A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Rescuers." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


We have had a glimpse of the horrors on board a wrecked ship, and the resolution with which they can be endured and conquered. Let us now look at the shore, and at the spirit that has prompted even women to become their rescuers.

Here, then, is a portion of a "Night Scene by the Sea", namely, the dangerous coast near Cromer, in the country of Norfolk. It is taken from a poem by Joanna Baillie, and is literally and exactly true. There, amid

           "The roar of winds and waves
As strong contention loudly raves,
A fearful sound of fearful commotion
The many angry voices of the ocean",
the foremost in affording aid to the shipwrecked seamen was a crippled lady,
           "One with limbs nerve-bound,
Whose feet have never touched the ground,
Who loves in tomes of Runic lore
To scan the curious tales of yore,
Of gods and heroes dimly wild,
And hath intently oft beguiled
Her passing hours with mystic rhymes,
Legends by bards rehearsed of other times;
Learned, and loving learning well,
For college hall or cloistered cell
A student meet, yet all the while
As meet, with repartee or smile,
'Mid easy converse, polished, blithe, and boon,
To join the circles of a gay saloon;
From childhood reared in wealth and ease,
The daily care herself to please–
For selfish nature here below
A dangerous state, I trow".

That crippled lady was Anna Gurney, one of a gifted family, surpassing them perhaps in mental powers and attainments, certainly not inferior to any in Christian benevolence, and (which is the strangest thing of all), absolutely more than a match for the soundest and healthiest among them in personal activity, though unable through her whole life to stand or move without mechanical aid. Her intellect was of the highest order. After learning all the more accessible languages, she betook herself to the ancient Teutonic branches, and in 1819 translated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As invalid and as scholar, she would, as the verses above quoted observe, have seemed in especial danger of dwelling on nothing beyond her own constant and severe sufferings, and the studies that beguiled her attention from them.

Yet she was full of the warmest, brightest sympathy. Her conversation was not only delightful from her brilliant powers, but from her ready perception of the wants and wishes of others. Not only was her wheeled chair propelled in a moment to her bookshelves when she wanted a volume to illustrate her thought, but the moment she caught a friend's eye in search of any article at a little distance, her chair was turned in that direction, and the object was presented with infinite grace. She made young people exceedingly fond of her, and delighted to assist them in their studies. She would help boys to prepare their Greek and Latin tasks with infinite zest, and would enliven a lesson with comical and original allusions. Other children of a lower rank were also taught by her, and from her home at North Repps Cottage, she won by her kindness and helpfulness, the strongest influence over the fisherfolk upon the coast, who looked upon her as a superior being.

At her own expense she procured a lifeboat and apparatus for rescuing the shipwrecked, and to secure the right use of these, she would be wheeled down to the shore in her chair to give orders and superintend their execution. Surely there can be no more noble picture than this infirm woman, constantly in pain, whose right it would have seemed to be shielded from a rough blast or the very knowledge of suffering, coming forth in the dead of night, amid the howling storm, beating spray, and drenching rain, to direct and inspirit its rugged, seafaring men, and send them on errands of life or death. Which was most marvellous, it is hard to say, the force of will that actuated her, or the force of understanding that gave value to such presence and commands.

Truly may Miss Baillie say–

"But no, my words her words may not express,
Their generous import your own hearts must guess".

And when half-drowned sailors were brought ashore, she remained to give care and directions for their treatment, or took them to her own home, where they were so welcomed, that it was a saying on the coast that it was worth while to be wrecked to be received by Miss Gurney.

"The lady returns to her home again,
With the sound of blessings in her ear,
From young and old, her heart to cheer;
Sweet thoughts within her secret soul to cherish,
The blessings of those who were ready to perish;
And there lays her down on her peaceful pillow,
Bless'd by the Lord of the wind and the billow."

When at the age of sixty-one, she laid her down on her last pillow, she was carried to her rest, in the seaside church of Overstrand, by old fishermen–rugged, loving men who knew and valued her–and when they had lowered the coffin down the stone steps of the open vault, they formed a knot at the foot and wept bitterly. More than a thousand persons from the coast had gathered to show their respect and gratitude; most were in mourning, many in tears. "I never", said one who was present, "saw so many men weeping, at one time, it seemed a general wail." The service was read by the clergyman of the parish (who could not but feel that he had lost his most precious earthly helper) simply and calmly; with cheerful brightness, which showed that his faith had realised her gain, he gave thanks for her.

The cripple gave what she had–her vigorous mind, her means, and her spirit. Let us turn to one who had neither silver nor gold, nothing but her resolute heart and brave skilful hands. Grace Darling, the daughter of the keeper of one of the lighthouses upon the Fern Islands, a perilous cluster of rocks off Northumberland, was wakened towards the morning of the 6th of September, 1838, by shrieks of distress; and when dawn came, perceived the remains of a wreck upon Longstone Island, the outermost of the group.

Grace awoke her father and urged him to launch his boat and go to the rescue of anyone who might still be alive in the stranded vessel, but the tide was rising, wind and sea were wild, and the old man hung back. Grace, however, was sure that she discerned a movement on the wreck, as though living beings were still there, and seizing an oar, placed herself in the boat, which she was well able to manage. Her father could not let her go alone, and they rowed off together in a tremendous sea, encouraged by perceiving that nine persons were still clinging to the forepart of the ship. The father, after many vain attempts, succeeded in landing on the rock, and making his way to the wreck, while Grace rowed off and on among the breakers, dexterously guiding her little boat, which but for her excellent management would have been dashed to pieces among the rocks.

One by one, with the utmost care and skill, the nine survivors were placed in the boat and carried to the lighthouse, where Grace lodged, fed, and nursed them for two whole days before the storm abated enough for communication with the mainland. One of them was a Mrs. Dawson, whose two children, of eleven and eight years old, had actually been buffeted to death by the waves while she held them in her arms, and who was so much injured herself, that it was long before she could leave her bed.

The vessel was the Forfarshire, a large steamer plying between Hull and Dundee. Her boilers had been out of order, their leakage had rendered the engines useless, and when the storm arose, the ship was unmanageable without her steam, and was driven helplessly upon the Fern Islands. The only boat had been lowered by eight of the sailors, who were pushing off in her when one gentleman rushed on deck, seized a rope, and swung himself in after them. These nine were picked up by a sloop and saved. Of the others, the whole number had either been drowned in their berths or washed off the wreck, except four of the crew and five passengers, whom Grace Darling's valour had rescued. The entire amount of the lost was not known, but more than forty had certainly gone on board at Hull. Some sailors at Sunderland went out to the wreck during the storm at the peril of their lives, but found only corpses to bring away. Grace's noble conduct rang throughout England, and every testimonial that could be offered was sent to her. We believe that this brave girl soon after died of decline.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom