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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

Amazing Grace

To those of you who feel powerless in the face of the current covid pandemic, may I suggest you take inspiration from the story of a young girl who - like members of our emergency services - disregarded her own safety to help people who were in desperate need.

On the night of 7 September 1838 the engines of a steamship called the Forfarshire failed while sailing from Hull in Yorkshire to Dundee in Scotland. Its captain, seeking shelter from a severe storm, mistook the Longstone Lighthouse for the Inner Farne Lighthouse, which was situated closer to the shore. Then, tragically, a huge wave swept his ship into the air and dashed it onto the nearby Hurcar Rocks.

Half the ship sank within fifteen minutes and dozens of men, women and children were drowned, some still in their cabins. Nine people made it into the ship's lifeboat, while a further nine managed to scramble onto the rocks.

From the Longstone Lighthouse, the keeper's twenty-two-year-old daughter, Grace Darling, woke to see the outline of the wreck and spotted figures moving on the Hurcar outcrop. She woke her father, William, and they decided conditions were so bad that the north Sunderland lifeboat was unlikely to be able to launch. With her brother away overnight, the only hope of rescue was for her - a girl not much over five foot tall - to help her father steer their boat out to the survivors.

The two of them were obliged to row their coble - a wooden rowing boat - for nearly a mile through the wild seas in order to avoid the jagged rocks and reach the survivors safely. William then leapt from the boat to where they huddled on the inhospitable Hurcar, leaving Grace to use both oars to prevent the coble being smashed to pieces. William found eight men - one badly injured - and a single woman, clutching her two children, neither of whom had survived.

With only room for five in the small boat, two journeys had to be made, though for the second trip Grace stayed in the lighthouse helping her mother look after the survivors while William and two of the crew returned for the remaining four men.

Both Grace and her father were awarded gold medals from the Royal Humane Society for Gallantry, Grace being the first woman to receive an RNLI medal. Moved by the young woman's bravery, Queen Victoria also sent her a gift of £50.

Although Grace became a celebrity, she did not enjoy the attention of the public, preferring a quiet life with her family. Then, sadly, four years later she became ill with tuberculosis. She died in 1842 at the age of 26 and hundreds of people crowded the Northumberland village of Bamburgh to say goodbye to their local heroine.

As someone born in the north-east, I grew up knowing the story of this young and courageous woman who risked her own life to save others in dire distress.

However, it was not until I was married and visited Northumberland with my husband that I finally saw the spot on this beautiful but wild coast where Grace is buried and where the fragile rescue boat is preserved in the nearby RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh. Soberingly, the coble is not much larger than a bathtub.

The north-east is having a hard time just now. But the people living there, like Grace Darling, are made of stern stuff. When the lock-downs are relaxed, a visit to this dramatic coastline, and to the Museum at Bamburgh, would be an excellent way to support them and to spend a few days either walking or touring in a beautiful part of our country.

In the meantime, the RNLI - who receive 93% of their income from donations - are suffering from a financial shortfall and would welcome any support, even if you only buy a pack of Christmas cards from them. Why not check out their website?

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