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Maritime Personalities

Women have not played a prominent role in the history of the Merchant Navy so it is a privilege to record the feat of, probably, our best remembered maritime heroine

Grace Horsley Darling (1815-42), British lighthouse-keeper's daughter, achieved great fame for the rescue she made with her father when the merchant vessel Forfarshire, bound from Hull to Dundee, was wrecked on the Farne Islands on 7 September 1838. Grace's father, William Darling, was keeper of the Longstone lighthouse on the islands, and observing the wreck determined with his daughter to try to reach the survivors. In a tremendous sea, and knowing they would be unable to return unless helped by survivors, they set out in a coble and reached the wreck, bringing back four men and a woman. William Darling and two of the survivors then returned, and brought back four more men. They were the sole survivors, the remaining forty-three members of the crew being drowned. Grace and her father each received the gold medal of the Royal Humane Society for their courage during these rescues. Of a delicate constitution all her life, Grace Darling died of consumption at the age of 27.

The RNLI does a fantastic job providing a rescue service around the coast of Britain. The Lifeboats are funded purely by private donations and your help will be appreciated. To find out more about their work visit;

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 - 1859), although only 53 when he died, well and truly left his mark on the English countryside and beyond. Born in Britain he began his career in engineering when he joined his French father's company in 1823 as his assistant in the construction of the first tunnel under the River Thames. This was followed, in 1833, by the appointment as engineer on the Great Western railway project, much of which was his design. Brunel was also very interested in the development of ocean steam navigation and in 1835 suggested to the directors of the Great Western Railway that the railway should be extended to Bristol from where a steamship would operate across the Atlantic to New York. The name of the ship would be the Great Western. The directors agreed and Brunel went on to design and build the Great Western. She was a wooden paddle steamer, the largest ship ever built to that date and the first steamship to make regular crossings of the Atlantic. She completed her maiden voyage in 1838 and proved to be a very successful vessel. From there Brunel went on to design and build an even bigger ship, the Great Britain. She was the world's first large iron steamship and the first to be fitted with a screw propeller.

She was launched in 1843 and made her maiden voyage to New York in 1845. In 1846 she was carelessly run aground in Dundrum Bay, Ireland and it was a year before she was refloated. There was, however, little damage and she continued to be used on the Australia run for many years, a tribute to Brunel's design. Spurred on by the success of the Great Britain he was convinced that he could design and build a ship of such as size that it could hold sufficient coal to make the journey to Australia without stopping to refuel. He took his idea and plans to the directors of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company who were enthusiastic enough to appoint him as their engineer for the project. The keel of the Great Eastern was laid down in December 1853 but problems during construction and launching meant that she didn't float until January 1858. With a length of 680 feet and a displacement of 18,915 tons she was the largest ship ever built at that time. She was powered by both paddles and a screw. Unfortunately, Brunel did not see his dream sail on her maiden voyage. Two days prior to the sailing he suffered a severe stroke and died ten days later. The Great Western Railway and ocean-going ships were not Brunels only achievements. He was chief engineer in charge of construction of the docks and piers at Bristol, Plymouth and Milford Haven. During the Crimean War he designed a floating gun carriage for the naval attack on Kronstadt and also designed and built a hospital at Erenkeni on the shores of the Dardanelles. However, he is best remembered for his steamships and the introduction of double bottoms in the Great Britain is still a standards practice in shipbuilding today.

For more in depth information about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his three "Great" ships - Click here and visit the Brunel University.


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