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Grace Darling Museum

The Grace Darling Museum tells the story of heroine Grace Darling, who helped to rescue survivors of the SS Forfarshire.

With the establishment of Longstone Lighthouse, the number of shipwrecks was greatly reduced. William Darling kept the light, aided by one of his sons as Assistant, with other members of the family taking on other duties. His youngest son, Assistant William Brookes Darling had gone ashore to nearby Seahouses at the time of the Longstone’s most famous incident.

On 6th September 1838, the steamer SS Forfarshire had left Hull bound for Dundee. In the early hours of the 7th, having already passed the Farnes, she suffered a boiler failure during a fierce gale.  The wind and tide dragged the stricken vessel back towards the Farnes.  On the Longstone, William Darling was tending the light with his wife and daughter Grace. Earlier in the night father and daughter had hauled the lighthouse boat to safety and securely lashed it down knowing a rough night was ahead.

Grace, whose bedroom was high in the lighthouse tower, was woken by the howling wind.  At first light in the morning, she noticed a vessel in distress on the Harcar Rocks. Grace immediately alerted her father, who via his telescope could see a large vessel grounded, and a few survivors clinging to the rocks. 

Grace Darling
Grace Darling
Photo by Thomas Musgrave Joy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Darlings had rescued other unfortunate mariners over the preceding years.  But with William ashore, a rescue looked impossible.  However, Grace knew how to handle a boat.  So their small boat, or coble, was launched, and Grace and her father rowed out in mountainous seas to the Big Harcar.

Though the Big Harcar was only about half a mile from the lighthouse, William and Grace had to row around the Clove Car first, a total distance to the vessel of about a mile.  On reaching the scene William Darling managed to clamber onto the rocks to reach the survivors.  Grace battled to hold her position in the coble.  William found a number of survivors on the rock, including one woman—too many to take back in the boat. He decided to take the woman, an injured man, and three other members of the Forfarshire’s crew back to the lighthouse. 

After a frantic battle through the surf, they made it back to the Longstone. Grace helped her mother tend to the survivors, while William and the two most able crew members returned to the Big Harcar. In total nine survivors were rescued by the Darlings, nine others got away in a lifeboat and were later picked up by another vessel.  Forty-three of the crew lost their lives.

Longstone Lighthouse
Longstone Lighthouse

Shortly after William returned for the second time, the North Sunderland Lifeboat approached from Seahouses.  Those on the lifeboat included Grace’s brother William Brookes Darling.  However, by the time they got to the scene, there was little they could do. With the storm still raging, it was three days before the survivors of the Forfarshire could be taken ashore.

Grace Darling was a shy girl who enjoyed the solitude that the reef offered.  But over the coming weeks, her part in the rescue was recounted across the nation.  She involuntarily became Britain’s first national heroine. She received many bravery awards, including a gold medal from the British Humane Society.

As Grace’s fame spread, offers for work, travel, and even marriage came in.  She was asked to go to London to appear on the stage and recount the daring rescue.  Grace, however, preferred the safety of home, and the lighthouse. That said, during the summer months scores of visitors would take boat trips out to the Longstone to meet her.

The entry in the lighthouse log concerning the rescue reads:

The steam-boat Forfarshire, 400 tons, sailed from Hull for Dundee on the 6th at midnight. When off Berwick, her boilers became so leaky as to render the engines useless. Captain Humble then bore away from Shields; blowing a strong gale, north, with thick fog. About 4 am on the 7th the vessel struck the west point of Harker’s rock, and in 15 minutes broke through the paddle axe, and drowned 43 persons; nine having previously left in their own boat, and were picked up by a Montrose vessel, and carried to Shields, and nine others held on by the wreck and were rescued by the Darlings. The cargo consisted of superfine cloths, hardware, soap, boilerplate, and spinning gear.

Lighthouse in the museum

Grace’s part in the rescue is not recorded.  This was not a snub to his favourite daughter.  It merely acknowledged that the family worked as a team. They all took a hand in running the lighthouse and sharing the chores, whether that was looking after the light, or something more dramatic. 

Sadly Grace Darling became ill over the summer of 1842, and was taken ashore to Bamburgh. She was eventually diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis and died on 24th October, at the age of 26. Grace had also been born in Bamburgh, and the Northumbrian town is proud of its heroine.

Since 1938, the centenary of the rescue, Bamburgh has been home to the Grace Darling Museum. The museum is now run by the RNLI, and to mark the 170th anniversary of the rescue the museum was refurbished and expanded in 2008.  Still taking pride of place in the museum is the coble that Grace and her father used in the famous rescue. 

Grace Darling Memorial Bamburgh

In the graveyard of St. Aidan’s Church, across the road from the Grace Darling Museum, is an impressive Memorial, which stands close to her own grave.  Further testimonials can be found within the church itself.

Close to the museum is Horsley Cottage, where Grace was born.  In the centre of the village is the house formerly owned by her sister Thomasin, where she died.  Both houses are marked by commemorative plaques.