If you attended primary school in England, you will no doubt have been taught about the heroism of Grace Darling when the SS Forfarshire wrecked on the Farne Islands. You may be surprised to learn there is far more to the story of Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire than initially meets the eye.
In the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution was ramping up in the UK and the need for better cargo and passenger transport was increasing as industry grew. The SS Forfarshire was a ship laid down to do just that, bridge an important route between Hull and Dundee.
Let’s explore the fascinating story of Grace Darling and The SS Forfarshire.
The SS Forfarshire
In 1834, the SS Forfarshire was completed at a cost of £20,000 at the time, or £3.3 million today. It is a misconception that the SS Forfarshire was a relatively insignificant ship and while there were plenty of other vessels of the time comparable to the boat, it was still considered a prestigious boat.
Certainly, the cost of laying down the Forfarshire should give some indication how important she was to her owner, Dundee and Hull Steam Packet Company.
She was designed with short comfortable journeys in mind with a modest 9 knot speed and three ticket classes – first, second and deck class. Powered by two steam engines and capable of operating under sail, she combined marine technology of yesteryear with modern advances.
I have been unable to find her total cargo or passenger capacity, however it is likely the day she wrecked she only had minimal passengers onboard with 61 souls onboard including crew.
Service History of the SS Forfarshire
The ship had a very short operational lifetime between being launched and wrecking. In fact, her service lifetime was even shorter with usage from 7th May 1836 to 7th September 1838.
Initially she was intended to be put into service immediately upon launch however she had issues with her steam engines and was problematic from her outset. In the two years preceding the accident she had been withdrawn from service for repairs and immediately before she set sail on her fateful voyage she was docked for maintenance on her boilers.
Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire’s Final Voyage
Having had her boilers repaired she was put back into service and with a cargo of cotton and 61 people on board she set sail from Hull on her standard route to Dundee.
At full steam she would be expected to complete the voyage in under 24 hours.
Captain Humble left Hull and set her to full steam ahead, working both steam engines to their maximum capacity. As she rounded Flamborough head some hours later her water pumps failed which reduced the amount of steam output from the engines.
The journey time became significantly delayed at this reduced speed and although this was likely frustrating for Captain Humble, the ship was well provisioned and prepared for a longer voyage. It was a contingency at the time to provision a ship for the time it would take under sail rather than steam.
Boiler Problems Exacerbated
The reduced steam output slowed the SS Forfarshire to a crawl, and she was travelling only slightly faster than she would of under sail. Captain Humble decided to keep operating the engines in the hope he could reach his destination a little sooner.
By 10pm on the night of September 5th, 1838, Forfarshire’s engines were in dire condition with the boilers flooded and now leaking into the bilges. Once the boilers had been overloaded in this way, the engines failed completely.
By now the weather situation had deteriorated as well with gale force winds now battering the stricken ship. Despite the grave condition Forfarshire was in, Captain Humble raised sail and attempted to continue to Dundee rather than putting her safely into port.
It should be noted that although out to see, the Hull to Dundee route is a coastal voyage that tracks the coastline of England and Scotland. This meant there were plenty of ports along route to safely divert to.
SS Forfarshire’s engines failed at St Abbs Head in Scotland and under sail, Captain Humble probably felt he could make Dundee by late morning. The weather had other ideas and the wind direction was not suitable for making good progress to Dundee.
Turning into the Wind and Seeking Sanctuary
The dark night set in and heavy winds and rain battered the ship as the storm kicked up. Making little progress forward, Captain Humble finally realising his situation decided to turn the ship into the wind and head back down south.
It is unclear whether he was hoping to head for a port or if he was stubbornly trying to ride out the storm. Regardless, with the wind at the back of the sails the ship quickly made progress and before long they were within eyeshot of the Farne Islands.
Captain Humble decided to use the largest island as cover from the wind and put the ship in behind Big Harcar. This decision would prove deadly as the Farne Islands have dangerous rocky outcrops and with the ship in full sail it crashed into Big Harcar with tremendous force.
The Wreck of SS Forfarshire
To say the situation had deteriorated is a grave understatement and the ship was now in extreme peril. The rocks it had dashed against had penetrated the hull and the stormy waves crashing around the stricken ship began to tear chunks of the structure away. Both the stern quarterdeck and cabins were completely torn from the boat and the fore sections were pinned mercilessly on the rocks.
Dereliction of Duty – Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire
At this point cowardice took hold and 8 crew members and an unnamed passenger launched a lifeboat and abandoned ship, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves in the chaos.
The crew who had launched the lifeboat were saved the next morning by a passing schooner.
Back at the SS Forfarshire, panic had erupted, passengers clung to railings as the storm set about fully dismantling the ship. In the distance the light from Longstone Lighthouse swept across the fierce sea and Grace Darling and her father caught sight as the events unfolded.
Built in 1826, Longstone Lighthouse had been in service for just over a decade at the time of the accident. Originally called Outer Farne Lighthouse it was used to monitor the treacherous rocks around the Outer Farne Islands and warn ships in transit.
Robert Darling (Grace’s grandfather) had been a lighthouse keeper and passed his trade to his son William Darling (Grace’s father). Both father and son had overseen a nearby lighthouse on Brownsman Island and William transferred to Longstone Lighthouse in 1826 upon its completion.
Longstone Lighthouse was better equipped and much more habitable than the Old Lighthouse at Brownsman, but it was more remote and required William to row back and forth between the islands to source food.
Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire – The Heroic Rescue
Perhaps apocryphal (for reasons I will explain later), Grace Darling is said to have been the one who spotted the wreck of the Forfarshire and begged her father William to set out and help her rescue any survivors.
While it is unquestionable that Grace Darling was heroic in her efforts that night, there seems to be a slanted reporting of the incident solely in her favour without too much effort to herald William’s bravery.
In fact, William Darling risked his life twice that night by rowing back to the Forfarshire to save more people.
Upon seeing the wreck, it is said Grace convinced her father to put the rowing boat to sea because the weather would prevent a lifeboat being launched by nearby Seahouses. Again, this may well be accurate, but I suspect William (as was his duty) took the initiative to launch the boat and asked Grace for her assistance in holding the boat steady.
Together they rowed for a mile to where the wreck lay, and Grace held the boat as William retrieved survivors from the stricken ship. The first rescue saved four men and a woman named Sarah Dawson.
Dawson’s plight is particularly tragic as she clung to her dead children (James and Matilda) who were 7 and 5 at the time of their death.
Returning to Longstone Lighthouse, Grace set about helping the survivors and without question would have provided as much comfort as she could to Sarah Dawson. Three of the rescued men and William then put the rowing boat out again to rescue the four remaining survivors.
In total, the efforts of Grace and William Darling saved nine people that night. And without such effort those lives would have been lost as the storm grew.
The SS Forfarshire Wreckage
Depending on which source you read, there were either sixty-one or sixty-two people on board the Forfarshire that fateful night.
Of which, nine (eight crew) had escaped in the lifeboat and a further nine were saved by Grace and William Darling.
Tragically, anyone at the back of the ship at the time of the wreck was lost and both children’s bodies and that of a pastor was retrieved from the fore of the ship when the storm subsided.
In total, forty-three or forty-four died.
What Happened to Captain John Humble of the SS Forfarshire?
In researching this article, I have come across two records for master mariners from North Shields, England who were likely father and son.
It is unclear which of the two captained the SS Forfarshire, though with John Humble Sr being elderly at the time of the wreck it was likely his son.
Despite his poor decision making which ultimately led to the demise of the SS Forfarshire, Captain John Humble didn’t abandon ship along with his cowardly crew. Instead, he remained at the fore of his ship as waves crashed in around him.
Both he and his wife clung desperately to the rails before they were dashed from the deck and washed out to sea. The inquest concluding both drowned.
The Two Inquests – Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire Wreck
Following the tragic wreckage there were two inquests. The first occurred shortly afterwards and was unfavourable to both Captain Humble and the shipping company who operated the SS Forfarshire.
Of particular note was the findings of negligence relating to rectifying existing problems with the engines and Captain Humbles ineptitude in the face of increasingly dangerous conditions.
The shipping company unhappy with the findings of the first inquest petitioned for a second inquest where they could present their own expert testimony. Their expert played down the severity of the storm and instead shifted focus onto Captain John Humble’s decision making – effectively blaming him for the entire wreck.
While it is fair to say Captain Humble was partially responsible and had he taken more prudent action sooner the wreck would not have occurred, the fact remains the ship was faulty from outset. The engines had numerous problems over the short history the SS Forfarshire had operated and even if the ship hadn’t sunk that night, she was destined to a tragic end sooner or later.
The Enduring Legacy of Grace Darling and SS Forfarshire
Following the successful rescue attempt, both Grace and William Darling were commended for their bravery and awarded with the Silver Medal for Bravery by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
Grace became something of a cause celebre with national and regional newspapers picking up the story and celebrating her brave actions.
Queen Victoria donated £50 to Grace Darling and money flooded in from other well-wishers totalling £700. Williams annual salary was £70 at the time so it is safe to say Grace came into a considerable fortune.
She received marriage proposals and her once quiet life was transformed overnight by the media interest. Which such intense fame, the Duke of Northumberland helped her found the Grace Darling trust and he donated personal gifts of his own to the Darling family.
Grace Darling was never to marry though and although she enjoyed the spotlight of her heroism, she died young at only 26 years old. Overcome by consumption (tuberculosis) she died close to Alnwick castle before being buried at Bamburgh (where she was born).
Today her grave stands a lasting and prominent monument to her achievement in St Aiden’s Church which also has a Grace Darling stained-glass window in her honour.
Such was Grace Darling’s fame that she completely eclipsed the actions of her William who was often simply cited in media reports as ‘Grace Darling’s father’. William Darling was without question the true hero that night and while we shouldn’t diminish Grace’s role in the rescue, we shouldn’t forget that William Darling put his life in jeopardy twice to save the survivors of SS Forfarshire.
William Darling was an older man at the time of the Forfarshire rescue (52) making his efforts even more commendable.
Despite the family’s newfound wealth, William Darling continued in his role as a lighthouse keeper until 1860 and notably rescued many others stranded at sea.
He retired to Bamburgh and died there aged 79, buried alongside the Darling Family in St Aiden’s Churchyard.