Ida Bet She Was the Darling of the Waves

From the collection of Thomas E. Weil.

Rowing historian Thomas E. Weil writes:

Physicists will argue that two people cannot be in the same place at the same time, but a marvelous piece of rowing memorabilia may provide an exception to the rule. A small commercial albumen photograph, possibly published about 1870, and mounted on a piece of card (commonly called a carte de visite, or cdv), shows a picture of a young lady with wind-tossed hair sitting alone at the oars in a boat in heavy seas (see image above). While neither the photograph nor the side of the card to which it is affixed bear any identifying labels, the reverse of the card does. At the extreme opposite edges of that back side are printed two names: “Grace Darling” and “Ida Lewis” (see image below). While physics insists that the lady in the boat cannot be both, our intriguing cdv suggests otherwise. Whazzup?

From the collection of Thomas E. Weil.

Darling and Lewis were two popular heroic female figures of the nineteenth century. Each was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rescued shipwrecked unfortunates. There most similarities end, but that was all our anonymous cdv publisher needed to try to make one equal to two.

While Grace Darling (1815-1842) appears to have been more widely lionized, her fame arose from just one incident. Spotting the wreck of the steamship Forfarshire on a nearby island, on the morning of September 7, 1838, Darling, then 22, and her father rowed their 21-foot, 4-man Northumberland coble from the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands a mile out to the site in seas that were too heavy for the local lifeboat to brave. Upon reaching the remains of the vessel, Darling manned the oars while her father assisted four men and a woman into the boat, and her father and three of the men then rowed the coble back to the lighthouse. Four years later, without additional heroics, Grace was dead of tuberculosis.

From the collection of Thomas E. Weil.

From the collection of Thomas E. Weil.

The Grace Darling Monument, Bamburgh. Photo: Wikipedia.

Darling’s story fired England’s imagination, and produced articles, sheet music, books, poems, prints, paintings, memorabilia, a lifeboat named after her, a large monument in the cemetery in which she was buried and a recent musical. One of the first books, Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles, published the year following the rescue, praised “the girl with windswept hair”, which became a mainstay of the legend and most subsequent images. William Wordsworth celebrated her in his eponymous 1843 poem. Her fame has endured, generating several books in the 175 years since her feat, and a museum in the town of Bamburgh, which is dedicated to her memory as well as the story of local coastal life.

The improbably named Idawalley Zorada Lewis’s story presents a very different picture, as it were. Her exploits covered a lifetime. Lewis (1842-1911) was a young girl at Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island, when her father fell ill, leaving her mother and her to run the station until 1879, when her mother also fell ill. Lewis carried on all on her own. Over the years after her first rescue (1858), she saved between 18 and 36 people (many of whom found trouble while pleasure boating on Newport Bay), in most cases by rowing alone to the boat and pulling the victims from the water. Lewis’s recognition came mostly from newspapers and from lifesaving institutions, which gave her medals and pensions. While she did not inspire as many literary efforts as Grace Darling, Lime Rock was re-named Ida Lewis Rock in her honor, and the Coast Guard named a class of buoy-tenders after her. Interestingly, the same image shown on top is included as a picture of Ida Lewis in the Wikipedia article on her.

Ida Lewis with the tool of her trade. Photo from the online magazine Ocean Happening.

So what can we conclude about this cdv? We know nothing of the publisher, or the place or year of publication, but it is obvious that the publisher wished to take advantage of both of the Grace Darling and Ida Lewis markets if possible. The smaller photo was placed on the mounting card such that, depending on how close one trimmed the mount to the image, one could cut away either printed name on the reverse (or both) without damaging the photo, and market the cdv to suit the remaining “title”.

And the fidelity of the image? To begin with, it is an illustration (whether a drawing, watercolor or painting is not clear, but it is not a woodcut as described on Wikipedia), so it is a product of imagination. Darling rowed out with her father, so any depiction of her alone in the boat in the open seas is pure fiction. On the other hand, between the age of the person shown and the state of the waves, the image seems unlikely to represent Lewis.

I would posit that this was originally a fanciful (and inaccurate) glorification of Grace Darling, “the girl with windswept hair”, which was then appropriated to serve as a souvenir of Ida Lewis … or, as this publisher shows, either or both women. The truth was beside the point, because the legend was the point. That the stories of Darling and Lewis were publicized at the time as extraordinary performances by singularly unusual women rather than to suggest that these feats might demonstrate the capability of women to not just survive, but excel at, strenuous physical activity at the oars, is, in a way, rather sad. In addition to demonstrating their bravery, had these women been recognized a century and a half ago as showing that, contrary to popular belief, women might be strong enough to engage in competitive rowing, our sport and its history would have been much the better for it.

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