Brownsman Island is one of the largest of the many small Farne Islands, off the North Northumberland coast. Grandfather Robert Darling was appointed lighthouse keeper there in 1795 when his son William Darling was nine years old and Brownsman became the Darling family home. As William was the only boy and had six older sisters it was natural that he became assistant lighthouse keeper to his father.
When he was 19 he married Thomasin Horsley from Bamburgh. She was 31.
Grace Horsley Darling was born on 24 November 1815, ‘the year of the Battle of Waterloo’, as she was often reminded. She was born in her grandparent’s small cottage opposite St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh and was the seventh of nine children. The cottage still stands.
Her mother was the eldest daughter of Job Horsley. Job worked as head gardener for the Bamburgh Castle Estate and it seems the cottage came with the job. The nearby walled garden belonged to the castle (it still exists today as a small nursery). Inside these walls Job grew vegetables and fruit for the castle. As a small girl, Grace loved to come over from Brownsman Island and stay and explore the magic of the walled garden, entered by a small door. Here she could sow and plant - and pick fruit, something she didn’t see at home.
LIFE ON BROWNSMAN ISLAND
Just before Grace was born her grandfather Robert died and William became the official lighthouse keeper of Brownsman Island, employed by Trinity House. No trees grow on the island but the course grass offered sufficient grazing to keep a few goats. Rabbits were bred on the island and the soil, enriched by thousands of seabirds, enabled a vegetable plot to thrive.
William Darling had walled gardens on Brownsman where he grew carrots, turnips, cabbage, onions and rhubarb. Of course fish were plentiful. A pond attracted wildfowl and he also grew flowers. During spring tides the allotments sometimes flooded or suffered damage from storms so the garden had to be replanted. Grace was shown all these things.
Many seabirds nest there in the spring including puffins, guillemots and terns. Also eider duck. At five years of age, Grace had a pet eider duck that nested close to the lighthouse. The eiders grew so trusting of Grace’s gentle nature she could actually stroke them at their nests. Puffins would wander inquisitively into the house, looking for scraps. Grace collected birds’ eggs and seashells and, like all the Darling children, would have learned to row a boat from an early age. William took the children by boat between the islands for fish, for birds’ eggs to eat and bake with, and to collect eider down, which was plentiful and which their mother Thomasin would make into quilts.
When the weather permitted, the older children were allowed to take a boat out and explore the rocks and coves. Although the waters were potentially dangerous they were strong and healthy and became very knowledgeable. This was their ‘world’ and the Darling children would be pretty fearless on their own patch.
Passing boats would occasionally come to grief on the dangerous rocks of the Farnes and William, with his sons, would go out to rescue fishermen and sailors and collect salvage where this was possible. These duties were expected of him as a lighthouse keeper out at sea, and any salvage was a good source of extra income. The boys would help out in some dangerous seas at times while Grace and her sisters would be inside, helping their mother prepare for whatever situation arose, including taking in any rescued men.
When the menfolk were out at sea Grace and her sisters and Mrs Darling would become relief lighthouse keepers, keeping watch and ensuring the lantern was cleaned and burning fully at all times. This may have been for lengthy periods if a rescue was under way. In this sense Trinity House employed the whole family because everything they did, directly or indirectly, helped towards the safety of the Farne Islands.
THE MOVE TO LONGSTONE
Although the light at Brownsman was vital to Farnes shipping it was unable to warn vessels of the dangers of the most easterly rocks of Knavestone, Longstone and the Harcars. The tide-streams over these rocks are unpredictable with many rocks being covered by the sea at high tide. The increase in shipping increased the dangers, so William Darling devised a series of additional crude beacons on the outer rocks but these were regularly destroyed in storms. William appealed to Trinity House to address this problem. They listened to him and in the 1820’s sanctioned a permanent lighthouse to be built at the eastern edge of the Farnes, and chose Longstone Rock as its home.
Building began on the lighthouse in 1825. It was 83 feet high with foundations cut into the Longstone Rock. This was a big project but the work was soon done. There were five levels constructed leading up to the lantern, including three floors of bedrooms. The third floor was where Grace slept, at first with her sister Betsy.
The family moved to Longstone in January 1826, when Grace was ten. The Light at Brownsman Island was extinguished once the Longstone lantern was lit, but William was allowed by Trinity House to continue looking after Brownsman with its livestock and gardens. He visited it regularly because by comparison Longstone was a barren rock where nothing grew and no birds nested. This desolate outcrop was to be Grace’s home for the rest of her short life.
Her older brothers and sisters took this opportunity to leave home and seek their livelihoods elsewhere and get married. Grace and her sister Thomasin would have done much of the work around the house, while their mother spent many hours spinning and mending clothes.
Although isolated they were quite used to visitors: deliveries from Bamburgh; bird-watchers, naturalists and artists wishing to paint came and sometimes stayed; and travellers sight-seeing would also take boats across to the rocky islands.
Some of the children had gone to the school in Bamburgh Castle, but William also taught them at home, up in the lantern. With nine children, William’s word was law, but he was a good father and was loved and respected.
Grace never went to school. She was instructed by her father who taught her to read and write. He spent much time with her and she became his favourite. She learned about history, arithmetic, the geography of other lands and the bible – all at home. It was difficult to attend church but William made sure that scripture was an important part of the children’s education and he read sermons to them.
Grace would certainly have known about the saints and holy men who inhabited nearby Lindisfarne more than a thousand years earlier – names like St Oswald, St Aidan, and of course St Cuthbert who lived out his days on the neighbouring Inner Farne. She would have learned that Christianity came to England mostly from the shores of Northumberland, her home. William was not keen on storybooks or adventure tales; he preferred bible stories, the poems of Burns – a great favourite, and old Border ballads probably handed down by his own father.
Music played an important part in their life. William sang, he played a fiddle and a tin whistle. As well as copying out well-known tunes and marches for the children he wrote his own “airs”. Most were lively numbers and, literally, kept the children on their toes. Grace had a fine singing voice and was known for this within the family.
THE CHILDREN HELP OUT
From up in the lantern William taught his children how to recognise the different types of sea vessels passing Longstone – where they were going and what they were carrying. He kept an official account in a logbook but encouraged interest among the young Darlings so they were sharp-eyed for anything unusual.
Their isolation out at Longstone meant more reliance on catching fish, enough for William to be able to sell them. Daily trips were necessary to Brownsman, one mile away, tending to the livestock and collecting eggs and vegetables. William let the older children go out on their own so that, by the age of twelve, Grace would be used to rowing a boat in the open sea. They learned to negotiate around sharp rocks and also the many grey seals that lived on the outer islands. They also learned about the tides that covered much of the rocky islands twice a day and would have been mindful of the changeable weather.
For the rest of the time Grace, being the youngest girl, helped her mother with the many domestic duties; she was quite capable of running the lighthouse efficiently.
GRACE IN HER TEENS
At the age of 15 Grace and her younger twin brothers George Alexander and William Brooks were the last remaining children at home with their parents. As well as helping her mother Grace became William's virtual assistant, maintaining the lantern, taking her turn with the watch, mending fishing nets etc. She would row to Brownsman on her own to see to the garden and the livestock if her father was busy.
Grace was dutiful and as the youngest girl still at home would have been expected to look after her parents in their old age. For this reason she was reluctant to leave Longstone for other work, or indeed to seek a husband. In her late teens she was content with her lot and William was glad of her help and of her company; the pair became very close. Well trained by her father, she would look out for ships and for hazards; their livelihood depended on it.
The sea was their life and Grace was a good observer who studied things intently. She could detect signs at sea of changing patterns in the climate. Her knowledge of the tides and the natural world around her – including the seals, the birds and the fish, would all help in predicting conditions and the passage of ships. Her patience, sometimes watching for hours with a telescope, helped her acquire special skills in observation and William could rely on her completely. The two worked well together.