darling was born in 1815 in the Northumberland village of Bamburgh. Her father worked as a lighthouse-keeper on the nearby Farne Islands; it was from an upstairs window of Long-stone Lighthouse that Grace saw a shipwrecked boat in the early hours of 7 September 1838. Her bravery in rescuing survivors won her national fame, including being immortalised in an 1843 poem by William Wordsworth.

When did you first hear about Grace Darling?

During the Second World War, I was evacuated from Newcastle, which was being bombed, to the village of Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast. I went to school there, and everyone knew about Grace because she was the local heroine. So I’ve known about her since the age of five.

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What kind of woman was Darling?

I identified with Grace from the minute I learnt about her, and she was a real inspiration to me. She was a non-conformist who flouted convention, and she did a man’s work, helping her lighthouse-keeper father William at Longstone Lighthouse. It’s still flashing away on the North Sea coast to this day.

What made Darling a hero?

The night in September 1838 that a ship, the Forfarshire, got wrecked on a nearby rocky island. She rode out in a longboat with her father from the lighthouse to the scene of the wreck, despite the high winds and waves. Together, they rescued nine people. Grace’s story had a huge effect on me: it made me see women as strong, assertive and determined. And it made me think: if Grace could do it, I can do it!

What was her finest hour?

Undoubtedly, it’s the heroism that Grace displayed following the shipwreck. She pleaded with her father to go to the rescue, despite his initial refusal because of the almost gale-force winds. They had to row 1,700 yards, and William got the survivors off the rocks while she held the boat steady. I’ve seen the boat – it’s at the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh. There was none of this ‘I’m not sure I can do it, I’m only a weak woman’ stuff. She just rose to the challenge. Grace went on to find fame and was immortalised in painting and poem but, sadly, contracted tuberculosis just a few years later. She died in 1842 at the age of just 26.

Grace pleaded with her father to go to the rescue, despite his initial refusal because of the almost gale-force winds

Can you see any parallels between Darling’s life and your own?

Yes – I see us both as Bamburgh girls. I’ve got a bolthole in the village, and whenever I go I make a point of visiting the plaque on the house in which she lived, and her memorial in the local churchyard. It’s a kind of pilgrimage.

Does Darling have any special relevance today?

If Grace lived today she would be an NHS frontline worker, whether it was her job or not. If she was prepared to risk her life rowing through a storm, she would have volunteered without hesitation to help in the fight against coronavirus.

Miriam Stoppard was talking to York Membery

Miriam Stoppard is a doctor, author, TV presenter and agony aunt. She was awarded an OBE in 2010 for her services to healthcare and charity

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This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine