Image: Grace Darling, oil on canvas by Thomas Brooks, reproduced with permission from RNLI Grace Darling Museum

On 7 September, 1838, Grace Darling and her father, William, a lighthouse keeper on the coast of Northumberland, saved the lives of nine survivors from the wrecked steamship, the Forfarshire.  You can still see their boat in the museum in Bamburgh. Grace was born on 24 November, 1815, so next Wednesday is her birthday.

This is a tribute not only to Grace and her father but also to today’s men and women of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) who form the lifeboat crews in ports around the coast of Britain and Ireland. They are volunteers who work in their normal jobs but answer distress calls from boats in trouble day or night the whole year round.

Northumberland is in the north of England, and it was there and also in the lowlands of Scotland that the medieval ballads were sung. The conversation between Grace and her father before they set out is typical of the dialogues which appear in many of these old poems.


Come in, my friend,

Come in,

And quickly close the door.

It’s a rough and stormy night outside,

So draw up close to the fire.

The wind and the rain shake the window pane,

And an icy draught howls by the door.

So while the chimney moans with the wailing gale,

Put on another log or two,

And let the flames climb higher.

Now listen.


Off the coast of Northumberland

There shone the Longstone Light,

But in spite of the light that brightly shone

A ship struck the rocks by the islands there

And split in two one night.

The rain and the gales blew down from the north,

And the sun had gone down in the sea.

It was just such a night as this, my friend,  

When home is the place to be.


The keeper of the Longstone Light

He turned to his daughter then.

‘My eyes are old and I cannot see

So far into the foam

But can you see a ship out there,

So far away from home?’


‘Father, there’s a ship out there

 But she’ll sail away no more.

 The wind and the waves are breaking her

 So far out from the shore.’


‘My eyes are old and I cannot see

So far into the foam

But can you see some men out there,

So far away from home?’


‘On the ship there’s not a soul

Not a soul from stern to bow,

Nor on the bridge or on the deck.

Not a soul can I see now.’


‘Then look at the sea and the raging foam.

Search every inch of the sea.

For maybe one has launched a boat

And is waiting for you and me.’ 


‘Out in the sea beside the ship

There’s none that I can see

There is no boat upon the waves

No boat is on the sea.’


‘Then look now hard at the rocks beyond

At the rocks far out in the sea.

For maybe one has reached the rocks

And is waiting for you and me.’ 


‘Out on the rocks beside the ship

There are nine that I can see.

They are on the rocks at the end of the bay

That are pounded by the sea.’


They put on coats and fastened them tight,

But scarcely did they talk,

And then they closed the lighthouse door,

As if going for a Sunday walk.

They made for their boat that was lying safe

In the lee of a rock on the shore,

Just the two of them and their little boat,

For them it was one trip more.


And not a word did the father say

For there was work to be done,

But he thought to himself along the way,

‘Now Grace here is the only one

Can manage the boat in a sea like this,

Now Grace here is the only one

That can help me bring them home.’


They said not a word but quietly did

The job that had to be done.

They pulled the boat across the sand

And pushed her into the sea,

And they took their places on the boards

With an oar in either hand.


The gale blew from the north that night

And the rain lashed at their backs,

Wave after wave broke by their boat,

As they rowed far out in the bay.

But the father looked at the freezing spray

As he saw Grace bend to the stroke,

And said to himself as he pulled back the oar,

‘Among the rocks in a wooden boat

Among the rocks and the foam,

This is no place for you, my girl.

Though you pull on the oar like the bravest man,

I’ll be glad to see you home.’


And so they rowed out into the sea

Away from the firm, sure land.

They calmly rowed towards the rocks

With their mind on the job in hand.


‘Steady now, Grace, for the rocks we face

Will rip us apart for fun.

Steady the bow and ride the wave

Then down in the trough in that moment of calm

Row for the rock and make her firm.’


They made for the rock and William jumped  

To care for the shivering men,

And Grace kept the boat away from the rocks,

She rode the waves away from the rocks

Among the running foam.

She knew that one false pull on the oar

Just one false touch on either side,

And they would never see home.


‘Just five can we take, just five of you,

But we’ll be back again.’


So they took them in and the boat settled down

Much lower in the sea,

But they rowed her home, they calmly rowed

Till they reached the sandy shore.

Then they turned around and pointed her bow

To the open sea once more.


They gathered then the other four

That waited on the rock.

And glad they were to turn their back

On the wind and the sinking wreck,

And to make for home on the shore.


When all of the nine were safe,

Were safe on the shivering sand,

They pulled the boat out from the waves.

They pulled her up the windswept beach

To a place that the sea could never reach,

However rough and however wild

Its white waves hammered the shore.

And they made all fast,

And they let her rest,

For her job had been well done,

In the lee of a rock on the soft sandy beach,

For they needed her no more.


And then they went up hand in hand

To the house where the light was bright

And the last to go in the little room

With their sodden salt clothes

On their skin that froze,

With blisters on their calloused hands,

Were Grace and her father, the keeper

Of the Longstone Light.


And the London papers sent their men

To tell the world of the news.

From London in comfort up they came

To look for heroism and fame,

And the man and the girl

Could not understand

Why they were known throughout the land.

And the men in gloves and silk neckties

So polite and elegant in the wind,

Smiled and shook their blistered hands.


And then they stared at the rocks so far

As they walked down to the shore,

And they turned and said to the London men,

‘We did our job, no more.’