Grace Darling was a lighthouse keeper, first on Brownsman Island, then on the Longstone in Northumberland’s Farne Islands. After living a quiet, self-reliant life for 23 years, she helped to rescue nine lives from shipwreck in 1838. Women didn’t usually do this sort of thing at that time. Because Newcastle was the national centre for print at that time, her story was printed and shipped around the world within a month. She rapidly found herself the world’s first working-class ‘celebrity’.
Grace was bombarded by boatloads of fan mail, and by hoardes of admirers in person. The Duke of Northumberland stepped in to filter the hundreds of marriage proposals she received. The servant of a Russian aristocrat travelled from Vladivostock with his master’s picture in a locket, simply to have Grace kiss it before he took it back home.
Grace hated being famous. She practised her signature over and over nervously; she made her sisters pretend to be her and sit for the visiting portrait painters; she preferred bird-watching and described her fame as ‘fesh about nowt’!
Grace died of TB, four years after the rescue. A hundred years after her death, her picture was still being mass-produced on soap packets, chocolate wrappers, ornaments and jewellery.