Grace Horsley Darling: Heroine of the Seas

The heroine of the seas, Grace Horsley Darling, was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. She was born in the month of November on the 24th in 1815, a few months after the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. Grace was twenty-four when fate came knocking at her door. It happened at daybreak on 7 September 1838. At the time, Grace was asleep when a noise awoke her. She then looked out her bedroom window from the Longstone lighthouse, and in the distance, she noticed the wreckage of the Forfarshire.

Grace Horsley Darling

Grace Horsley Darling. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Forfarshire was a 300-ton steamer that left Hull heading to Dundee with 62 people aboard. However, before it left, Mrs. Dawson, a passenger in steerage, realized something was not right. She thought about leaving the ship but did not. In the end, her concerns were justified because once at sea the steamer struggled. The boiler was not working properly, and when the storm began, the ship was left to mercy of the tempestuous sea.

Ultimately, the Forfarshire hit the rocks and broke in half. One half sank during the night and the other half landed on a rocky island known as Big Harcar. The remaining survivors on the island were those passengers who had been in the bow section. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Grace ran to notify her father, William Darling.

Grace Horsley Darling and Her Father Traveling to Big Harcar, Public Domain

Grace and her father traveling to Big Harcar. Public domain.

Darling and 23-year-old Grace recognized that the seas were much too rough to send the lifeboat that was located at Seahouses (then North Sunderland). They decided they would go themselves and take a rowboat, at great risk to themselves. Moreover, because the foamy seas were so violent and dangerous, Grace and her father realized they needed to take a route that was about a mile longer and keep to the lee side of the island.

Grace Horsley Darling and Her Father Saving Mrs. Dawson and Three Other Survivors, Public Domain

Grace and her father saving Mrs. Dawson and three other survivors. Public domain.

When Grace Horsley Darling and her father reached Big Harcar, there were nine survivors, eight men and a woman. The female survivor was Mrs. Dawson, whose two young children had died during the night. The rowboat that Darling and his daughter had brought could not accommodate everyone, so only four men and Mrs. Dawson climbed into the rowboat. As they did, Grace kept the boat steady in the water, and then they rowed back to the lighthouse.

Grace Darling rowing. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Once at the lighthouse, Grace remained behind and her father and three of the survivors from the Forfarshire rowed to the island. There they recovered the four remaining men. In the meantime, as Darling and the survivors were returning to the lighthouse, the lifeboat at Seahouses headed towards the wrecked Forfarshire. On board the lifeboat was Grace’s brother, William Brooks Darling.

When the lifeboat with Grace’s brother at last reached the Forfarshire all the rescuers found was the dead body of a Vicar and Dawson’s two dead children. Then because the seas remained dangerous, the lifeboat rowed to the lighthouse instead of returning to Seahouses. Once everyone was back at the lighthouse, the storm became worse and everyone remained stuck at the lighthouse for the next three days.

During that time, Grace Horsley Darling, who was described as having “an oval face, with handsome features and a sweet expression,”[1] learned that an additional eight crew members and one passenger had managed to escape aboard a lifeboat that they released from the Forfarshire’s stern before it sank. They were then picked up by a passing Montrose sloop and taken to South Shields that same evening.

Grace Horsley Darling

Frontispiece image of Grace Horsley Darling from “Grace Darling – Heroine of the Farne Islands” by Eva Hope. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Soon after the news broke about the incident the Morning Chronicle reported:

“We have this week paid a second visit to the wreck, which is lying in much the same state that it was, only somewhat more gutted by the occasional dashing of the billows against its timber and planks. Upon this occasion, owing to the low tide, the extent of the rock was much more conspicuous than before. The starboard side of the ill-fated vessel lies chock up against a sort of shelf on the rock, the deck slightly inclining. When she went in two her, the sea, of course, instantly rushed into her engine-room, which was then exposed, at the end where the breach had taken place, to all the fury of the raging billows; the fore-cabinet, situated beyond the engine-room, was soon laid open also, and gutted of all its furniture and fittings. Here is was that the poor woman, Mrs. Dawson, and her two children were surrounded by the merciless element. They were lying on the floor, it is believed, the anxious mother clasping a child in each arm, when the billows broke through the frail partition that now alone sheltered them from their fury, fiercely struck them, ever and anon, with its briny surge.”[2]

When readers learned about Grace’s involvement in the rescue, they quickly turned her into a legendary heroine. Fans everywhere sent requests for locks of her hair, and these requests were so regular and so frequent, her father thought she might go bald complying with them. Her image also began to appear on postcards, trinkets, pottery, tea-caddies, and packaging. One advertisement related to Grace’s daring feat was the “celebrated picture” produced Henry Perlee Parker that showed the interior of the Longstone Lighthouse with Grace and her father welcoming survivors. At the time, it was being displayed at Currie and Bowman, whose advertisement read:

“Grace Darling and the Wreck of the Forfarshire. Currie and Bowman beg to announce that they have just Published a highly-finished Mezzotint Engraving, by the celebrated landscape Engraver, David Lucas, representing the HEROIC ACTION of GRACE DARLING and her FATHER, who, at the imminent Risk of their lives, rescued the Survivors of the Wreck of the Forfarshire Steam Packet, form perishing on the Rocks of the Fern Islands, on the 7th September 1838; from a Picture painted on the Spot, by J.W. Carmichael, and H.P. Parker. Prints 21s; Proofs 42s; Before Letters 63s. Newcastle, 33, Collingwood-Street, July 27, 1839.”[3]

Interior of Longstone Lighthouse with Grace and her father welcoming survivors created by David Lewis after Henry Perlee Parker. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Grace and her father were also lauded in all sorts of ways that including receiving gifts and gold medals from the Duke of Northumberland. Currie and Bowman also released a mezzotint engraving that celebrated their heroic act. The Windsor and Eton Express also noted of the heroes:

“Mr. Darling is a very fine military-looking old man, and his countenance indicates a high degree of warm-heartedness and energy of character. Grace does not belie her name, for she is indeed a sweet, modest, and unassuming girl, and appears to be unconscious of having done anything great or noble.”[4]

Grace Horsley Darling was also individually lauded and praised. For example, Queen Victoria wrote to her commending her conduct and awarding her a generous £50 for her heroism. Grace also received a silver medal, other monetary rewards that totaled over £700, and the Duchess of Northumberland gave her a fine shawl. Several fictionalized versions of her story were also published. They gave rise to syrupy versions, rewrote her past to make her more appealing and more legendary, and invented a woman that fascinated the public. In fact, one fictionalized version titled ‘Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles’ by Jerrold Vernon written in 1839 gave rise to the legend of the “girl with windswept hair.”

In 1842, Grace became ill while visiting the mainland. The Duchess of Northumberland heard about her illness and took her to Alnwick Castle so that she could receive personalized care and benefit from the Duchess’s own private physician. Unfortunately, Grace’s condition continued to decline. Before she died, at her request, she was transported to her birthplace in Bamburgh. She died there on 20 October 1842 at the age of twenty-six from tuberculosis. She was buried in a modest grave in St. Aidan’s churchyard.

Monument to Grace Darling, Public Domain

Monument to Grace Darling. Author’s collection.

After Grace’s death, interest in her legendary accomplishments intensified and her legend grew. A monument was constructed in St. Aidan’s churchyard to honor her. It was sculpted by Mr. C. Raymond Smith and its architect was a Mr. Anthony Salvin. One paper described it stating:

“[It is] an altar tomb, upon which is the recumbent figure of Grace Darling, sculptured in fine Portland stone, and surmounted by a Gothic canopy, with six side and two end arches. The figure is represented lying on a platted straw mattress, bearing an oar, such as is peculiar to the Northumberland coast; and beneath the folds of the mattress, at the head, is introduced a kind of sea-weed, which is very abundant in the district.”[5]

Another memorial to Grace Horsley Darling was also constructed in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel, on Fern Island. To this memorial was appended the following words from written by the famous English poet William Wordsworth in 1843 and titled, “Grace Darling.”

“Pious and pure, modest, and yet so brave;
Though young, so wise — though meek, so resolute.”[6]


  • [1] “Grace Darling,” in Carlisle Journal, 24 November 1838, p. 7.
  • [2] “Wreck of the Forfarshire Steamer,” in Morning Chronicle, 28 September 1838, p. 4.
  • [3] “Grace Darling,” in Newcastle Journal, 27 July 1839, p. 2.
  • [4] “Grace Darling,” in Windsor and Eton Express, 15 December 1838, p. 2.
  • [5] The Illustrated London News, 1848, p. 43.
  • [6] Notes and Queries, 1884, p. 191.

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