Grace Darling became a national hero after rescuing the survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Northumberland. Living with her father in a lighthouse, Grace often experienced stormy weather, dangerous seas and damaged sailing vessels. Her life, in comparison to the average Victorian, was far from normal, but it was her daring act of bravery that brought her to the attention of the nation.
The Darling family lived on the Farne Islands, a group of 15 or 20 islands within 5 miles of the mainland. Today, they are uninhabited except for the National Trust rangers who look after the remaining buildings. Grace’s grandfather, Robert Darling (d.1815), moved to Brownsman Island, one of the largest islands in the group, in 1795 to look after the lighthouse. Robert prepared his youngest child and only son, William (1786-1865), to take over the job when the time came.
During his teens, William worked as the assistant lighthouse keeper. He also worked as a labourer in Bamburgh on the mainland where he met his future wife, Thomasin Horsley (1774-1848) whose father, Job Horsley, worked in the gardens of the Bamburgh Castle Estate. Aged 31, Thomasin was an unlikely match for 19-year-old William, but she agreed to his marriage proposal and move to Brownsman Island.
In 1806, Thomasin gave birth to her first child, William (1806-69), nicknamed “Laddie” to differentiate him from his father. Soon, five more children came along: twins, Thomasin (1808-86) and Mary Ann (1808-43); Job (1810-30); Elizabeth Grace (1812-44); and Robert (1814-77). On 24th November 1815, Thomasin gave birth to her fourth daughter, naming her Grace after her twin sister, who died at birth. Shortly after, Robert Darling passed away, making his son the new lighthouse keeper. The large family made the lighthouse their home and soon welcomed two more sons, twins George Alexander (1819-1903) and William Brooks (1819-70).
The children paid regular trips to the mainland to visit their maternal grandfather. They enjoyed exploring the gardens he looked after, helping him sow seeds and pick fruit. Although their father grew vegetables on the island, fruit did not regularly appear in their diet. Surrounded by water, the Darling family usually ate fish and the eggs of local wildfowl. Eider ducks and puffins were among the creatures that inhabited the islands.
Victorian children typically played in the streets or countryside, but not the Darling children; the water was their world. They learned to row from a young age, frequently accompanying their father on fishing trips. Fearless of the waves, the siblings often ventured out on their own, visiting the other rocky islands, searching for eggs and shells while investigating caves and climbing rocks.
For running the lighthouse, built as early as 1795, the keepers earned £70 per year (the equivalent of £6,300 today). Whilst the job did not pay particularly well, the family made do with the simple accommodation that came with the role. Whilst the responsibility for working the lighthouse fell to their father, the Darling children frequently helped out when needed, for example, when a ship failed to miss the warning about nearby rocks. The boys accompanied their father in the lifeboat to rescue sailors and salvage goods, whilst the girls helped their mother prepare food and warmth for the sodden men, plus keeping the lantern burning.
Although many ships crashed into the rocky islands, the lighthouse provided safe passage to the majority of sailors. Statistically, the most shipwrecks occurred around the easterly rocks, and William Darling noted the lantern failed to reach that area. He attempted to make some beacons to place on these rocks, but they frequently fell into the sea during storms. Soon Darling approached Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses, and warned them of the danger. Architects drew up proposals for a new lighthouse, and construction began on Longstone Rock in 1825.
The Darling family moved into the new lighthouse, then known as the Outer Farne Lighthouse, in 1826. A second lighthouse was soon built on one of the inner islands and managed by another keeper. Longstone Lighthouse reached a height of 83 feet and contained five floors, three of which the large family used for bedrooms. Grace, then aged ten, shared the third floor with her sister Elizabeth. The family used the ground floor of the lighthouse as their living room, kitchen and dining room.
Whilst the lighthouse on Longstone provided a more visible warning to sailors of hidden rocks, the surrounding land was desolate and unsuited for growing crops. William Darling sought permission from Trinity House to continue using the land on Brownsman Island as an allotment and place to keep animals. He and the children regularly rowed back and forth between the islands, collecting vegetables and bird eggs for their meals.
Some of the older Darling children decided to move to the mainland, rather than live on a barren rock. William Jr found an apprenticeship in Alnwick. Here, he met his future wife Ann Cobb, who he married in 1837. William did not forget his former life and regularly returned home on visits. In 1839, the Duke of Northumberland appointed William as the first lighthouse keeper on Coquet Island, one mile from the coast of Amble. He lived there for the rest of his life with his wife and six children.
Job Darling followed in his older brother’s footsteps and found an apprenticeship in Newcastle. He began training as a joiner at the age of 15 and wrote to his father about the enjoyable experience. He planned to return home in 1830 to celebrate Christmas and his 20th birthday but succumbed to an illness a few weeks before.
Thomasin Darling, Grace’s favourite sister, believed she would never attract a husband on account of her cleft lip. She moved to the mainland to set up a dressmaker’s business in Bamburgh. She kept in touch with her family, regularly writing to Grace. She later wrote the book Grace Darling, Her True Story. Thomasin’s twin sister, Mary Ann, also moved to Bamburgh, marrying George Dixon Carr in 1832. After four children died in infancy, Mary Ann finally conceived a healthy baby. Unfortunately, George died at the age of 32 before the birth of his daughter Georgiann. Mary Ann moved back to the lighthouse following his death but passed away three years later, leaving her orphan child with her grandparents.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Darling shared a room with her younger sister Grace when they first moved to Longstone. Betsy was 14 at the time and a year or so later moved to North Sunderland to work as a maidservant. She married a draper, John Maule, and had two children: James and Thomasin.
Unlike the other children, Robert Darling attended boarding school at Bamburgh Castle. In 1831, he apprenticed as a stonemason in Belford but moved to Newcastle after marrying Elizabeth Pye (1803-1881). Like his other siblings, Robert often returned to the lighthouse for family celebrations. He had one daughter, Elizabeth Grace.
Grace never went to school but received an education at home from her father. William taught her to read and write and gave her lessons on arithmetic, geography, history and the bible. Whilst the family were religious, they could not all leave the lighthouse to attend church. Instead, William read from the scriptures and wrote sermons. The history of the Farne Islands frequently cropped up in Grace’s lessons. This included the names and lives of saints and monks who once lived on the islands. William taught his children that Christianity first arrived in England on the nearby shores of Northumberland. He also gave them musical instruction and wrote marches and airs for them to perform. The Darling children, but particularly Grace, had fine singing voices.
By the age of 15, only Grace and her younger twin brothers remained at the lighthouse with their parents. As the only girl, Grace spent the majority of her time helping her mother with domestic jobs. She felt unable to leave the island as her older siblings had done because she believed her parents would need her in their old age. She learnt to maintain the lighthouse lantern, mend fishing nets and watch the sea for signs of ships and danger. Grace also helped to look after the garden and livestock on Brownsman Island, often rowing there alone.
In 1834, George Darling left the family home to work as a ship carpenter’s apprentice in Newcastle. Allegedly, George, his twin and his father rowed from the islands to the city. With George away, William relied heavily on Grace and William Brooks to help out around the lighthouse. Having lived on the islands her entire life, the sea was Grace’s world, and she knew the tides like the back of her hand. She could detect changes in the weather and climate by intently studying the surrounding waters and happily spent hours watching the horizon for ships with a telescope.
In the early hours of 7th September 1838, Grace woke during a storm. Peering at the waves from her bedroom window, she saw a dark shape in the distance near one of the rocks. Believing it to be a ship, Grace woke her father, and the pair kept an eye on it through the telescope. There did not appear to be any sign of life.
The ship was the SS Forfarshire, a paddle steamer belonging to the Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company. Built in 1834 by Thomas Adamson, the Forfarshire carried passengers along the North Sea Coast from Hull on the River Humber to Dundee on the River Tay and back again. SS Forfarshire held at least 40 passengers and crew each trip, as well as animals and cargo.
On 5th September 1838, the SS Forfarshire set sail from Hull at 6:30pm and reached the open seas three hours later. During the night, one of the boilers sprang a leak, which the crew hastily repaired. In the morning, the crew discovered further issues with the boilers and the frightened passengers urged the captain to dock in the nearest port. Captain John Humble assured them the ship was safe and continued the journey.
The ship continued to face problems, but the captain encouraged his crew to keep sailing. The Forfarshire could have reached its destination if the weather had not at that moment changed from a gentle breeze to gale-force winds. The added pressure on the ship caused more leakages in the boilers. They could not produce enough steam to travel forward. At 11 pm, the captain, realising his mistake, stopped the engines and the ship began to drift south.
With the wind forcing the ship further south, the captain decided to turn around and search for shelter. Using a makeshift sail, the crew pointed the SS Forfarshire in the direction of the Farne Islands. The wind, rain, darkness and choppy sea made it extremely difficult to navigate. Finally, in the distance, the captain spotted a light. He steered the ship towards what he believed to be the Inner Farne Lighthouse, but he had widely miscalculated. It was Longstone Lighthouse which, unlike the Inner Farne, is surrounded by sharp, dangerous rocks.
The wind shunted the ship into Big Harcar Rock, one mile from the lighthouse, causing the vessel to split in half. The front became wedged into the rock, but the aft and lower deck swept away into the sea. Many passengers were thrown overboard or drowned in their cabins, including the Captain. Those on the deck managed to avoid a watery fate, but the gale threatened to blow them into the sea. The ship’s carpenter, John Tulloch, decided to jump from the deck onto the rocks. Steerage passenger, Daniel Donovan, followed suit and encouraged a few others to jump to safety, including a woman and two children. Soon, all the surviving passengers were on the rock, plus the body of Reverend Robb, who had died while in prayer.
Back at the lighthouse, Grace and her father sat at the telescope searching for signs of life. For hours, they saw nothing. Around 7 am, Grace finally spotted some movement on one of the rocks. The storm was still raging, and William knew it would be too difficult for the lifeboat in North Sunderland to sail out to sea. Grace pleaded with her father to do something, suggesting they take their rowing boat, which they had with them at the lighthouse. Before he could refuse, Grace was already getting into the boat.
Father and daughter rowed towards the wreckage, taking a long way round to avoid getting crushed against the rocks. In the gale, the mile journey took a long time to complete, but they persevered. On reaching the rock, they found nine survivors, too many to fit into the rowing boat. Positioning themselves as close to the rock as possible, William jumped ashore while Grace fought to keep the boat in place. William spoke to the men and argued about who he should rescue first. Eventually, William helped the only woman, Sarah Dawson, into the boat after forcing her to part with her children, James and Matilda, who had died during the night.
An injured man joined Mrs Dawson in the rowing boat and William enlisted John Tulloch and another crew member, John Nicholson, to help him row back to the lighthouse. The remaining survivors waited on the rock for their return. On reaching the lighthouse, Grace helped Mrs Dawson and the injured man into the lighthouse where she and her mother cared for them. William returned to the rock with the two crewmen to rescue the other survivors. They left the dead bodies behind, planning to collect them when the storm abated.
When William and Grace set out on the first trip to the rock, Thomasin Darling tried to contact the lifeboat station in North Sunderland, fearing that her husband and daughter would perish during the rescue mission. William had been right about the harsh weather making it difficult for the lifeboat to sail, and they did not arrive until 9 am, by which time the rowing boat had brought everyone to safety. With the storm raging on, the lifeboat team sheltered at the lighthouse until safe to leave. Grace’s youngest brother William Brooks was one of the lifeguards that day.
Since the event, people conducted several attempts to name everyone that perished at sea. The Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company kept no passenger list, so it is uncertain how many people were on board the SS Forfarshire. Reports list at least 43 casualties but some remain unnamed.
As soon as the press found out about the disaster, the list of survivors appeared in the newspapers. For a while, these men and woman were famous throughout the country. The Darling’s rescued five crewmen, all coincidentally named John: John Tulloch, John Kidd, John Nicholas, John MacQueen and Jonathan Thickett. The other four survivors were passengers: Thomas Buchanan, a baker; Daniel Donovan, a fireman, James Kelly, a weaver; and Sarah Dawson, the “wife of a labourer, formerly of Dundee, but then working in Hull”.
Unbeknownst to the Darlings at the time, eight crewmen and one passenger managed to escape the ship on a quarter boat. As soon as they reached the shore, they reported the incident but believed they were the only survivors. Before long, word spread about the men and woman rescued by the Darlings and journalists rushed to the scene to interview them. One man told a reporter that a young woman in a rowing boat saved his life.
“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”The Times
The news story spread like wildfire with accounts in local and national newspapers, such as The Times. The articles emphasised the storm, the dangerous rocks, and the fate of the ship and its passengers. Many people declared Grace Darling a heroine; not only did she put her life on the line, but she did so for strangers. Although Grace’s father did the majority of the rescue, rowing back to collect the rest of the survivors, the media focused on Grace’s involvement.
The public believed Grace should be rewarded for her actions and sent her presents and monetary donations. Even the young Queen Victoria (1819-1901) sent £50 to express her thanks. Hundreds of letters addressed to Grace arrived at the lighthouse, each one hoping for a reply. Some asked her to kiss the paper and return to the sender. As well as letters, visitors arrived en masse to get a glimpse of the heroine.
The fate of the SS Forfarshire spread across the continent, eventually reaching people as far as Japan, Australia and America. Now a celebrity, everyone wanted to read about Grace Darling. They yearned to know what she looked like and, unsatisfied with the written descriptions in news articles, commissioned artists to paint her likeness. Although William Darling gave his consent, he soon put a limit on how many times Grace would sit for portraits.
Some artists became friends with the Darling family, for instance, Henry Perlee Parker (1785-1873), who named his daughter Grace after Grace Darling. John Wilson Carmichael (1800-68), a maritime painter who visited the Darlings with Parker, continued to send them presents of books after finishing the painting. The sculptor, David Dunbar (1792-1866) travelled from Newcastle to produce busts of Grace and her father.
Other artists preferred to paint the rescue scene with Grace in the rowing boat and the waves rising above her. Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866) lodged with the Darlings for several weeks to paint as accurate a painting as possible. He quizzed William Darling about the position of each person in the boat and on the rock. He also requested details of their appearances. Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott (1811-90) produced a mural of the rescue, which now hangs in Wallington Hall.
As well as letters and requests for paintings, Grace received numerous invitations, many of which she rejected. Theatres across the country invited her to act out her heroic rescue on stage. The Adelphi Theatre in London offered her £10 a week to act in The Wreck At Sea. She refused, and an actress took her place. Grace accepted an invitation to visit a circus, but when she learned they wished to make her the highlight of the show, she declined.
Songs, poems and souvenirs quickly appeared around the country in celebration of the young heroine. They continued to crop up long after her death, including a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who lost his brother in a shipwreck. All this attention may have been nice, to begin with, but Grace soon hated all the attention. Marriage proposals arrived from men of all stations, all of which Grace rejected. She did not wish to leave the lighthouse and did not understand why they celebrated her actions. The nation hailed her a heroine, but all she was doing was her job.
On a visit to relatives in Alnwick, Grace met Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847) who insisted on becoming her guardian. He wished to protect Grace from the people who wanted to exploit her, for example, the circus owners and theatre managers. William Darling readily agreed to this proposal and the Duke appointed trustees to look after Grace’s affairs. The Duke provided the Darling family with regular gifts. He also ordered and paid for the construction of a lighthouse on Coquet Island, of which he appointed William Darling Jr as the first lighthouse keeper.
Even with the Duke’s protection, life became difficult for Grace. As a celebrity, she found it impossible to go to the mainland without someone recognising her. Initially, Grace did not wish to leave the lighthouse, but her home no longer resembled a peaceful place. Her youngest brother and his family moved into the lighthouse, as did her widowed sister, making it a noisy, bustling place.
In March 1842, Grace braved a trip to Coquet Island to spend time with her eldest brother. News of her voyage spread fast, and crowds turned up to see her off on the steamer ship. After her break away, she visited her cousins in Alnwick before returning home. During the trip, Grace caught a virus and developed a persistent cough. She wished to rest at home, but frequent visitors, letters and money matters needed her attention. Gradually, Grace withdrew into herself, becoming weak and unwell.
The Darling family thought the atmosphere at Longstone Lighthouse contributed to her poor health, so sent her to stay with friends in Wooler near the Cheviot Hills. During her stay, she rallied a little and decided to risk the journey home via her cousins in Alnwick. Soon after her arrival, her health rapidly declined, and the Duke of Northumberland sent his physician to attend to her. The doctor diagnosed Grace with tuberculosis, and she became sicker as the days went by.
William Darling decided to move his daughter closer to home, hoping that familiar surroundings would revive her. Grace moved in with her sister Thomasin in Bamburgh Village, but her health did not improve. She had frequent nightmares and hallucinations about people watching her, and constant visits from well-wishers upset her. Grace understood the seriousness of her illness and asked for her family during her final days. Grace Darling passed away on Thursday 20th October 1842, aged 26, in her father’s arms.
“…at the hour appointed, 3.o’clock p.m. the village was crowded with strangers, both rich and poor, many of whom had come a long way…the coffin being carried by four young men belonging to Bamburgh…followed by ten of her relatives…and a young man from Durham, who wore the mourning emblem of intimate friends of the family.”The Berwick Advertiser, 24th October 1842
Grace Darling’s funeral took place four days after her death at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh. As reported in the Berwick Advertiser, hundreds crowded into the village to watch the coffin process from the cottage to the church. The young man wearing a mourning emblem has not been identified but may have been one of Grace’s many marriage proposals.
The family plot in St Aidan’s churchyard contains Grace’s coffin, with some of her family members. Within a few days of the burial, donations began pouring in to raise a monument to the young heroine. They commissioned an architect to design and build a stone structure containing a life-size figure of Grace lying with an oar by her side. Rather than erecting the monument over her grave, they placed the structure at the west end of the churchyard where it can be seen by passing ships. Over time, the weather damaged the figure, and the village raised funds to make another with more durable stone. The original now lies inside the church building.
The village raised more than enough money to replace the statue of Grace Darling, so the Reverend of St Aidan’s Church installed a stained-glass window in her honour. Situated in the North Transept, the window features three female figures, each representing the virtues charity, fortitude and hope. They hold a heart, oar and anchor as symbols of Grace’s heroic act. Below these women, three angels hold banners containing Grace’s name, date of birth and death, and the date of the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.
Even in death, Grace Darling has not escaped fame. In Bamburgh, the RNLI Grace Darling Museum tells the story of her short life, focusing on rescuing nine shipwreck survivors. Artists and writers have produced fictionalised versions of the story, leading to images of Grace as “the girl with windswept hair”. Many poems about Grace Darling appeared in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, songwriters took inspiration from her life. The English rock band Strawbs released a song called Grace Darling, which contains the lyrics “You are my saving grace/Darling, I love you.” Further honours include an RNLI lifeboat, which holds her name; and the Grace Darling Hotel in Melbourne Australia, which opened in 1854, thus emphasising the extent of her fame.
When Grace Darling begged her father to rescue the SS Forfarshire survivors on 7th September 1838, she did not imagine the fame that could follow. Grace did her job as an assistant lighthouse keeper, putting aside thoughts of herself as she put herself in danger to save the lives of others. Becoming a celebrity overnight may have been exciting, at first, but the constant attention it brought eliminated any privacy. Even before she contracted tuberculosis, Grace struggled to live in the public eye. Fame destroyed the quiet girl who grew up only knowing her family and the sea.
Should we continue to remember Grace Darling as a hero or respect her wishes to be treated as a “normal” Victorian woman? Her fame emphasises the rift between men and women in the 19th century. Her father, who did twice the work, received little recognition. Rescuing stranded sailors was William Darling’s job – a man’s job. No one expected a woman to do the same, and it is for that reason that Grace reached celebrity status. Both William and Grace should receive recognition for their heroic actions, but through Grace, we should remember the detrimental effects of fame.