Coast Stories #3 – Grace Darling: The Heroine of the Farne Islands

The beautiful Northumberland coastal village of Bamburgh is well known for its stunning golden beach beach and magnificent ancient castle, once the capital of the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. However, the village is also well known for being the birthplace for one of the most famous heroines of the Victorian age – Grace Horsley Darling – whose lifesaving deeds made her world famous in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s which continue to be remembered to this day.

Grace Darling” by Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866) Photo credit: Dundee City Council

Born to William Darling and Thomasin Horsley on the 24th November 1815, Grace was the seventh of nine children. She was born in her grandparents’ small cottage which still stands opposite the church of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh. In 1795 Grace’s grandfather, Robert Darling had been appointed lighthouse keeper of Brownsman Island, one of the Farne Islands which lie off the Northumberland coast not far from Bamburgh. The lighthouse on Brownsman Island became home to the Darling family, with Robert being the chief lighthouse keeper and his son, William (Grace’s father) being the assistant lighthouse keeper.


Just before Grace was born her grandfather died, resulting in her father becoming the official lighthouse keeper of Brownsman Island. When Grace was three weeks old she moved to the island to live in the small cottage next to the lighthouse. Life was tough on the island. There was no running water and food had to be grown on the island. William grew a variety of vegetables in walled gardens on Brownsman,which were supplemented with fish caught from the sea and bird’s eggs. The island was home to plenty of seabirds including eider ducks. Grace was particularly fond of these birds that nested close to the lighthouse and because of her gentle nature the ducks would allow her to stroke them in their nests.

William Darling” by Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866). Photo credit – Dundee City Council

Grace’s father and her brothers were often busy rescuing stranded ships which came to grief on the jagged rocks of the Farne Islands, while Grace and her sisters would stay in the lighthouse and be ready to help her mother in taking in any rescued sailors. The women of the family would also act as relief lighthouse keepers when the men were out, ensuring that the lantern was kept lit  whilst keeping an eye out for any further ships which may get into trouble. 


It wasn’t long, however, before the family had to move from Brownsman Island. Whilst the lighthouse was vital in warning ships of the hazards of the Farnes, it was unable to warn vessels of the dangers of the easternmost isles and so William Darling petitioned Trinity House to have this problem addressed. Fortunately they listened to him and commissioned a permanent lighthouse to be built on nearby Longstone Island where the family moved to in January 1826.

Longstone Lighthouse (Photo accessed from here)

Longstone was little more than a desolate rock which meant that the family often had to make the one mile trip to Brownsman Island by boat to collect eggs and vegetables from the gardens there. William Darling would often allow the older children to go across to the island on their own including Grace, who by the age of 12, was confidently able to row a boat out in the open sea.

The children were also taught how to recognize the different types of shipping  that passed the islands by their father. They became familiar with the different the tides and were able to recognize signs that the weather was going to change for the worse. One by one the Darling children left Longstone to seek their fortunes on the mainland until by the time Grace was 15 there was only her and her younger twin brothers, George Alexander and William Brooks, at the lighthouse with their parents. By default, Grace virtually became the assistant lighthouse keeper on the island, maintaining the lantern and keeping watch for any ships in trouble. Life remained like this until Grace was in her early 20’s. William could completely rely on Grace and they worked well together. This solid and trusting relationship was put to the test on the stormy night of Friday 7th September 1838 when the steamship SS Forfarshire found itself in great trouble off the Northumberland coast.

SS Forfarshire from a contemporary painting.


The Forfarshire had left Hull two days previously bound for Dundee with a full ship of 60 passengers and crew and cargo. The ship had been encountering problems ever since its departure thanks to a leaking boiler. Despite efforts by the crew to fix the boiler the problem worsened in the face of stormy weather resulting in the boat having to turn back when it reached St Abbs Head in Scotland. The captain made a decision to head for the relative safety of the Farne Islands to wait out the storm, however the worsening weather made this exceedingly difficult and at 4am the ship hit Big Harcar Rock, about a mile from Longstone Island.

Immediately the crew lowered a quarter boat into the choppy waters and eight of them jumped in it along with one passenger who was still carrying his trousers having had  no time to put them on in the chaos. The crew may have had intentions to start rescuing the remaining passengers, however the strong currents swept their tiny boat away from the stricken Forfarshire and away to safety. Meanwhile the Forfarshire had lurched onto the rocks a second time, splitting the ship in two. The front half became wedged on the rocks while the other half containing the passengers and crew slipped below the sea, drowning many passengers in their cabins including the captain and his wife. Other passengers were swept overboard.

A few passengers had managed to survive on the deck by clinging on to what remained of the doomed ship. The retreating tide exposed some more of the rocks which caused a couple of the passengers to jump onto them to seek refuge. They encouraged the remaining passengers to climb onto the rocks where they would await rescue.

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire by Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866). Photo credit – Dundee City Council


Fortunately Grace Darling had been watching the storm through her bedroom window as she had been unable to sleep. Peering out into the blackness she could see a large shape on Big Harcar Rock and knew it to be a ship that must have stuck the rocks in the storm. She woke her father and together they studied the wreckage through a telescope searching for any survivors. At first they couldn’t see any, however as daylight dawned Grace could see survivors on the rocks themselves. Her father thought the sea would be too rough for the lifeboat at nearby Seahouses to launch so it was left to him and Grace to mount a rescue. Grace was the first one on the coble boat which she and her father somehow managed to row across to the survivors in exceedingly difficult conditions.

“Grace Darling and Her Father Pulling to the Wreck” by F. Whymper (1883) – Picture Source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington

On arriving at the rocks, the Darlings realised that there were more survivors than they originally thought – some nine or ten – which meant that they would have to make two trips. William jumped on to the rocks, leaving Grace to steady the coble boat in stormy waters whilst he gathered up a few of the passengers to make the first trip back to Longstone. This must have been a very difficult and emotional scene. The survivors were cold and exhausted and had lost loved ones in the disaster. One survivor, Mrs Dawson had to be persuaded to leave her two deceased children behind on the rocks, to be retrieved at a later time, so that she could be rescued. Fortunately the journey back to Longstone was without incident and William along with two passengers returned back to the rocks to pick up the remaining survivors, whilst Grace and her mother and sister tended to the wounded passengers in the lighthouse. 

Bamburgh Castle (Photo author’s own)

The Darlings were not the only ones to spot the wreck of the Forfarshire. The wreck had been seen from Bamburgh Castle’s walls and reported to Robert Smeddle, chief agent of the Bamburgh Castle estate, who was responsible for Bamburgh and the Farne Islands and also for safety at sea. Mr Smeddle immediately raced on horseback to Seahouses, where the nearest lifeboat was stationed.

Seahouses Harbour. The Farne Islands can just about be made out in the background. (photograph author’s own)

The seven lifeboatmen, which included the Darling’s youngest son William Brooks, launched from Seahouses harbour at 7.30am. Still facing extreme weather conditions, the lifeboatmen battled for two-and-a-half hours to reach the site of the wreck, only to find no survivors and the bodies of the deceased passengers which had been left behind. The lifeboatmen had no idea that the Darlings had rescued nine people from the doomed ship. They decided to head to Longstone Lighthouse as it was too difficult to return to Seahouses and got a major surprise when they found several survivors huddling round the fire in the lighthouse. The lifeboatmen were even further amazed at the story of the rescue, particularly Grace’s role in saving all those lives. The Seahouses lifeboatmen were unable to return home for three days, such was the horrible weather conditions which still continued to ravage the islands. When they did return to the mainland they found a Victorian media circus in full swing.


Grace Darling – Heroine of the Farne Islands by Eva Hope (1875)

The crew of the Forfarshire who had managed to escape the wreck in the quarter boat had reported the disaster as soon as they landed on the mainland. They reported that there were no survivors and obviously had no knowledge of the Darlings’ heroics. However, this soon changed when word got round of survivors being saved thanks to the efforts of the Darlings. First local newspapers were reporting on the rescue, the Berwickshire and Kelso Warder interviewied a survivor who wept as he talked about the heroics of a young woman who had come to rescue them.

News of this heroic young woman spread like wildfire. Within days national newspapers such as The Times were reporting on the rescue, describing how Grace, with her father, had defied the odds to save the lives of nine people. The public immediately declared her as a heroine and there were calls for her to be rewarded. It was a little sad that William Darling, and also the efforts of the Seahouses lifeboatmen, became overlooked in the media frenzy, as the focus was largely on Grace.

Hundreds of letters were sent to the lighthouse for Grace along with presents and donations from a smitten public. The newly crowned Queen Victoria got in on the act too by sending Grace £50. The Duke of Wellington, who was Master of Trinity House (the company responsible for the upkeep of Britain’s lighthouses) became aware of the outstanding act of bravery and requested a full account of the rescue from William himself. Both Grace and her father were later awarded gold medals from the Royal Humane Society and also Silver Medals of Gallantry from the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (which is now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution -RNLI). 

“A Visit to the Heroine Grace Horsley Darling At the Longstone Island” (Photo accessed from here)

It wasn’t long before visitors started arriving on Longstone, eager to get a glimpse or even touch the heroine of the Farne Islands. Boat trips were arranged so that the curious public could visit Grace at home. Artists followed soon after hoping to get a likeness of Grace that would be published in papers in the UK and round the world. Many dramatic paintings of the rescue itself also became available as the public’s thirst for any morsel of information about Grace continued.  Songs and poems were written about her, as were plays and novels. Grace Darling souvenirs were very popular. Jugs and china cups with Grace’s likeness sold like hot cakes up and down the country.

Grace Darling’s Boat” by F. Whymper (1883) – Picture Source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington


Whilst initially flattered by all the interest, the pressures of fame became too much for Grace. Over the next four years she was constantly on the receiving end of unwanted attention. She received many invites from various groups around the nation to attend functions, open events and receive awards and honours. When she did attend these events she was hounded by a curious public and the attention became overwhelming. Grace more often than not had to turn down invites to these events which increased her anxiety as she felt as if she was being impolite.

Eventually the constant attention became too much and she became very ill and weak. Returning from a trip to Coquet Island in March 1842 where her eldest brother, William, had become the keeper of a new lighthouse, she caught a virus as a result of exposure to wet and windy conditions, a condition which she was unable to get rid of. In September of that year her parents decided to send her to Wooler in Northumberland to stay with her friends where it was hoped she would get better. For a short while she did, however she was moved again to stay with relatives in a cramped, airless house in Alnwick and her health rapidly declined as a result.

She was moved again, this time to a quieter street in Alnwick where she was cared for by the Duke of Northumberland’s personal physician. Ever since the story of Grace’s heroic deeds had made the national press, the Duke of Northumberland had appointed himself as Grace’s guardian. Despite the move, Grace deteriorated even further. Her mental health as well as her physical health was suffering too. She began to have nightmares consisting of staring eyes. 

Portrait of Grace Darling (accessed from here)

Eventually Grace was moved back to her birthplace at Bamburgh where it was hoped the familiar surroundings would bring her back to health. However, she was still getting accosted by well-wishers which further increased her anxiety and worsened her health. Sadly Grace would never recover from her illness. As her sister, Thomasin wrote “…hers was a disease which no skill, nor care, nor kindness could arrest”. 

Grace passed away on the evening of Tuesday 20th October 1842 in her father’s arms. She was 26. The official recorded cause of death was tuberculosis. Her funeral took place four days at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh which was attended by hundreds of mourners, many of whom had traveled a long way. Just days after the funeral, a fund was started for the construction of a memorial which was eventually built in 1844 on high ground at the west end of the churchyard in Bamburgh where it could be seen by passing ships. A further memorial was installed in St Cuthbert’s Chapel on Inner Farne in 1848, which Queen Victoria paid £20 towards.


Nearly 180 years after the events of the night of Friday 7th September 1838, Grace and her father’s heroism is still remembered and applauded. A museum run by the RNLI is open in Bamburgh which highlights her life and the events of the rescue. Stories and songs of her life are still written to this day. 

Her actions focused the nation’s attention on maritime rescue and ways of improving the nation’s lifeboats which led to the development of safer lifeboats and further development of the Lifeboat Service around the coast of the United Kingdom. Rather fittingly, the lifeboat at Seahouses, where her brother had been part of the crew that had attempted to rescue the survivors of the Forfarshire all those years ago, goes by the name Grace Darling, meaning that people are still being rescued in her name 176 years after her death, which I think is the greatest tribute that could be paid to her.







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