“You can hardly form an idea how disagreeable it is to my daughter to show herself in public, I believe very much from being brought up in such a retired situation …you cannot believe how much she has been annoyed by it all.
Letter from William Darling
Grace was under constant pressure to attend functions and receive awards and honours; to open events, to endorse products etc, in person. Such invitations were made in the hope she would appear before a fascinated and curious public anxious to see what she looked like. She had turned down an invitation from the Mayor of Newcastle, Dr W Headlam, to visit the town and receive, in person, a subscription fund collected for her. It would be a private affair but an official committee wished to meet her. William had several friends in Newcastle but, as much as he wanted to agree, Grace’s reluctance forced him to reply on her behalf, turning down the invitation.
1841, THE LADIES OF HULL
In 1841 a group of ladies representing the Port of Hull Society invited Grace to appear at a grand charity bazaar, supported by titled dignitaries. An attendance of two thousand was expected with the proceeds benefitting the families of shipwrecked mariners. Grace declined the invitation. The ladies wrote again. The Forfarshire had sailed from Hull on its final voyage and the Society felt, in the circumstances, Grace should oblige them with a visit. Again Grace refused. The secretary sent repeated requests, six in all, one hinting that Queen Victoria herself might be attending. Grace turned them all down, replying: “…having been requested to go to so many different places for different purposes…His Grace Duke of Northd. My Principal Trustee told me to refer such letters to him…” Grace finally ignored their letters, but was much troubled with guilt, that her words may have caused offence.
Even the church authorities wanted a piece of Grace. She often deflected the warm praise received from others and preferred to acknowledge that it was God that helped her find such strength that day out at sea. In the light of this, many clergymen and representatives of the church visited and wrote to her, wanting to meet officially, to reflect with her on spiritual matters. She feared they wished to elevate her to the position of a religious icon. This greatly confused and unsettled Grace and, eventually, it was arranged that all such enquiries be referred to her guardian, the Duke of Northumberland. She began to use her situation as the ‘ward’ of the Duke and to hide behind his authority and protection.
Grace’s letters reveal that there continued to be a relentless stream of people to deal with, constant letter-writing and the acknowledging of gifts. Public curiosity showed no signs of diminishing.
1842, THE LAST YEAR
William Brooks Darling was appointed assistant lighthouse keeper to his father at Longstone. With a wife and growing family he needed to be housed, so Trinity House ordered cottages to be built beside the lighthouse. This caused much disruption, with many workmen present on the island. Until construction work was completed William Brooks’ family had to move into the lighthouse. Mary Ann, their sister, being widowed, had already moved back to Longstone with her daughter. The lighthouse was getting crowded and the island was full of workers. Grace had no privacy, even in her own home.
Because of this the 26 year-old Grace needed time away from Longstone and in March 1842 she made a rare excursion, to Coquet Island for a holiday, where her eldest brother, William, was keeper of the new lighthouse. Her appearance at Seahouses harbour, boarding the steamer, caused a sensation. Hounded by the attentions of the crowd, she hid herself below deck.
From Coquet Island she returned via Alnwick where she stayed with her cousins. “We got the rain before we got here”, she wrote. “It is very wet and windy tonight.” Grace visited many people before returning to Longstone. She caught a virus, possibly from exposure to the elements, and this became a disorder she couldn’t shake off. She developed a persistent cough.
Throughout that summer there were many unannounced visitors to Longstone, including day-trippers hoping to see Grace. This went on all the time. Grace had the strain of visitors, the endless letter-writing, and constant attention. Along with the responsibility of her own Trust there were money matters and decision-making duties uncommon for a single woman in her twenties. She withdrew more into herself.
The pressures of fame and her unwanted status as first media celebrity of the Victorian age proved too much for Grace; she became ill and very weak. Her family thought the bracing sea air of Longstone was not helping her. In September she was sent to Wooler to stay with friends, and enjoyed a short time there. This saw her improve a little and even ride a pony into the Cheviot Hills, but it was only temporary. It was decided to move her away from the pure air of Wooler, and return her to Alnwick, to her cousins’ airless and confined premises in Narrowgate.
Grace rapidly declined so she was moved again, high above the town to a quieter house in Prudhoe Street, and attended by the Duke of Northumberland's personal physician. Tuberculosis was diagnosed. A concerned Duchess Charlotte visited her bedside but this only caused distress to the troubled Grace. She began to have nightmare visions of staring eyes. She found the relentless attention suffocating, and thought everyone was finding fault with her. Attempts were made to calm her anxieties but Grace became feverish and increasingly weaker. From the time she arrived at Alnwick, according to her sister, Thomasin, “she went like the snow.”
William decided to return her to Bamburgh village, to sister Thomasin's home, where he hoped familiar surroundings would revive her, but this failed to have the desired effect. Every knock at the door from well-wishers caused her anguish. She lay in a box bed, with a sliding panel, shut away from the world, scarcely getting up all day.
Thomasin, in her account True Story, wrote profoundly, “…hers was a disease which no skill, nor care, nor kindness could arrest”.
Grace knew the end was near. She asked for her family; her mother visited from Longstone. From her sickbed Grace distributed personal items and mementoes to her relatives, quite calmly and composed. She was never known to make any complaint during her final days.
On the evening of Thursday 20 October 1842, Grace asked to be raised from her pillow and died in her father’s arms at 8.15pm. She was 26. Tuberculosis was recorded as the cause of death.
The funeral took place four days later at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, just yards from the cottage in which she had been born. The Berwick Advertiser reported on the occasion: “…at the hour appointed, 3.o’clock p.m. the village was crowded with strangers, both rich and poor, many of whom had come a long way…the coffin being carried by four young men belonging to Bamburgh…followed by ten of her relatives…and a young man from Durham, who wore the mourning emblem of intimate friends of the family.”
The young man from Durham with the mourning emblem – a black armband? – has never been identified but he is thought to have been George, a portrait painter with whom Grace secretly corresponded. It is known that one of the portrait painters offered to marry her.