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Grace Darling

On 7th September 2013 the RNLI commemorated the 175th anniversary of her involvement in the rescue of survivors from the wrecked paddle steamer the SS Forfarshire.

Grace Darling was born on 24th November 1815 in Bambugh, Northumberland. She was one of 9 children and her father, William Darling was the keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse. Grace helped her father look after the lighthouse and also helped him keep watch for ships in trouble at sea.

So it was that on the 5th September 1838 the SS Forfarshire (above) sailed out of Hull and down the River Humber to the North Sea with around 60 passengers and crew on board. The SS Forfarshire was a paddle steamship, built in 1834 at a cost of £20000 for the Dundee and Hull Steam packet Company by Thomas Adamson of Dundee for weekly return sailings between the Humber and Dundee on the Tay estuaries. She was a 400 tons vessel, 132 feet in length and 20 feet wide with two paddles, 2 x 90 horse power steam engines and masts and sails and accommodation which included first class and luxurious state apartments. Apart from passengers she would have also carried different cargoes such as cloth, soap, hardware, metal ware and possibly livestock.

After sailing from Hull on the evening of the 5 September 1838 the ship began to have trouble with her boilers which started leaking whilst off Flamborough Head and the problems continued to get worse. The Captain, John Humble, continued through the 6 September eventually with the assistance of sail until just after he had reached St Abbs Head, just north of Berwick on Tweed. In a severe northerly gale the ship’s boilers and steam engines had then completely failed and drifting southwards using only sail the Captain tried to get in the lee of the Farne Islands and it was here that the ship foundered on Big Harcar Rock about a mile from the Longstone Lighthouse, at around 4.00am on the morning of the 7 September 1838.

Around 7.00am It was from the Longstone Lighthouse (above), that 22 year-old Grace and her father William set off in stormy seas to rescue the stricken survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire, Grace having spotted survivors on the rocks while on watch at the lighthouse. The pair rowed out in an open rowing boat (a coble) to rescue the survivors fearing the local North Sunderland (Seahouses) lifeboat (with Grace’s brother on the crew) would not reach the survivors in time. Grace and William rowed for nearly a mile into the tide and stormy seas. Whilst Grace desperately tried to keep the coble from smashing on the rocks, her father William got off three men, a woman (who was holding 2 dead children in her arms) and another injured man. With her mother, Grace then stayed to look after the survivors whilst her father and two of the men rescued returned for the other 4 men. With the conditions they were to stay in the lighthouse for another 3 days until the storm abated. 

What is less well known about this story is that a 7 man crew of local fishermen from the North Sunderland lifeboat, with Grace’s brother William Brooks Darling and three members of the Robson family on board, had also launched a rescue. In this case they used a local coble, rather than the lifeboat which they believed would not be able to get close enough to the rocks to mount a rescue. After a hazardous row in treacherous conditions over several hours they found no survivors – having reached the location about 30 minutes after William Darling had rescued the final group of men. They were astonished to see the survivors when they reached the Longstone Lighthouse, after seeking shelter when they realised they would not be able to return safely. They too spent the next three days at the Lighthouse, whilst their families had no idea of what had happened to them. They rowed back to the mainland and largely disappeared from history. That is why, as part of the events held at Seahouses on 7th September 2013, this element of the story was being recreated by a “Row to the Farnes” in the historic restored Whitby Lifeboat, the William Riley. (See below)

For their bravery the RNLI awarded Grace and her father William the Institution’s Silver Medal for Gallantry for rescuing nine people shipwrecked on the rock – making the lighthouse keeper’s daughter the first woman in history to receive such an award. 

Grace became famous overnight. Her courage captured the imagination of Victorian society and her story was retold by the ‘media’ of the time and portrayed through art and poetry. Sadly, three years later Grace died of tuberculosis. However, her legacy lives on in the RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, Northumberland which features the rescue coble, Grace's dresses, letters, family belongings and commemorative items.

For more information about the Grace Darling Museum, which is a free entry museum, please follow the following link Grace Darling Museum Bamburgh to get more information about location, opening times and events 




Picture Acknowledgements:- Original Artist - John Ward (courtesy Ferens Art Gallery: Hull Museums), other pictures (courtesy RNLI Heritage Trust.)