Famous Sea Rescues – Grace Darling

On 7th September 2013 the RNLI celebrated the 175th anniversary of the Grace Darling rescue.
Today, we look back at some other famous sea rescues from the RNLI's heroic past.

The SS Forfarshire

On 5th September 1838 the SS Forfarshire, a paddle-steamer with brigantine rigging, set out from Hull, sailing north towards Dundee, with a cargo and around sixty people on board. As she passed Flamborough Head a failure of her pumps, supplying water to the boilers, reduced her steaming capacity and by the following day the bilges flooded and her engines failed. In near gale force NE winds her captain put her under sail and tried to continue the voyage but as the weather worsened he turned the vessel around to seek shelter in the Farne Islands. It was here that at 3am on 7th September she struck aground on the Big Harcar Rock on one of the Outer Farne Islands. Eight sailors and one passenger managed to lower a lifeboat and escape, picked up the following morning by a passing schooner. The rest of the crew and passengers were left to the mercy of the sea, which tore at the ship, breaking it up and leaving only the bow and fore sections attached to the rock.

Longstone Lighthouse

The lighthouse on the Farne Islands was manned by the keeper William Darling. In the early hours of September 3rd he and his 22 year old daughter Grace spotted the wreck and a group of survivors on the nearby rocky island of Big Harcar. The weather was still atrocious, with huge waves beating against the rocks. It looked an impossible task to attempt a rescue but Grace persuaded her father to take out their small rowing boat and go to the aid of the survivors, believing that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses. They took a long route of almost a mile, keeping to the lee of the islands. Grace steadied the boat while her father helped four men and one woman, (the only female survivor) into the boat and rowed them back, through the heavy seas, to the lighthouse and safety. Four more survivors were rescued in the same way that day and all nine were looked after and fed in the cramped quarters of the lighthouse for 2 days until the storm abated and they could be transferred to the mainland.

Meanwhile the lifeboat had set out from Seahouses, with Grace’s brother William Brooks Darling as one of the crew. Against all odds they battled against the elements and managed to reach the wreck, but all they found were a few dead bodies of the remaining 42 people on board. Unaware of the brave rescue achieved by Grace and her father, the lifeboat crew too had to return to the lighthouse for shelter, because of the deteriorating conditions. Imagine their amazement when, drenched and exhausted, they found nine survivors already there, saved by one man and his young daughter.

Fame And Fortune?

The heroic rescue and the bravery of the Darlings caught the imagination of the public and the couple soon became a media sensation. They received the RNLI’s silver medal in 1838, (the first recipients of this new award), and the Royal Humane Society awarded them its gold medal. Grace was given silver medals from the Glasgow Humane Society and the Edinburgh and Leith Humane Society as well as large financial rewards and the plaudits of the nation. They were inundated with visitors, letters and requests for souvenirs and Grace’s fame eclipsed that of her father who was referred to as “Grace Darling’s father” when he was later involved in two further rescues in 1853 and 1860. She even received proposals of marriage, some of them, no doubt, from would be suitors with an eye to sharing the money. But she was modest and retiring by nature, having no liking for her new found celebrity status and no wish to leave the security of her home. The pressure began to take its toll and during the next four years she tried to avoid the publicity and began to withdraw into herself. She became ill and weak and eventually Tuberculosis was diagnosed. Grace died in her father’s arms on 20th October 1842. She was 26 years old.

The funeral took place 4 days later at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, where a memorial was constructed in 1844 containing a life-size figure of Grace. This weathered so badly it was rebuilt a few years later. There is also a stained-glass window in the north transept commemorating Grace’s life with female figures representing Charity (holding a heart), Fortitude (an oar) and Hope (an anchor). A plain stone monument to her was erected in 1848 in St Cuthbert’s Chapel on Great Farne Island, but Grace was actually buried in a simple, modest grave in St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, which she shares with her father, mother, brother and sister. 


Grace’s name lives on and is still synonymous with incredible bravery. Songs and poems were written about her, artists depicted her daring rescue and there is a museum at Bambugh dedicated to her achievements and the seafaring life of the region. Grace and her father demonstrated the same qualities as RNLI crews do today and a lifeboat named “Grace Darling” currently operates from Seahouses. To mark the anniversary of the Grace Darling story, 12 volunteers from Seahouses have restored a 100-year-old former lifeboat, rowed it out to the scene of the rescue and laid a commemorative wreath at sea.

No one would argue that her fame was not well deserved, but at what cost? It is ironical that even in the early 19th century, media coverage could wreck lives. Who knows how long Grace might have lived and what else she may have achieved if she had not been subjected to the stresses of the media of the day and the mania of a public who would not allow a young girl the privacy she craved. Her memory nevertheless lives on and is an inspiration to all who learn about her selfless bravery.

Author – Dee White

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