March 27, 2016–A Tale of Two Graces
Heroes are the ones who run toward danger. Their first impulse is to rescue others, even though they put themselves at risk. We never forget the images of the rescuers rushing headlong up the stairwell of the burning tower hit by the second plane. We remember the race officials running toward the sound of the bombs to help survivors at the Boston Marathon.
Heroes’ first thoughts are get the survivors. Today’s profiles are of two women, each named Grace, who rushed into history and the raging seas of their respective coastlands to save shipwreck survivors, putting their own lives in peril.
Grace Darling, born in 1815, was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Her father tended Longstone Island lighthouse of the North Eastern coast of Britain. The family lived mostly on the ground floor of the lighthouse which consisted of a large room, heated by a wood stove. This room was living room, dining room and kitchen in one and had a spiral staircase leading to three bedrooms above. The great light, of course, was at the top of the tower.
In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Darling, looking from an upstairs window, spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The Forfarshire had foundered on the rocks and broken in half: one of the halves had sunk during the night.
Darling and her father launched a rowboat (a 21 ft, 4-man Northumberland coble) into the turbulent seas to reach the survivors. They took the long route, keeping to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile in storm tossed waters. Darling kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat. Although she survived the sinking, Mrs Dawson had lost her two young children during the night.
Darling’s father and the three rescued men took turns at the oars and made their way back to the lighthouse. Darling then remained on shore with Mrs. Dawson while her father and the three survivors went back and saved four more souls.
When it was all over, 54 people had perished in the wreck of the Forfarshire. As news of Darling’s brave part in the rescue spread, she became known as the nation’s heroine. The fame never sat easy with her. Subscriptions and donations totaling over £700 were raised for her, including £50 from Queen Victoria; more than a dozen portrait painters sailed to her island home to capture her likeness, and hundreds of gifts, letters, and even marriage proposals were delivered to her.
Fame and life are fleeting. Just a few years later, in 1842, Darling fell ill and died of tuberculosis. She was 26 years old.
Twenty eight years after Darling’s death, and halfway across the planet, another Grace came into the world, and like her predecessor, would become known for her bravery in the face of crashing waves to save shipwreck survivors.
Grace Bussell was born in 1860 in Margaret River, Australia. In 1876, when she was just 16 years old, the SS Georgette wrecked off the western coast of Australia. Bussell was out riding her horse along the coastal cliffs, accompanied by an aboriginal stockman named Sam, when the two came across the catastrophic event unfolding in the waters below them.
Following is an account posted in the local Inquirer and Commercial News at the time:
The boat swamped, they were all in the water, and in the greatest danger, when, on the top of the steep cliff appeared a young lady on horseback. Those who were present have told me that they did not think that a horse could come down that cliff, but down that dangerous place this young lady rode at speed; there were lives to be saved, and, with the same fearless and chivalrous bravery that urged Grace Darling to peril her life for fellow creations, and gave her a name in all English history thereafter, Grace Bussell rode down that cliff, urged her horse into boiling surf, and out beyond the second line of roaring breakers, till she reached the boat where the women and children were in such peril. Her horse stumbled over the rope and she was nearly lost, but managed to get alongside the boat, and then with as many women and children clinging to her and the horse as possible, she made for the shore and landed them. A man was left on the boat, and he could not get to shore till Miss Bussell sent her black servant on horseback to aid him. So furious was the surf that it took four hours to land 50 people, and every boat engaged was capsized.(sic)
Bussell was dubbed the “Grace Darling of the West.” She was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society and received a gold watch, even, from the British Government.
She later married Frederick Slade Drake-Brockman who became the Surveyor General for Western Australia and gave birth to three children. Unlike her predecessor, Grace Darling, Grace Bussell enjoyed a long life. She died in 1935 at the age of 75 and is still officially known as Australia’s National Heroine.