Grace Horsley Darling was born in her grandfather’s cottage in Bamburgh on November 24th 1815. Whilst others were fighting the battle of Waterloo, the Darling family dedicated their lives to the safety of seafarers as lighthouse keepers.
The childhood of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter was a tough introduction into the harsh realities of life and forced children of both genders to become very resilient and self-reliant from a very early age.
Aged only threes weeks, Grace was moved from the cottage to Brownsman Island where she took up home in the small lighthouse keeper’s cottage, being raised and educated by her parents Thomasin and William. William, was an expert in maritime safety and knew the position of his current lighthouse on Brownsman Island was far from ideal. The family trait of determination really shone through him and after several years of campaigning he dream of a taller, more prominent lighthouse on Longstone Island became a reality and the family moved there.
In Grace Darling’s day, the North Sea was the motorway of its time, and traffic levels were substantially greater than those of today and ships passing the islands off the Northumbrian coast used a channel called the Fairway, between Inner Farne and the British mainland. Advances in ship design however, required masters to take their vessels further out to sea, though many came to ground on the rocks of the islands by not going out far enough. This was to be the fate of the SS Forfarshire, a luxurious 132 ft steamer owned by the Dundee and Hull Steam Packet Company.
However, the Forfarshire’s boiler started leaking on 6th September 1838 which resulted in her engines failing, leaving the steamer drifting at the mercy of the prevailing tides. Realising the peril the ship and all aboard were facing, the Captain, John Humble, ordered the sails to be set in an attempt to get the ship to Inner Farne’s more sheltered waters. However, it is believed a simple navigation error meant Longstone Lighthouse was thought to be the Inner Farne Lighthouse. The fate of the vessel was sealed, when it ran aground on Big Harcar rock.
Grace was on duty at Longstone Lighthouse and believing the storm was too severe to allow the North Sunderland lifeboat to launch, decided to set out in the coble with her father to attempt a rescue of the survivors. Rowing for nearly a mile in very rough waters, Grace and her father found nine survivors when they arrived at the rock. However, to take all of the survivors in one trip would overload and endanger the coble. So Grace and her father took five of the survivors back on the first trip, before her father returned a second time to pickup the rest.
Reluctant to step into the limelight, Grace found herself a celebrity of the day, receiving an award of £50 from Queen Victoria herself, as well as a Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society.
The RNLI Grace Darling Museum can be found on Radcliffe Road in the Bamburgh, Northumberland. Just over the road from the monument erected in her name in the graveyard of St Aidan’s Church.