A reluctant media Darling

002bThis is St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland. It has a history interesting enough to merit several posts all of its own.

Opposite this church is a row of little cottages and it is in one of these cottages that our heroine for today was born.

graceGrace Darling, born in November 1815, was the seventh of nine children born to William and Thomasin Darling. William was a lighthouse keeper, just like his grandfather had been, and Grace and her brothers and sister were brought up on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland.

Lighthouse keeping was a family affair and Grace often took her turn at keeping watch. It was this that led to her becoming one of the most reluctant media darlings (excuse the pun) ever.

In the early years of the Victorian age, railways were still being developed and ships provided the quickest mode of transport up and down the coast of Britain.

The SS Forfarshire had been built in 1834 at a cost of £20,000. She was a paddle steamer with luxury accommodation 132ft long and 20ft wide.

On September 5 1838 the Forfarshire was in Hull. It loaded cargo and passengers for a journey to Dundee. There were supposedly around 40 passengers. I say supposedly because passenger records did not exist then. Around 22 crew, the captain, John Humble, and his wife were also aboard and the ship sailed at around 6.30pm.

Over the next 24 hours there were a number of problems with a boiler which involved the crew having to carry out repairs at sea. Some felt the ship ought to head for Newcastle instead of soldiering on but Capt Humble assured them nothing was wrong.

The SS Forfarshire passed the Farne Islands and was almost to Berwick when the weather changed dramatically. They had already had to put to partial sail because of the boiler problems and the turn in the weather was unwelcome to say the least.

The boilers, overworked in the storm, failed completely and as the ship got to St Abb’s Head at about 1am on the morning of Friday September 7, with no engines Capt Humble made the decision to turn around and seek shelter.

He spotted the light of a lighthouse and headed in that direction, thinking it to be the lighthouse of Inner Farne. But it was Longstone, not Inner Farne, he saw and he brought the ship crashing on to the rocky islands that surrounded it.



This is Longstone. It looks calm and serene on a sunny day in July but in a raging storm in the middle of the night there are probably few less hospitable places to be than among the scores of little rocky islands miles of the Northumberland coast.

As the Forfarshire crashed, several crew and one passenger launched a lifeboat. Whether they had the intention to try and rescue other passengers who knows, as it was the lifeboat drifted away from the wreck and out of danger.

The wrecked ship broke in two. The back, together with all the cargo, the steerage passengers, the captain and his wife, sunk and was lost. Some drowned in their cabins and some were swept overboard.

The front of the ship stuck on the rocks and a few passengers managed to cling to the deck.

After a while John Tulloch, ship’s carpenter, and passenger Daniel Donovan climbed off the ship and on to the rock and encouraged the others to do the same.

This included passenger Mrs Sarah Dawson and her two children. They also brought the body of the Reverend Robb, found dead with his hands clasped in prayer in the engine room, from the ship.

At Longstone Lighthouse only Grace and her parents were in residence, most of the siblings had moved away and the one remaining brother had gone fishing to the mainland.

Grace and her father had spotted the ship and thought all were lost but as day began to break they realised there were survivors on the island.

The two of them took a boat, a local design known as a coble, and rowed through the raging storm against the swell of the current more than a mile around dangerous rocks.

grace rowing

They got the coble close enough for her dad to jump off and she single-handedly held the boat in place while the rescue began. There were more survivors than they had thought so they took an injured man and Mrs Dawson as well as two crewmen, including John Tulloch, aboard and left the others with Daniel Donovan, the body of the Reverend and the bodies of both of Mrs Dawson’s children who had died in the night on the island.

They rowed back to Longstone where Grace took care of the injured man and Mrs Dawson while her father and the crewmen rowed back to get the other survivors.

In daylight, when the lifeboat from Seahouses on the mainland was scrambled, led by William, Grace’s 19-year-old brother who had gone fishing, the crew found no survivors on the rock, just the bodies of the Dawson children and the Reverend and the wreck of the Forfarshire. The lifeboatmen did not realise that Grace and her father had beaten them to it.

When word got out about the daring rescue, Grace Darling found herself in the unwanted spotlight of the media, which she hated.

Newspapers clamored for her story, people sent her money and the image makers of the day arrived, not to take her photograph but to paint her portrait…is that more arduous than today’s paparazzi? Who knows, but Grace hated it. There was even an agent, a spin doctor called Robert Smeddle, who helped fuel the flames of the media frenzy.

Queen Victoria sent her £50, people wrote wanting a lock of her hair, or a piece of her clothing or worse, they turned up in boats at Longstone with the same demands. Tales of her heroism were published as far afield as Japan, Australia and the USA with little mention of her father’s efforts.

It was the story of a young woman who risked her own life to save those of nine strangers.

The Duke of Northumberland took her under his wing and became her guardian in an effort to protect her from it all but Grace hid herself away more and more and eventually fell ill.

She was sent to Alnwick to stay with cousins and then inland to Wooler where the air was thought to be purer, before eventually being brought back to Bamburgh where she died of tuberculosis on October 20 1842. She was 26.

There are two memorials to Grace Darling at the church of St Aidan in Bamburgh.



This effigy inside the church originally stood under a canopy outside the church but was brought inside when it was in danger of becoming damaged.



This is the replacement under the canopy and nearby Grace is buried in a grave with her parents.

Opposite the church is the Grace Darling Museum, run by the RNLI. It is small but well kept and free to enter and it contains the coble that Grace and her father used in their rescue.

Was she the first media superstar? Well there can’t have been too many prior to that. She certainly caught the attention of the world and the media attention was as unwelcome to her as it is now to celebrities who feature on the news pages.

The main difference is that Grace Darling had performed an act of heroism and the media attention was uninvited and unwelcome, whereas many who feature in our newspapers today have done nothing of merit and have actively courted publicity and fame … until they don’t like it any more and scream press intrusion.

In Grace’s case the press, thanks in part to the spin doctor Smeddle, did seem to be intrusive and they really should have left the poor woman alone to carry on with her life.

And I say that as a journalist of more than 30 years.



  1. Really enjoyed that,,,I didn’t know that she was only 26 when she died, thats sad. Thank you for a lovely interest post :)

    • Thank you. The museum is really interesting and then you go out to the islands and realise what a titanic effort the rescue must have been

  2. Anny said:

    Fascinating read Dory – thank you. I also hadn’t realised her age, it seems to make it all even more poignant.

  3. It is an interesting dilemma, the privacy of the individual versus the inspiration given to thousands from her story in the press. Even today we are told we need real role models and, as we can’t find them, the press invents them from the barest notoriety and feeds the demand it creates with greater and greater amounts of drivel – the trouble is, those they elevate believe their press.

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