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Grace Darling: a gallant rescue, 1838

A dramatic, well-documented rescue takes place on the Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, 7 September, 1838. The rescue of just nine survivors by lighthouse-keeper, William Darling and his daughter Grace had a profound effect on maritime rescue facilities around the coasts of the UK. Young Grace’s legacy helped galvanise support for the RNLI, founded in 1824, and continuing to save lives at sea today. 

The 400 ton paddle steamship ‘Forfarshire’ was on passage from Hull to Dundee carrying 60 crew and passengers. She struck rocks near the Longstone Lighthouse, in a northerly gale when her engines failed. Breaking in two almost immediately, many passengers were drowned as the aft section quickly sank. Eight crew and a passenger managed to scramble into a ship’s lifeboat and were picked up by a Montrose sloop on passage to Sheilds. Nine other survivors scrambled onto Harcar Rock where they were spotted by Grace Darling, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, in the early morning light.  William Darling, his wife Thomasin and daughter Grace were at the lighthouse. Believing the weather to be too bad for the Sunderland lifeboat to launch, William decided to attempt a rescue, with only Grace to help him. They put out in the 21ft coble, rowing through heavy seas for over a mile to avoid the rocky islands and outcrops. Returning a second time, Grace and her father rescued nine survivors and brought them back to the lighthouse for safety and sustenance.

The story of the lifeboatmen is not always told. Due to the strong gale and wild seas, William Robson, coxswain of the North Sunderland Lifeboat (Seahouses), launched a local coble instead of the lifeboat, believing it to be better suited amongst the rocks. Unaware of the rescue attempt by Grace and William Darling, six local men, James Robson, Michael Robson, Thomas Cuthbertson, William Swan, Robert Knox, and William Darling (the lighthouse keeper’s son, ashore with the fishing fleet) set out in the storm. Approaching Harcar Rock, they saw no survivors and sought refuge at the nearby Longstone Lighthouse, fearing a safe return to Seahouses in the wild sea state. On reaching the lighthouse, they found the accommodation to be full, and the crew had to take shelter in a derelict building for next two days.

News of the gallant rescue by Grace and William Darling quickly spread throughout the country, and their bravery was duly recognized, the RNLI awarded them both silver gallantry medals. They also received the Gold Medallion from the Royal Human Society, while Grace additionally received silver medals from the Glasgow Humane Society and the Edinburgh and Leith Humane Society. Sadly, four years later, this national heroine died of tuberculosis on October 20th, 1842. Her actions focused the nation on the issues of maritime rescue, serving as catalyst for the development of new safer Lifeboats, and development of the Lifeboat Service around the coastline of the United Kingdom. Her memorial stands in the churchyard of St Aidan’s Parish Church, Bamburgh, just a mile or so north of Seahouses, opposite the house where she was born.