“But courage, Father! let us out to sea – A few may yet be saved.” The Daughter’s words, Her earnest tone, and look beaming with faith, Dispel the Father’s doubts…” (‘Grace Darling’ – by William Wordsworth, 1842)
The Iconic and Excessively Rare Royal Humane Society Gold Medal and other related gifts and awards presented to the renowned Victorian heroine Grace Darling, who as a young lady of just 23 years old assisted her father in saving the lives of nine people during the wreck of the S.S. Forfarshire on Big Harcar Rock, close to the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland on 7 September 1838. Rowing out together in a simple ‘coble’ boat, the pair fought through the roughest seas, assisting numerous stricken passengers, and returning them to safety at Longstone. Such was her fame at the time, Queen Victoria herself, still then a young lady, sent Grace Darling a personal gift of £50 in admiration of her heroic conduct at sea, and The Times newspaper of 19 September 1838, made the statement that her actions formed ‘an instance of heroism on the part of a female unequalled perhaps, and certainly not surpassed, by any on record’. Her receiving of this exceptional medal marked two historic ‘firsts’ – the first issue of a Royal Humane Society gold award to a civilian for a specific act of life-saving at sea, and the very first official British gallantry medal awarded to a female recipient, comprising:
Royal Humane Society, Large ‘Honorary’ Gold Medal, Type 2 (1837) by Pistrucci, for ‘successful rescue’, engraved to reverse ‘Grace Darling, VIT. OB. SERV. D. D. SOC. REG. HVM. 1838’ (The Royal Humane Society presented this gift for saving life), 123.01g, 51mm width, in modern fitted case, several small edge knocks and bruises and minor surface marks, otherwise good very fine, and extremely rare; together with associated items (see overleaf) (lot) Altogether an extremely rare and historically significant group of awards to arguably the single most famous life-saving figure of the 19th century, and one of the very earliest official and recognised gallantry awards issued to a lady (4)
Sold for £38,400
Included in the lot are:
Ornate Gold Presentation Locket, by Fenton, with internal glazed centre containing six lockets of hair, set against a fine silk lining, with facing engraved inscription inside lid ‘To Miss Grace H. Darling, from a few Gentlemen of Arbroath, to mark their sense of her brave conduct on the 7th September, 1838.’ 38.25mm width, with suspension above, extremely fine;
A Presentation Silver Ladies’ Tankard, by Robin Albin Cox, bearing hallmarks to base dated 1794, with ‘rococo revival’ outer embellishment, c.1838, engraved at centre with an ornate ‘D’ with the date ‘September 7th 1838’ below; this believed to be the ‘ornate silver mug’ given as a donation by the Lord and Lady Frederick FitzClarence;
And a modern, privately-commissioned silver-gilt facsimile medal, cast after the above, hallmarked 1991.
Grace Horsley Darling (1815-1842) was born on 24 November 1815 at Bamburgh, Northumberland, daughter of the lighthouse keeper William Darling and Thomasin Darling (née Horsley) – the seventh of nine children. Her father; like her paternal grandfather before him, kept and maintained the outermost lighthouse of the Farne Islands, located on the Brownsman (or Brownsman Island). In February 1823 the beacon on the Brownsman was extinguished, owing to a decision made by Trinity House to relocate the light further seaward, and a new tower, designed by Joseph Nelson, was built on the otherwise barren Longstone rock. Moving with the establishment of this new lighthouse, William Darling moved to the Longstone with his wife and children.
In her early years Grace was raised largely in isolation on Longstone with only her immediate family for company, aside from the odd visitor, and always according to the strict, religious principles of her father. Living a fairly spartan but tranquil existence in and around the lighthouse, with its walled garden, pond, and colony of seabirds, she assisted her father in the general running of the lighthouse, during which time she also received her education at night under the light of the beacon. Remaining with her family on the Longstone, it was on 18 September 1838 that Grace Darling assisted her father in making careful preparations for harsh weather. William Darling had noticed an unusually high tide and an abrupt change in conditions, and with her younger brother William Brooks Darling away herring fishing from nearby Sea Houses, Grace helped her father to bring in various provisions, and carefully stowed their various possessions safely inside the lighthouse.
Out at sea, Captain Humble, of the S.S. Forfarshire, a passenger ship travelling between Hull and Dundee, was struggling with his vessel. During the course of his journey, the starboard boiler of his steamship sprang a troublesome leak which the ship’s pumps were unable to cope with. The ship’s Chief Engineer, Alan Stewart, had made various attempts to stem the leak, and yet it continued, flooding the stokehold with hot water and causing a general loss of speed. The problem was of sufficient severity that steerage passengers had even been forced to man the deck pumps in an effort to rectify the situation, but as conditions at sea worsened and waves began to crash over the deck, these efforts were brought to an end, and the engines and boilers were brought to a sudden stop. With no alternative, Captain Humble ordered his crew to make way by sail, the only remaining means of manoeuvring the fairly cumbersome steamship, and continuing onward to their destination. Primarily a steamship, these modest sails would not be enough. In tempestuous North Sea conditions, with boiling seas and a fearsome wind blowing from the North-North-East, Captain Humble decided to seek refuge in the Inner Sound, attempting to make way for this nearby safe haven between the Farne Islands and the mainland. Once again the woeful conditions played their part, as Captain Humble struggled with greatly reduced visibility, and mistook the Inner Farne High Lighthouse for the Longstone, which ultimately sealed the ship’s fate.
As the ship approached the rocks, which were spotted only moments before impact, her totally inadequate sails were too weak to steer her to safety. Inevitably, at roughly 3.30am on 19 September 1838, the Forfarshire struck the Big Harcar Rock, and on the second occasion she was lifted onto the rock, breaking the ship’s back and snapping her in two, washing Captain Humble overboard to his fate. The stern half of the ship then sank within moments, taking all but a handful of the Main Cabin passengers with it into the deep. The foremost part remained beleaguered upon the rock, with stricken passengers fighting for survival. The ship’s quarter-boat, of just five passengers and crew, was able to escape, leaving the rest fighting for their lives.
Over an hour later at nearly 5.00am, Grace Darling, from an upstairs widow, spotted the remains of the wreck on the Big Harcar, and it was not until 7.00am that any survivors were spotted (although ‘the glass was incessantly applied’ her father later wrote). After a few moments of deliberation, the decision was made to attempt a rescue, despite the appalling conditions. Knowing that he could not row his ‘coble’ boat alone in such weather, and with his son away on the mainland, Grace joined her father without hesitation – fully aware of what was expected, and what needed to be done. They set off on a southerly course, passing through Craford’s Gut to the more sheltered, leeward side of the rocks and islands, with William taking two oars and Grace an extra oar on the starboard side. Heading west past Little Harcar they reached their destination, coming close in, with William able to leap onto the rocks of Big Harcar, leaving Grace in charge of the coble. During this time, and despite the appalling gale and rough seas, Grace kept the coble close by, all the while preventing it from also being dashed upon the rocks. William, now on the rocks beside the wreckage, began to encounter various survivors, and could see that many were exhausted and near death. Two children (of a Mrs Dawson), had already, tragically, died of exposure. William calculated that two full journeys would be required to complete the rescue of all 9 survivors, so William and Grace put the grief-stricken Mrs Dawson, an injured man, and two others (John Tulloch and John Nicholson) into the 20ft coble.
Returning safely to the Longstone after a half-mile journey, with William Darling and two men from the survivors manning the oars, Grace helped Mrs Dawson ashore while her mother Thomasin tended to the injured man. Though exhausted, William and the two ablebodied men then returned for one further trip to rescue the remaining survivors. Sometime afterwards, a boat with seven men sent out from South Shields (including William Brooks Darling) arrived too late to assist with the rescue, but were nonetheless exhausted. All told, the Darlings rescued nine people, who they continued to feed and look after on the Longstone until the storm passed. Several days later, three bodies were recovered from the wreckage on Big Harcar, and the survivors were taken to safety on the mainland.
In the weeks and months that followed, the story of this remarkable rescue received great acclaim and attention in the British press, and eventually in countries as far away as America, Australia, and even Japan. Formal inquests detailing the events emerged, and the bravery of William and Grace Darling soon became widely celebrated – with Grace’s remarkable feats receiving a large share of the praise. One correspondent from The Times wrote: “Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?” The focus centred upon the selflessness of the act, with both lives risked during tempestuous conditions – and all on behalf of complete strangers. Furthermore, the idea that a humble, retiring young lady of modest means had braved storms and high seas to save lives, out of a sense of duty and full of pre-meditated courage (often assumed at that time to be the exclusive domain of men, and usually soldiers) made riveting, near revolutionary print.
The Royal Humane Society swiftly elected to issue medals for this famous rescue, with a gold medal recommended for Grace Darling, and a silver medal for William Darling. This latter medal was later upgraded to a gold medal after the intervention of the Duke of Northumberland, who considered that both had displayed equally gallant behaviour in their rescue. In any case, these new awards marked the very first ‘civilian’ awards of the Royal Humane Society Gold Medal awarded for saving life at sea. Hitherto the society’s gold medals had only been issued as ‘Honorary’ awards to its founding figures Dr William Hawes and Dr Thomas Cogan, to Alderman Frederick Bull (its first President, and Mayor of London), to His Royal Highness Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, for paying for the long-term recovery of young woman who had been resuscitated by two of the Society’s medical assistants, and to Emperor Alexander I of Russia for saving the life of a ‘Polish peasant’ while out riding. More important still, the gold medal to Grace Darling appears to be the very first official British gallantry award issued to a female recipient.
A silver medal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (R.N.L.I.) was also issued, this medal being sold by Sotheby’s Medal Department on 26 November 1999, lot 210, for £38,000. In addition to these formal awards, other gifts and donations flooded in. Queen Victoria herself, still a young lady of just 19 years old at the time, sent a significant donation of £50, Lloyds sent a further £20 to add to that, and others were sent by members of the public and local businesses. All told, Grace received sums to the total of £750 (a life-changing amount for Grace at that time) to be held in trust by the family’s patron – the Duke of Northumberland, and three local clergymen. Gifts, letters and praise continued to follow – with repeated requests for cuttings of her hair, for her to sit for painters, and even marriage proposals, all as a result of her heroism. Although she did not enjoy the limelight, she seemed dutiful and willing to engage with the public, sending a great many letters to well-wishers and admirers. She became known as ‘the girl with the windswept hair’ in the poem ‘Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles’ by Jerrold Vernon in 1839, and she was further immortalised in poetry by William Wordsworth, in his poem ‘Grace Darling’ in 1842.
Tragically, Grace Darling’s life was cut short just a few years later by tuberculosis on 20 October 1842, at Bamburgh, where she was buried in St Aidan’s Churchyard. Some suggested that she became worn down by the constant attention, but her death only seemed to cement her place in history as Britain’s foremost Victorian heroine. Her effigy was brought inside St Aidan’s church itself to preserve it for future generations, and a dedicated museum was later opened in her name in 1938.