Thursday, 24 February 2011

What's in a Name?

Wandering through the General Cemetery one cold and damp Sunday afternoon; among the many splendid memorials to lives past, I came across this Obelisk.

Trying carefully to read the inscription, for it was nearly worn away - or my eyesight is worse than I thought, I read the name DAFT SMITH CHURCHILL who died in 1838.

I was intrigued by his first name, and carefully looked to see if there was any inverted comma's which would have indicated that this was his nickname (did they use inverted comma's in the 1830's?), but there was none.

Now please try and stay with me for the next few paragraphs, as I will try and make it more interesting later on. Having a passion for trivia, I wondered what the name Daft meant. It was a bit of a fruitless search to be honest, for one of the naming websites said that there was no meaning available, and while omitting to mention Mr Churchill, they said that the only references were to Daft Vader (Star Wars) and a French musical duo called Daft Punk. They did however say that the name Daft is ranked 882 in the list of most common first names - not everyone knows that.

This set my wandering mind to thinking that if Daft was number 882, what was number one? Apparently, civil records began in 1837, and according to who have analysed 134 million birth certificates, the top name of all time for males is John (that's me), and for females it is Elizabeth. However, both names have fallen out of favour in recent times, and according to the Office of National Statistics, in 2009, which is the latest year available for these statistics, the most popular boy's name registered that year was Oliver, and the girl's name Olivia. I do hope that you're still with me.

SS Forfarshire Leaving Hull
It seems to me that Daft Smith Churchill is only really remembered because of the circumstances surrounding his death (though that may be a bit unkind). He ran a firm of lace merchants in Nottingham called. Messrs D.S. Churchill and Co. and lost his life in a shipwreck off the Northumbria coast in 1838. He was also one of the original directors of the General Cemetery, which began burying people the year before.

It is reported that a large monument was erected by his co-directors in memory of Mr Churchill near the Derby Road entrance of the General Cemetery, but that his son had it demolished. (Does anyone know why?). I am now fascinated by the answer to that question. His death is linked forever with the story of GRACE DARLING, and though it it well known, it bears repeating.

The SS Forfarshire sailed from Kingston upon Hull to Dundee in September 1838, carrying iron, cloth and 63 passengers and crew, most of whom, including Daft Smith Churchill perished on the rocks of Big Harcar in the early hours of a terrible storm. Grace was born in 1814 in Northumberland where her father was responsible for two lighthouses. From the upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse in the early hours of the 7th September, Grace could see that the ship had been wrecked and that survivors were clinging to the rocks. She and her father decided that it was too rough for the lifeboat to leave from North Sunderland, so they took a rowing boat (21feet long and normally requiring 4 men to man it) across to the survivors. This was approximately a mile in treacherous seas, and Grace kept the boat steady on her own while her father helped four men and a lone surviving women into the boat. They then rowed back to the lighthouse, following which, Grace's father and three of the rescued men went back for the other survivors. Nine people in all were saved. She was aged 24 at the time, and died from tuberculosis at the age of 27.

Grace's achievement was celebrated in her lifetime, and even more so after her death. She was remembered primarily in Paintings, Portraits and Poems (though there have been songs, and a musical as late as 2010).

Many famous artists were taken with the heroic story, and brought their own interpretation to the paintings.

Grace was inundated with requests to sit for portraits, and it does seem that she was happy for a while to do so. However, it seems that her father felt that this was getting out of hand, and asked all future artists to go to the seven portrait painters who had already completed the task.

William Wordsworth wrote his 98 line poem called "Grace Darling" in 1843. Here are a few lines from the poem.

"To launch the boat; and with her blessing cheered,
And inwardly sustained by silent prayer,
Together they put forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar, and struggling on they go-
Rivals in effort; and, alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty's will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman's fortitude - so tried, so proved-
May brighten more and more!"

William Topaz McGonagall
In contrast to Wordsworth, we have a 76 line poem, written by William Topaz McGonagall, who even a web site dedicated to him describes him as "the writer of the worst poetry in the English language". He wrote his affectionate poem, "Grace Darling, or The Wreck of the Forfarshire". Near the end of the poem he wrote,

"Grace Darling was a comely lass, with long, fair floating hair,
With soft blue eyes, and shy, and modest rare;
And her countenance was full of sense and genuine kindliness,
With a noble heart, and ready to help suffering creatures in distress.

But, alas! three years after her famous exploit,
Which, to the end of time, will never be forgot,
Consumption, that fell destroyer, carried her away
To heaven, I hope, to be an angel for ever and aye".

McGonagall may delight or appall you, but his writings have been doing that since 1877. Grace's life and heroism touched many, many lives. In the world that we now live in, the word 'celebrity' is given to anyone with 15 minutes of fame, who have done nothing to enhance or improve the lives of others. By all accounts Grace was extremely modest, and though faced with requests to appear in theatres and a circus, for huge sums of money, she refused all such requests. Large sums of money were raised in her honour, but she never touched a penny of it.

We should not just remember her heroics from that September night, but also how she dealt with 'fame'. I can't help feeling that life would be better for many, if there was a little bit more of the strength and modesty of Grace Horsley Darling.

Memorial to Grace Darling
It's been a bit of a journey from Daft Smith Churchill to Grace Horsley Darling, but I for one have enjoyed it, and I hope that for you, unlike the fate of the SS Forfarshire, the journey hasn't floundered on the rocks.

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