The coble used by Grace and her father. © Jon Stokes
Winds were howling and the waves were fighting, but the storms didn’t prevent Grace Darling and her father setting out to sea from the Longstone Lighthouse to rescue survivors of a stricken paddle steamer in 1838.
Grace Darling has since become the icon of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), which officially opened the redeveloped Grace Darling Museum in Northumberland on March 4 2008.
The Bamburgh museum dedicated to the lifesaving heroine was originally opened in 1938, but has now undergone a major two-year redevelopment with a brand new building behind the 18th century Flemish façade. It was declared open by RNLI Chair, Sir Jock Slater, accompanied by current RNLI lifesavers Dr Christine Bradshaw and Sophie Grant-Crookston.
A reconstruction of Longstone lighthouse where Grace lived. © Jon Stokes
Christine saved the life of an injured crew member on board a tanker off the Shetland Isles, while Sophie swam through strong Cornish waves to save a stranded surfer clinging to a rock ledge. Both were awarded RNLI medals for their gallantry, which epitomises the spirit of Grace Darling and the RNLI, making their presence at the ribbon cutting most appropriate.
The new museum behind the 18th century Flemish façade includes newly conserved artefacts relating to the life of Grace, plus brand new facilities bringing the museum into the 21st century.
“This new museum, managed by the RNLI Heritage Trust, has improved access for the public and provides better conditions for storing and displaying the unique Grace Darling collection,” explained Maureen La Frenais, RNLI Grace Darling Museum Project Manager.
The new museum includes spaces for education and research, and is employing a learning officer to implement a new education programme.
The new museum has modern facilities and is the flagship project of the RNLI's heritage arm. © Jon Stokes
“Although the building is quite modest in size this has been a challenging project,” said Maureen. “The footprint of the building is small but the features inside are of museum standard and complexity. Some of the environmentally friendly additions to the scheme include a green heating system that utilises heat from 100 metres underground, and lambs’ wool insulation in the walls.”
The centrepiece exhibit is the coble (short rowing boat) that Grace used to row out to the stricken crew of SS Forfarshire. The displays tell the story of the rescue and Grace’s subsequent fame, with personal items, letters, portraits and a replica of the lighthouse where she lived.
“The unique collection relating to Grace and her family has required an extensive programme of conservation work and cleaning,” continued Maureen. “For example, the coble has been specially cleaned and placed in a bespoke cradle, while Grace's dress has been magically transformed from dull brown to its original pink colour.”
The graveyard where Grace is buried can be seen through a window from the museum. © Jon Stokes
The RNLI, a charity, was able to create the museum with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which it applied for through its Heritage Trust.
“Needless to say, we would like to extend our grateful thanks to all those whose funding enabled us to develop the £1.5m museum project,” said Joanna Bellis, RNLI Heritage Manager. “These include the Heritage Lottery Fund, Northern Rock Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, the Sir James Knott Trust and an RNLI education appeal in the north.”
“We hope the story of Grace, her father William and the lifeboat heroes and heroines of today’s RNLI inspire all those who visit.”