Sep 072013

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In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Grace Darling, looking from an upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The Forfarshire had foundered on the rocks and broken in half: one of the halves had sunk during the night. She and her father William determined that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), so they took a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-oar Northumberland coble) across to the survivors, taking a long route that kept to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. Grace kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat. Although she survived the sinking, Mrs Dawson had lost her two young children during the night. William and three of the rescued men then rowed the boat back to the lighthouse. Grace remained at the lighthouse while William and three of the rescued crew members rowed back and recovered four more survivors.


Meanwhile the lifeboat had set out from Seahouses but arrived at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father had completed the rescue: all they found were the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson’s children and of a clergyman. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they rowed to the lighthouse to take shelter. Grace’s brother, William Brooks Darling, was one of the seven fishermen in the lifeboat. The weather deteriorated to the extent that everyone was obliged to remain at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.

(c) RNLI Grace Darling Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Forfarshire had been carrying 62 people. The vessel broke in two almost immediately upon hitting the rocks. Those rescued by Grace and her father were from the bow section of the vessel which had been held by the rocks for some time before sinking. All that remained at daybreak was the portside paddlebox casing. Nine other passengers and crew had managed to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it too sank, and were picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into South Shields that same night.

Grace’s achievement was celebrated in her own lifetime: she received £700 raised by public subscription,was awarded a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Gallantry Medal (along with her father), and was catapulted into national and international celebrity. Overnight she became the first Victorian heroine. Lionized by London’s press, royalty, and the aristocracy, her image was everywhere (on soap, annuals, chocolates etc).

darling10  Lifebuoy Soap - Grace Darling

A number of fictionalized depictions propagated the Grace Darling legend, such as Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles by Jerrold Vernon (1839), which gave birth to the legend of “the girl with windswept hair”. Her deed was committed to verse by William Wordsworth in his poem “Grace Darling” (1843). A lifeboat with her name was presented to Holy Island. One of a series of Victorian paintings by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall in Northumberland depicts her rescue.


At Bamburgh, where she was born, there is a museum dedicated to her achievements and the seafaring life of the region. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution Mersey class lifeboat at Seahouses bears the name Grace Darling.

Grace died of pneumonia or tuberculosis in 1842, aged 26.  She is buried with her father and mother in a modest grave in St. Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh, where a nearby elaborate cenotaph commemorates her life. A plain stone monument to her was erected in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel on Great Farne Island in 1848.


One commentator noted that “lots of tosh” has been written about Grace in order to embellish the dramatic aspect of her personal story. The truth is, three months after the rescue she responded to the pressure of fame by becoming a recluse in the lighthouse, where her social position was to do domestic work for her mother