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The Story of Grace Darling: A Victorian Hero

Grace Darling was the daughter of an English lighthouse keeper. She heroically saved 9 lives on the 7th September 1838. Read her story here.

Grace Darling.

Grace Darling.

Grace Darling, Northumbria’s Daughter

Grace Horsley Darling was born on the 24th November 1815 in her grandfather’s home in Bamburgh, Northumbria, opposite the ancient St. Aiden’s Church. She was the seventh child born to William and Thomasin (nee Horsley), they had nine children in total.

William was the lighthouse keeper on Brownsman Island, one of the Farne Islands. Thomasin and their children assisted him. Not all of the Darling children went to school, Grace didn’t, and much of their education was overseen by William.

Life was not easy on Brownsman Island. The terrain was tough, the life spartan and it was not unusual for the family’s allotment to flood during sustained wet weather. Despite this, the Darling’s grew their own crops, kept animals and they had an endless supply of fish to dine on.

The Darling Family Lighthouse

At an early age, the children learned about the power of the sea and how to row a boat. Every Darling knew that it was imperative that the lighthouse beamed its light at all times and they kept watch over the sea. William frequently took his elder sons with him when a ship got into trouble and rescue was required. Collecting salvaged materials offered a second income for the family.

Grace grew up to be capable, shy and inquisitive. She became adept at sensing changes in the weather, followed the rhythm of the tides and she understood the behaviour of animals and fish.

The Farne Islands


Longstone Rock Lighthouse

There were visibility issues from the sea to the lighthouse, and William Darling persuaded the authorities to relocate the lighthouse to Longstone Rock to the east of the Farne Islands. The family relocated to the newly built 83 feet high construction in 1826. As her siblings moved away, Grace, the youngest daughter, became William’s unofficial lighthouse assistant.

Longstone Rock was atrocious for farming and agriculture, so William made regular trips back to the old lighthouse where his garden and animals remained. Grace made these trips with or instead of her father. The two lighthouses were Grace’s only homes during her lifetime.

5th September 1838: The SS Forfarshire

On the 5th September 1838, the SS Forfarshire set sail from Hull to Dundee at 18:30 with 20 crew, approximately 40 passengers and considerable cargo aboard. Captain John Humble had invited his wife onboard that day. Safety checks were made before the steamship departed and repairs were made to the boilers.

A few hours into the journey one of the boilers sprang a leak. The Forfarshire was in open water and had to press on. The boiler was repaired but despite efforts not to alarm the passengers the activity was noticed. That night became a sleepless one. Passengers questioned Captain Humble at daybreak on the 6th September and were told that the steamship was perfectly seaworthy.

By nightfall the sea was dangerous and the winds were at gale force strength. The boilers broke down and the captain turned the engines off. A makeshift sail was created.

7th September 1838: Shipwreck

At 01:00 on the 7th September, Captain Humble decided that the best option would be to head for the Farne Islands and safety. Navigation was almost impossible, and when Humble spotted a light, he mistakenly believed that he was approaching Inner Farne lighthouse when in fact, it was Longstone that he could see in the distance. There were several jagged rocks on the route to the island.

The SS Forfarshire collided with the Big Harcar rock, which rose from the water a mile from Longstone. The crew lowered a rowing boat into the water, and eight people escaped and were rescued several hours later in the open water.

The steamship met with the rock again and broke into two halves. Half the ship sank, and the passengers and crew drowned in their cabins, including the captain and his wife. Records tell of Reverend Robb, who died whilst in the prayer position. The other half of the ship wedged itself into the rock. Some of the survivors leapt onto Big Harcar.

Thomas Musgrave Joy's Grace Darling at the Forfarshire.

Thomas Musgrave Joy's Grace Darling at the Forfarshire.

William and Grace Darling Rescue the Survivors

At around 07:00, Grace saw movement on the rock a mile away, and she woke her father up. They were determined to reach any survivors, although the winds were still high, the rain was torrential and rescue was so risky that Thomasin feared that she’d lose them to the sea.

William and Grace knew that their lifeboat would not cope with the conditions, so they took their coble, a flat-based fishing boat. They struggled to reach the rock and found nine survivors, more than they expected. Grace tried to keep the coble steady and away from the rock as William clambered onto it to help people. Two rescues were necessary to accommodate the nine people.

A Mrs. Dawson was holding her son and daughter’s lifeless bodies; it must have been horrific leaving them on the rock, but William had no room onboard for the nonliving. The late reverend was also left behind. Grace comforted Mrs. Dawson and looked at the injuries of the fellow survivors on the coble. William returned for the second group with a couple of the male survivors. The entire rescue operation took about 2 hours.

Refuge on Longstone Rock

Meanwhile, staff at Bamburgh Castle had spotted the wreck and alerted the lifeboat team at Seahouses; one of the crewmen was Grace’s younger brother William. It took the crew over 2.5 hours to reach the shipwreck, so William and Grace had already completed the rescue. The lifeboat team set out with three bodies for Longstone Rock rather than risking a perilous return to Seahouses.

The Darlings, lifeboat crew and survivors hunkered down on the island for three days and waited for the storm to finish. As they discussed their experiences, it became clear that Grace had played an integral role in saving people.

The lifeboat crew left the rock on day three, although the weather was still inhospitable. They aimed for Seahouses but could not make landfall until they reached Beadnell further down the coast. Their part in the rescue story is largely forgotten, but they too took enormous risks.

The memorial window dedicated to Grace Darling at St. Aiden's Church in Bamburgh, Northumbria.

The memorial window dedicated to Grace Darling at St. Aiden's Church in Bamburgh, Northumbria.

Grace Darling: Celebrated Female Hero

Grace and William were celebrated as heroes in the local, national and international newspapers. Grace was suddenly the most famous woman in the country. The Times Newspaper asked, “Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”

People kissed letters to her before they posted them to Longstone. Tourists arrived in their masses to see Grace Darling at work. The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland became regular correspondents for the rest of her life and Queen Victoria sent Grace £50 in recognition of her heroism. The interest in Grace was relentless.

Grace's Tragic Early Death

Grace fell ill in 1842, and although the Duchess of Northumberland stepped in to get her the best medical treatments, Grace died from tuberculosis on the 20th October 1842 whilst cradled in her father’s arms. She was just 26 years old.

On the 24th October, her funeral was held at St. Aiden’s Church in Bamburgh, within feet of her birthplace. St. Aiden’s Church houses a monument and memorial to her, and a museum was opened in her honour.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle