Friday, February 19, 2010

But wait, there are more...

My previous post on ladies in lighthouses has led me to discover even more "Grace Darlings" around the world who could claim similar and far more impressive sea rescues than the original Grace. If anyone reading this knows of others I may have missed, I'd be really interested in hearing about them. My contact is regina.of.arbeiaATgmailDOTcom.

In Newfoundland, there was 17 year old Ann Harvey, whose first effort occurred in 1828, a decade before that of the more famous Grace, in which she helped to save at least 163 people, and on her second rescued another 25. Clearly, Ann just didn't have the right sort of journalist onside at the critical time in order to spread word of her deeds far and wide, as there would have been an added heart-tugging bonus as the rescue included the family dog (a Newfie, naturally enough!) Ann also has a Canadian coast guard vessel named after her (image from CCGS website) and she is even the subject of an opera.

Another Canadian, on which there is scant information, was Roberta (Bertha) Boyd of New Brunswick. A description of her feat in rescuing two men on St Croix River can be found here. Was her middle name really Grace, or did she receive it as an extra embellishment for her efforts?
"Her heroism didn't go unrewarded, she received an award from the Federal Government. It was a gold watch that had inscribed on it; 'in recognition of her humane exertions in saving life in the St. Croix River.' And the Department of Marine and Fisheries gave her a new boat with the words; Roberta Grace Boyd, Grace Darling of the Saint Croix on the stern. Grace Darling was, of course, the famed lifesaver of England’s lighthouse lore.
The incident surely did make Roberta(Bertha) Boyd famous but it didn't go to her head. she reportedly said in a later newspaper account; 'Please don't speak of it. Indeed, I did nothing worth describing.' Thats the true mark of a heroine there!"
Of course she would have said something like that as, in common with all lighthouse heroines, she would have been a practical, modest and self-effacing woman.

Although not a lighthouse keeper, Huria Matenga (Julie Martin) became New Zealand's Grace Darling after she helped in the rescue of the crew of the Delaware and the local press of the day went into the usual superlatives about a woman swimming “out through raging waters and, after a desperate struggle” bringing ashore the line. Like many of the other rescue stories, the actual truth of Huria's efforts might be a little more prosaic, but positive attention for achievements normally the province of men is always welcome. You can read more about Huria (Julie) here and here. Huria also sat for an official portrait, which can be seen at the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson, New Zealand.

Australia's Grace Darling was another one with the appropriate first name. She was Grace Vernon Bussell. A member of the Western Australia pioneering family who gave their name to Busselton, she lives on in various landmarks herself in Gracetown and Lake Grace, perhaps more for the fact that she became the wife of the Surveyor General than a way of commemorating her famous efforts on a horse (named, appropriately enough, Hero) in the raging waves, as shown in this engraving from the State Library of Victoria. Grace Bussell also was awarded a medal and featured in books and stories for years after.

Perhaps this poem by the Reverend C W Ray published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1878, entitled "Grace Vernon Bussell, the heroine of Western Australia" sums up all the "Grace Darlings" who ever were, with its abundance of 19th Century sentimentality and poetic licence, plus the romantic novel ingredients of presentiment, doomed souls in a raging sea, a brave steed and an innocent lass of "classic brow", "dark, glistening eyes" and "golden ringlets streaming in the wind" who has a date with destiny:

The night closed in, and darkness like a pall,
The gaunt and creeping shadows overspread;
While clouds of blackness hoarsely growled their rage,
Illumined by the lightning's fitful glare,
Which, far away behind the mountain peaks,
Seemed dancing, as tho' beckoning on the storm,
And panting for the sight of coming woe!
The hills kept silence, as in breathless awe;
And trembled at the muttered threat of doom;
While Grace, from out the window, gazed entranced;
Till, startled by the cricket's sharp shrill cry
Which by the sultry air, and deepening gloom
Was coaxed in noisy march from out the wall:
Then, she arose; drew in and closed the blinds;
And wishing each “Good night, and pleasant dreams”,
She soon was kneeling by her own soft couch,
And breathing out her solemn evening prayer.
‘Ere she arose, the rising wind, in grief
Was sighing, moaning, through the forest trees;
And in a moment more, the howling blast
Burst overhead ; and made her heart stand still.
But, when at last the frightful din had ceased,
And rush and roar were followed by the rain.
Secure beneath the well-thatched roof, she slept!
How long, none knew. She slept, and dreamed and waked;
Waked with a cry of horror, loud and long,
That roused each slumbering inmate of the house.
The storm had passed, and through the rattling blinds
The moon sent kindly beams; yet, lingering winds
Seemed like the distant wail of breaking hearts.
At length, offended and reluctant sleep
Came slowly back, and softly kissed away
The whispered prayer upon her parted lips.
But, when the clock struck three, with sudden start,
With trembling, and with wildly throbbing heart
She woke again; and, to her fancy wild,
Excited by the thrice-repeated dream,
Each hammer-stroke seemed like a signal-gun
Of vessel in distress, far out to sea.
She dreamed that, in the darkness and the storm,
She saw a steam-ship thrown upon the rocks,
And terror-stricken sailors crowd the boats;
And heard a mother's frantic cry for aid;
Who, with a lovely infant in her arms,
With streaming eyes and wild imploring look,
Was clinging to the parting wreck for life;
While each mad wave struck at her frail support,
And coldly mocked her prayer and cherished hope.
So vivid and so real was the dream
That Grace arose, impatient for the light,
Resolved upon a visit to the shore
At break of day, although ten miles away.
No sooner did the twilight gild the East,
Than Ned, the drowsy stable-boy, was called
To feed the young and handsome dapple-gray;
A horse as fleet and tireless as the wind,
The pride of all the town and country round.
All things made ready for the rapid ride,
Grace paced the hall, with restless, anxious step;
With frequent sigh, that time dragged on so slow,
And with her hand upon her aching heart;
For still she seemed to see upon the wreck
The bloodless faces of that vessel's crew;
Still seemed to hear that mother's piteous wail,
And the low smothered sob of her sweet babe!
Just as the sun had crowned the highest hills,
The dapple-gray was neighing at the door,
As in impatient haste to be away.
With gentle words, Grace stroked his arching neck;
While Ned put on an extra linen girth:
Then, bounding to the saddle in a trice,
She bravely galloped down the forest path;
Nor slackened speed, till she had reached the cliff,
Which, high above the beach, o'erlooked the sea.
Then she beheld a scene that thrilled her through,
And dimmed her eyes with sympathetic woe!
Far out from shore, a ship was on the rocks;
And passengers and crew, upon the wreck.
With angry waves were battling hard for life.
Midway between the stranded ship and shore,
A capsized boat was drifting to and fro;
And to it mothers with their children clung;
While clear, above the breakers' deafening roar,
Grace heard a woman's cry, which chilled her blood:
And waiting not, she sought a rugged path
Down which the hardy wreckers sometimes climbed,
And down the fearful steep, with frightful leaps,
O'er trunks of fallen trees and ragged rocks,
As tho' upheld by angel hands, she rode!
Nor did she pause till her strong dapple-gray
Stood panting, on the rough and wreck-strewn shore.
Then, while the noisy waves broke round his feet,
She leaned upon his neck in fond caress,
And sobbed, "Now, Hero, comes the tug of war!"
Those mothers and their children must be saved,
Or friends will never welcome our return!
Then, raising her dark, glistening eyes to heaven,
Her hat was lifted from her classic brow;
Her cheeks were wet with mingled spray and tears;
Her golden ringlets streaming in the wind;
While from her livid lips burst forth the prayer:
“Thou who once didst walk upon the waves,
And to thy tempest-tossed disciples come
With words of cheer, and calm the troubled deep;
Hear me, and calm my wildly beating heart!
Give Hero strength; and give me nerve to guide;
That we may safely bring from threatened death
The helpless ones now struggling in the surf!”
A moment more, and drawing close the rein,
Grace and her fearless steed were in the sea,
And wrestling hard with the tumultuous floods!
With tearful eyes, and anxious, aching hearts,
They watched her from the distant trembling wreck;
And saw her rise from overwhelming waves,
When horse and rider both, at times, seemed lost.
And once, entangled in a broken raft,
Her princely steed seemed ready to despair.
And dropped his neck upon a broken spar!
But Grace's quick cry gave him new strength and life,
And bravely, with caress, she urged him on.
The second line of roaring breakers passed,
They reached the boat, and safely brought ashore
Each half-drowned woman, and with each her child;
And last of all, a half-dead sailor boy!
Then, while with hawser stretched from ship to shore.
The stronger helped the weaker ones to land,
To tell the news, and bring the rescued aid,
Grace whirled away, all dripping from the waves,
The sea-foam dropping from the flowing mane
And quivering flanks of her proud dapple-gray;
Nor did the noble fellow's courage fail,
Till he was standing by her father's door;
From whence, with needful stores, her startled friends
Were hastening soon, to wrecked ones on the shore.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Women in Boats - some Lighthouse Heroines

Old lighthouses can be spectacular and awe-inspiring, located as they so often are in remote and dangerous locations, and one can only have great admiration for the men who had to design and construct them in the first place, as well as those who came after and operated them: the keepers, their assistants and families who had to keep the light burning every night for untold years on end.
Before writing about lesser-known lighthouse heroines, one simply cannot avoid the first one to grab the headlines: Grace Darling who was, according to a florid poem much beloved of teachers in the British Empire days, "... an English maid, pure as the air around her, of danger ne'er afraid ..." and whose actions "... tell the wide world over, what English pluck can do ..."
The story of Grace and her rescue of passengers from the Forfarshire is too well-known to repeat at length here, although the bare truth is that she was just commandeered at short notice to assist in the rescue due to the absence of her father's assistant. She simply did what all able-bodied family members of lighthouse keepers were expected to do, and that was row the boat in an emergency. At first, Grace was not even mentioned in news reports but then somewhere along the way a hack journalist spotted a good yarn and he went into hysterical hyperbole about this virginal flower of English womanhood who boldly braved the fury and tempest of the turbulent seas to rescue near doomed souls with skill and dexterity that had no match, etc. blah etc. After she was awarded a couple of medals for bravery, the Darling family nearly went nuts with the ensuing publicity and being hounded by voyeurs and the paparazzi of the day, not to mention a proliferation of romantic portraits that looked nothing like plain Grace, as well as poems, songs, and product endorsements.
As with all good celebrity stories, there is nothing like dying young to ensure tabloid immortality, which Grace did at the age of 27, and the legend kept growing until it imploded under the weight of its own Victorian sentimentality. Even today, however, there are still tourists sucked in by the romantic and tragic story and drawn to Grace Darling's grave in the churchyard in Bamburgh, Northumberland.
Image: 19th Century engraving of children at Grace's tomb.

The Americans can boast a large number of rescuing lighthouse heroines, some better known than others.
Joan Druett's excellent book "She Captains" devotes an entire chapter to these women and there are several more works that can be searched via such as "Women Who Kept the Lights - an Illustrated History" by  M L and J C Clifford.
One was Maebelle Mason, daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the Detroit River, who launched a small skiff and rowed a mile to rescue a drowning man. She was able to pull him aboard the skiff and row back to Mama Juda Island with the overturned boat in tow. Maebelle was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal plus a gold medal from the Ship Masters Association for her heroics. More detail click here (scroll down to Mason).

A woman with a more impressive rescue haul than Grace Darling, was Kate Moore of Fayerweather Light, Connecticut, who was reputed to have saved 21 lives in her long years at the lighthouse. Kate didn't die young or beautiful enough to have become a legend like Grace Darling, but the nature of her hard life is reflected in her portrait, and her own summary of the lonely life of a child of a lighthouse keeper of the time.

"You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it. I never had much of a childhood, as other children have it. That is, I never knew playmates. Mine were the chickens, ducks and lambs and my two Newfoundland dogs."
Image: Kate Moore (Bridgeport Public Library Historical Collections)

Not all lighthouse heroines were destined for a lonely, virginal existence. Abbie Burgess Grant who had sole responsibility for her father's light at the age of 17 during a terrible storm at Matinicus Rock, married another lighthouse keeper. In later years, she wrote:
"It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself. ... Many nights I have watched the lights my part of the night, and then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail.
I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body. If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon."
Abbie had her wish, or near enough, as a US Coastguard Buoy tender was named after her.

Another woman recognised by having a tender named after her and with an even more formidable rescue rate of 50 is that of Kate Walker, keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse for over 30 years and second only to "Lady Liberty" herself, as the most famous woman in New York Harbour.

Although not strictly a lighthouse heroine, Canadian Abigail Becker was a regular rescuer from the shores of Lake Erie and is an exemplary example of the tough, pioneering 19th Century woman. Not only did she save 11 individuals in total (including one who had fallen down a well), she also managed to raise 17 children on her own. Her life story is available to read online at Internet Archive.

Image:Abigail Becker in old age

Perhaps the most famous American heroine of all was Idawalley Zorada (Ida) Lewis, who had a brief stint at marriage, but decided the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper was preferable. She was feted by presidents, popularised in the press and in song and dance, and awarded medals for rescuing upwards of 18 or more lives in the 39 years she was keeper at Lime Rock, Rhode Island, for which she was called "America's Grace Darling" and "Bravest woman in America".
Not only does she also have a buoy tender named after her, but she received the ultimate recognition in having the light she had looked after being renamed the Ida Lewis Light and her name also lives on in the Ida Lewis Yacht Club of Newport, RI.