The Bamburgh Castle Estate was administered by the Crewe Trustees. They effectively governed the Bamburgh district, including the Farne Islands, and were also responsible for safety at sea. Their chief agent was Robert Smeddle, age 44, who lived in the castle. He was recognised as the most powerful man in Bamburgh and he was closely involved in Grace Darling’s life from the moment the Forfarshire was wrecked on Harcar Rock, near to Longstone.
FIRST ON THE SCENE
Following the rescue of survivors by the Darlings on 7 September 1838 Robert Smeddle was in the first boat out to Longstone, when conditions allowed, bringing provisions, boats to transport the rescued, and to supervise proceedings. He was one of the first people to learn how Grace Darling had played a major part in the rescue. This was when Smeddle famously remarked: “There’ll be a silk gown for you for this, Grace!”
From that moment Grace Darling’s life was never the same. Smeddle, who knew the Darling family well, was to take charge of all her affairs.
Robert Smeddle’s brief from the Crewe Trustees was to learn the facts concerning the disaster. How had it happened? Who was responsible? There was no shortage of opinions from the survivors, led by Daniel Donovan, the itinerant sailor and self-appointed spokesman. There was a lot of anger. Smeddle pieced together the bits of evidence he needed then ordered an inquest into the deaths caused by the tragedy of the Forfarshire. The inquest took place in Bamburgh the very next day.
Customs and insurance agents and Donovan with a couple of surviving passengers were hurriedly gathered together as witnesses. None of the crew were called, and none of the lifeboatmen. Smeddle himself was foreman of the jury. The verdict? The “culpable negligence of the captain” was to blame in allowing a ship to sail with its boilers in such a poor state.
The verdict was challenged and the surviving crew, the ship’s owners and the ship’s builders were called. At a second inquest in Bamburgh five weeks later a verdict was brought of accidental drowning due to tempestuous weather.
‘c/o ROBERT SMEDDLE, BAMBURGH CASTLE’
Grace Darling’s fame spread very quickly. Her heroic actions won the hearts of the nation and tributes and demands flooded in. Neither Grace nor her father was prepared for this. Smeddle dealt with all enquiries and requests; official letters and gifts for Grace came through him, ‘c/o Bamburgh Castle’, and were sometimes delivered by him in person. The Darlings were familiar with Smeddle; as representative of the Crewe Trustees he regularly visited Longstone. He was present at every turn, but it is doubtful whether he was considered a friend of the family; his actions were more administrative and official.
The Duke of Northumberland became self-appointed guardian to Grace and assigned his own trustees, from within the Crewe Trust, to handle the considerable donations of money coming in for her. This was one area in which Smeddle had no jurisdiction. Otherwise it was Smeddle who supervised her day-to-day business, acting as her representative.
He helped to fan the flames of Grace’s adulation; he never discouraged it. He was one of the signatories on the testimony sent to the Duke of Wellington, praising the actions of Grace and her father. This set up a chain of events that proved unstoppable.
His motives were sometimes questionable. When he instructed Grace to sign her name on over a hundred separate cards, “to send out to the people”, it is hard not to suspect that there was some profit in this for Mr Smeddle.
Grace was summoned by Smeddle to meet the Crewe Trustees. Three silver medals, awarded by Scottish Humane Societies were presented to her by Smeddle. Funds were established in many towns and cities to reward Grace for her actions. The involvement of Robert Smeddle in this would have been crucial as the “go-between” to administer these donations.
SMEDDLE AS SECRETARY
Her father, William, helped Grace with some of her letters of reply as she was unused to formality. Smeddle, an experienced secretary, also assisted her with wording and phrasing. Some of her written responses to institutes and societies are exact, formal, and error-free. The guiding hand of an official source seems to be in evidence here.
Copies of some of these letters were forwarded by Smeddle to the newspapers with the express intent of them being printed. Even copies of some of Grace’s replies were sent. This all added to her growing popularity.
The portrait painters who arrived in numbers at Longstone had to be controlled. Again, Robert Smeddle would have been involved. He knew the sculptor David Dunbar and no doubt recommended him to the Darlings.
Even after her death, Smeddle was involved. He was one of the mourners at her funeral in October 1842. The following month he was entrusted with £10 to go towards erecting a memorial to Grace in Bamburgh churchyard. This fund grew with contributions from many dignitaries.
Robert Smeddle died on 16 Sept 1852, age 58 years. He is buried at St Michael’s Churchyard, Bishop Middleham, Durham.