Ida Lewis

ida lewis

Ida Lewis – Lighthouse Keeper

Ida Lewis was an extraordinary woman who rescued and saved many people in trouble in the seas off Newport, Rhode Island, during the late 19th century and early 20th. Her acts of heroism became folklore and hundreds of people would come to grab a glimpse of her at the lighthouse she operated at Lime Rock, where she lived from 1854 until her death in 1911. At the age of 12 she is reported to have gone out to sea and rescued four boys who had capsized, setting the stage for numerous more acts of selfless bravery over the years to come. Officially she is said to have saved 18 peoples lives, though some say it was as many as 36.

Born Idawalley Zorada Lewis in 1842, Ida came to Lime Rock when her father was made lighthouse keeper there in 1854. Sadly he was to suffer a stroke within four months and as the oldest of four siblings much of the responsibility for operating the lighthouse fell on to Ida alongside her mother. Indeed she would keep watch all night before rowing her siblings to the shore for school each day, having dropped out herself, before returning to sleep ahead of her night-time duties. She became the official lighthouse keeper in 1879 when her mother’s health was failing, her father having passed away in 1872.

The importance and responsibility of this job for the safety of passing ships was huge. Yet accidents and mistakes happen and this was when Ida Lewis came in to her own. It was unusual for a woman at this time to have such boat skills and it was these she used to venture out to help those in need, much of which went relatively unreported until 1869. On this occasion she saved two soldiers who were heading to Fort Adams during a snowstorm, their boat overturning in rough waters. Apparently without even putting on her coat or shoes Ida took to her boat and, helped by her younger brother, managed to get the soldiers safely back to the lighthouse. This remarkable women carried on saving lives throughout her life with her last recorded rescue when she was well in to her 60’s.

Following her 1869 rescue Ida began to get the recognition she fully deserved. She was awarded the congressional medal for her bravery and just as touching the grateful soldiers at Fort Adams raised $218 as a mark of their appreciation in saving their two comrades. A feature in Harpers Weekly was to bring her to the attention of a national audience, bringing an almost celebrity status, while she also met the President, Ulysses S. Grant. The fact that Ida came to earn $750 a year, the highest in the country including men, points to how well she was regarded. Although her incredible life ended in October 1911 her memory lives on, and in 1924 Lime Rock was changed to Ida Lewis Rock by Rhode Island’s State legislature in her honour.

Grace Darling

grace darling

Grace Darling was the daughter of William Darling, a lighthouse keeper who was in the employ of Trinity House.  Grace grew up with her family on the Northumberland coast and lived first in Brownsman Lighthouse.  In 1826 the family moved to the newly build Longstone Lighthouse, and it was here she become one of Victorian Englands greatest heroines.

Grace Darling was twenty-one when she spotted the foundering of the Forfarshire on the rocky outcrop called Harcar from her bedroom window on Longstone Lighthouse. It was 7th September 1838, and she and her father William believed there could be no survivors amid such a horrendous storm, yet as they continued to watch, they were to realise that some had indeed survived and were on the rocks that had done for the ship. Then began an incredible couple of hours of sheer bravery and disregard for personal safety that is still spoken about today.

Fearing that the lifeboats from Bamburgh and North Sunderland would not be able to launch, Grace and her father decided to try and rescue the survivors in their twenty-foot coble boat, much to the anguish of Grace’s mother Thomasin. They took a longer southerly route to the wreck to try and make use of what shelter they could, meaning a mile row in atrocious seas, to find more survivors then the three they had first reckoned upon. Over two hours and two trips, nine survivors were taken off Harcar rock back to Longstone Lighthouse, two of the survivors helping William on the second trip. The difficulty of transferring weak survivors into the coble that Grace Darling was trying to keep steady can only be imagined. One survivor, Mrs Dawson, had lost her two young children and had to leave their bodies on the rock. A lifeboat from Sunderland, which contained Grace’s youngest brother, eventually made the site after an incredibly difficult two and a half hour journey, removing the three bodies they found there, before taking shelter at Longstone, where they then had to remain for a couple of days due to the conditions.

It was an incredible tale that soon attracted the attention of the wider world, including the press, attention that Grace was not too keen on. To Grace, she had just been doing her duty. The deed was also known to royalty and Queen Victoria even sent £50 to Grace Darling as a token to acknowledge her bravery. It is this bravery of everyday people who risk their own safety to help others at sea that can be seen in the ethos of the RNLI today.

Sadly, Grace’s life was cut short by TB, and she died in October 1842, to be buried at Bamburgh next to her family.

grace darling

Image of Longstone Lighthouse from the Grace Darling Website

Image of Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks

Related Articles: Trinity House, Eddystone Lighthouse

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