On September 6, 1838 the steamer Forfarshire had a fairly unimpressive boiler failure; apparently poor upkeep allowed the wrought iron boilers to rust through. The captain decided to continue on his scheduled route, sailing from Hull to Dundee, despite having leaks in both boilers. At 10:00 that night the boilers gave out, and the captain continued under sail through a rising gale.
At about 3 am on September 7, the ship struck the small, rocky island of Big Harcar (locally known as Great Hawker), and broke up. Eight people escaped on a lifeboat to mainland; when rescuers braved the gale to look for survivors, they found only drowned bodies.
But there were other survivors. Early on the morning of the 7th, Grace Darling looked out of her bedroom window -- located midway up her father's lighthouse -- and saw a group of perhaps 13 people huddled on Big Harcar. She alerted her father, and after some debate, she convinced him to rescue the group. This was not an easy decision, as the storm that wrecked the Forfarshire was still raging, and it would not be safe to take the island's lifeboat; instead, they took a small boat, a four-man Northumberland coble. This was a 21-foot rowboat that would normally be manned by at least three people even in calm waters. Because of this they went slowly, staying in the lee of the surrounding islands.
By the time they reached Big Harcar only nine survivors remained, eight men and one woman. They took five survivors onto the boat and rowed back to the lighthouse on Longstone Island, where Grace was left to care for those rescued while her father and two crew from the sunk ship rowed out again to fetch the remaining four castaways. They then settled in to wait for the storm to pass, which turned into a three-day vigil.
When the survivors finally returned to mainland, Grace Darling became an immediate celebrity; at 23 years of age, and moreover, female, she was deemed an unlikely hero and nationwide sensation. She and her father were awarded the Silver Medal for Bravery by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, the whole country did a whip around for her, raising about £700 (worth over £60,000 in today's currency), and she was showered with gifts, letters, and marriage proposals.
Her fame was heightened by the fact that she was the hero in an particularly exciting narrative. The captain became the villain, as he was found to have been negligent in the Forfarshire's upkeep (he and his wife both died in the accident, so we didn't get to hear his side of the story). There was great tragedy -- 43 dead -- with specific tragedy to spice things up, as the single woman that Grace and her father rescued lost both of her children (a daughter aged 5 and a son aged 7), and had in fact insisted that their corpses be brought onto Big Harcar, only to loose them to the waves later. And, of course, the delay between the ship sinking and the survivors returning home made a miraculous surprise ending.
Grace's fame was still strong when she fell ill in 1842, and she was treated in style under the supervision of the Duchess of Northumberland. She died on October 20, 1842 at the age of 26, of tuberculosis (reported at the time as consumption).