Grace Darling & Helen Petrie


Two young women involved in dramatic rescues at sea who Samuel Smiles admired for their heroism were Grace Horse Darling and Helen Petrie.

Grace Horsley Darling (1815-1842)

Grace Horsley Darling was the daughter of William Darling, a lighthouse keeper on Brownsman Island, off the Northumbrian coast. Grace helped her father in his duties acting as assistant keeper.

Spotting the shipwreck

Early on 7 September 1838 the steamer Forfarshire, sailing from Hull to Dundee, was wrecked on the rocks and 43 of the 63 persons aboard were drowned. Around 5am, as dawn broke, Grace spotted the wreck and several survivors huddling on a rock. She called her father and pleaded for him to do something, but bad weather prevented a rescue attempt until 7am William then launched a coble, a traditional boat more than 20 feet long.

Dangerous rescue

He and his daughter rowed the heavy boat to the wreck, knowing that it would be impossible to return without the help of some of the survivors.

With great care, William landed on the rocks and made his way to the wreck while Grace rowed among the breakers, managing to keep the boat from being tossed against the rocks. One by one, the nine survivors were placed in the boat and carried to the safety of the lighthouse.

Helen Petrie, Shetland heroine

Helen Petrie was a young woman in the Shetlands who went to sea to save the lives of some fishermen when no-one else would volunteer to go. A violent storm had broken out over the remote island of Unst when the fishing fleet was at sea. All but one of the boats reached the harbour safely. The last boat capsized and the sailors were seen struggling in the water.

Helen Petrie, a slender girl, urged that an attempt to rescue them should be made however dangerous it was. But none of those watching would go out to sea in such conditions.

Risking her life

Nevertheless Helen Petrie was willing to put her own life at risk to save others. She quickly stepped into a small boat and was joined by her sister-in-law and her father. Two of the crew of the fishing-boat had already disappeared, but two were still clinging to the upturned keel of their boat. After an exhausting physical effort they reached the wreck. As they approached it, one of the men was washed off. He would have been drowned had Helen not caught him by his hair and dragged him into the boat.

The other man was also rescued and they all returned to the harbour safely. Helen Petrie didn't become famous. She returned to her quiet life, earning her living as a domestic servant. People were only reminded of her existence when her death was reported in the press.

Women capable of heroism

Smiles wrote about Grace and Helen in his book 'Duty'. In writing about Grace and Helen, he talks admiringly about their heroism and selfless duty to others. Although this might have been the exception rather than the rule, Smiles pointed out that women too were capable of heroic deeds and that 'there is a great deal of heroism in common life that is never known'.

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