She rowed to rescue


The RNLI will, this autumn, clebrate the 175th anniversary of sea-rescue heroine Grace Darling. Grace became one of Britain’s most celebrated heroines when she risked her own life to rescue nine people shipwrecked off the coast of Northumberland. Grace’s deed epitomises the bravery and selflessness of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s volunteer lifeboat crews of today.

The RNLI and the communities of Bamburgh and Seahouses in Northumberland will celebrate the anniversary with events and activities including the laying of a commemorative wreath by the volunteer crew from Seahouses RNLI Lifeboat Station.

On the 7 September 1838, 22 year-old Grace and her father William set off in stormy seas to rescue the stricken survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire. The steamship, on route from Hull to Dundee, had hit Big Harcar Rock off the Northumberland coast, and Grace spotted survivors on the rocks. The pair rowed from Longstone Lighthouse in an open rowing boat (a coble) to rescue the survivors fearing the local lifeboat (with Grace’s brother on the crew) would not reach the survivors in time. Grace and William set out knowing they might not return.

The RNLI awarded Grace and her father William the Institution’s Silver Medal for Gallantry for rescuing nine people shipwrecked on the rock – making the lighthouse keeper’s daughter the first woman in history to receive such an award.

Grace became famous overnight. Her courage captured the imagination of Victorian society and her story was retold by the ‘media’ of the time and portrayed through art and poetry. Sadly, 3 years later Grace died of tuberculosis. However, her legacy lives on in the RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, Northumberland which features the rescue coble, Grace’s dresses, letters, family belongings and commemorative items.

Women have always played a vital role in the RNLI. In the early days women helped as shore crew to launch and recover the lifeboats, but it was in 1967 that the first woman joined an RNLI lifeboat crew. Today, 4,600 people volunteer for the RNLI as lifeboat crew and 8% are women. Like Grace, over 20 women have been awarded gallantry medals for their acts of courage.