The Wreck of the Forfarshire – a short story

I missed Eric Alagan’s challenge of the Lighthouse but when I read his “Lighthouse” postings the story of Grace Darling came to mind. The story is already immortalized by paintings, in particular one by Thomas Brooks in which she is shown with wind-swept hair at the oars of a tiny boat She is also dedicated in a poem penned by William Wordsworth These immortalizing dedications confirm the image and compel me to tell the tale to those of you who may be unfamiliar with it. I’ve kept it historically accurate while giving it a twist of my own. I hope that you enjoy it.

In 1838 the luxury Forfarshire, a two-year old passenger steamship, was making regular voyages along the east coast of the United Kingdom between Hull, Yorkshire and Dundee, Scotland. In good weather it was a pleasant, even luxurious trip, much preferable to the three hundred and thirty mile land journey by stage coach. On September 7th she was heading north when she was beset by a storm with strong winds and heavy swell which put pressure on an already weakened boiler. The boiler sprang a leak and the engines had to be turned off. This action left the ship adrift, without power, in lethal North Sea weather.

At this point Captain Humble decided to seek shelter at the Farne Island bird sanctuary. These are a group of rocky protrusions and small islands 1 ½ to 4 ¾ miles off the coast of Northumberland. Their treacherous rocks are a menace to shipping and so they are peppered with lighthouses but are otherwise an inhabited bird sanctuary. The outermost islands are Big Harcar and Longstone. The floundering ship saw the Longstone lighthouse, but, as it was unable to steer, hit rocky Big Harcar about a mile away from the lighthouse. The impact was so hard that the Forfarshire slowly split into two and sank. In almost ignominious haste, eight crew members and one passenger managed to escape in a lifeboat leaving the other fifty three on board to the fate of the storm. Nine of those left on deck managed to jump off the sinking ship onto the rock which they had hit. The rest of those onboard, including Captain Humble and his wife, went down with the ship.

In the early hours that morning William Darling, the Longstone lighthouse keeper was woken by his favorite daughter Grace. She shook his body violently and talked in excited tones raising her voice to be heard above the noise of the storm.

“Father, father, there is a ship on Big Harcar. I saw it in the lightning.”

“Eh, what?” he grunted as he emerged from sleep and looked into her anxious face. “Now, be calm my poppet, be calm.” He always used his pet endearment of “poppet” when he spoke to her even though, at twenty-two, she was a gown woman. He lovingly put his arm around her. He could see her agitation increasing as she brushed away tears and spoke, “It’s not a dream there is a wreck. It is awful out there – I know that people are dying. We must help. Please…..” She looked directly into his eyes.

William could never say no to Grace. He arose and followed her. She was a homely girl and as he followed he watched her form silhouetted by her candle. The flickering light combined with his love made her appear ethereal, almost ghostly. They climbed the lighthouse tower to her room and he looked through her telescope. Yes, when the lightning flashed you could see what looked like parts of a ship on the rock. He placated her in a soothing voice, “There is nothing we can do until dawn. We must wait until dawn.”

“But now father, now?” she questioned.

“Now?” he repeated her question as he thought. “Now all we can do is wait for dawn. We can’t do anything in the dark. You watch here and I shall go up to the lantern room to make sure that everything is operational.”

William climbed up the final flight. Even when the elements raged he felt secure in this lonely structure and loved his job as lighthouse keeper. In1826 he had been promoted from assistant on Brownsman Island, one of the inner Farne Islands, to this, his own lighthouse. He was happy to live here with his wife Thomasin, two youngest children, Grace and her younger brother and, of course, the birds.

He and Grace loved the birds, sometimes they would take a father-daughter day off and board their coble and go fishing. The coble is a twenty-one foot open fishing boat designed for four. It has a flat bottom and high bow. The traditional design was developed to cope with the stormy weather and choppy North Sea. Although ostensively fishing, they generally spent most of their day together bird watching and enjoying another’s presence. The tiny Islands house thousands of guillemots, puffins, eider ducks and some twenty-two regular bird types in the almost three hundred types which have been spotted over the years.

When dawn came at 7:00 am William and Grace could distinctly see moving human forms on Big Harcar. William quickly assessed that the weather was too threatening for a lifeboat to make it from Seahouses some five miles off. He instinctively knew that the lives of those persons on Harcar were at his mercy. The storm terrified him and the thought of braving it in a little coble made him sick with alarm. Grace was calm and appeared indifferent for their own safety.

“We must go. We must go now.” She said, as her voice rose in anxious concern.

William found the “we” ominous. His son was visiting on shore and his wife much too frail and so he knew that the ‘we’ was he and Grace. While he didn’t want to expose his daughter to such danger he was realistic enough to know that he couldn’t manage the coble alone. He knew his daughter well; knew that she would never forgive him if they didn’t attempt a rescue. Grace detected his innermost thoughts.

“I can row. I row well. I row mother over to visit my sister all the time. I am strong we must do this.”

William acquiesced and they packed the coble with blankets, said goodbye to Thomasin who, twelve years older than William at sixty-five was so frail and distort, and upset by the danger which they were about to face, that she fainted as they left. They rowed hard taking a circuitous route, making the one mile trip longer as they attempted to gain some shelter from the islands. When they arrived they found nine people and three dead bodies on Big Harcar. William jumped onto the rock to assess whom they should transport. There was no dissention among the shivering survivors who quickly determined that Mrs. Dawson, the only woman in their midst should be the first to board the coble. She held her two dead children. It took some persuading to get her to release their bodies. Soon William, Grace, Mrs. Dawson and four others, two of whom were injured, were on their way back to the lighthouse. Upon arrival William the two uninjured rescued crew members went back a second time to bring the remaining four survivors back to safety.

During a later lull in the storm a crew of seven fishermen, including William’s youngest son William Brooks Darling set out in a lifeboat from Seahouses and made it to the shipwreck to find dead bodies and debris. By then the weather had worsened further and so they also sought safety in the lighthouse. This made nineteen people in the lighthouse.

For the next three days the nineteen made do together. Grace gave her bed to the grieving Mrs. Dawson. William empathized with her grief – to lose one child was bad enough but to lose two was unthinkable. He discovered that they were a boy and girl of five and seven. As he watched her silent weeping he thought how grateful he was that Grace was safe. He privately asked himself how he could have allowed her to risk her life, unable to conceptualize how he would have reacted if he had lost her. The three days were hard for they had few clothes and what they did have were wet. William watched his darling daughter accept a woman’s role working, with mild assistance from her mother, to tend to the sick and attempt to feed the crowd.

After the storm abated and everyone left William expected their lives on Longstone to return to normal. Here he was sadly mistaken for, after a brief witch-hunt focusing on the abandoning of the ship by eight crew members in the only lifeboat launched, the press found a more compelling story in the heroic rescue by a young woman of twenty-two. The nation went wild with admiration for their Grace Darling as they visualized how she had willingly braved the swell, wind and tempestuous North Sea storm to affect the rescue of the Forfarshire survivors.

Overnight Grace Darling’s name was on every tongue. Initially William endorsed Grace’s fame: he even downplayed his role in the rescue. Queen Victoria, the nation’s young queen of nineteen, sent a gift of £50, equivalent to about a third of William’s annual salary. They were both awarded several medals, including an honorary silver medal by the Glasgow Humane Society, silver Medals for Gallantry from the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, and gold medals from the Royal Humane Society. Grace’s fame was such that everyone wanted to become involved as exemplified by The Duke of Northumberland creating a charitable “moderate annuity” for them.

The publicity and accolades might have been fine had Grace been different but William soon realized that she hated notoriety. He saw that being a celebrity made his quiet daughter sick and nervous. But by then he could do nothing to stem the tide, nothing to protect her. The Longstone lighthouse was no longer a retreat, twelve different artists made it there to paint her portrait. Wordsworth and many others wrote poems singing her praises. One poem called her the “Grace of Womanhood and Darling of Mankind.”

William watched her fill requests for locks of her hair until she barely had any left on her head. He read some of her replies – her words ringing in his head reflecting her modesty and common sense, affirming and reaffirming his love. “You requested me to let you know whether I felt pleasure to be out in a rough sea,” she wrote, “which I can assure you there is none…….I have had occasion to be in the boat with my Father for want of better help, but never at the saving of lives before, and I pray God may never be again.”

Sometimes Grace would beg William to restore the peace they had known before the Forfarshire. In response he would take her out in the coble and they would spend the day bird-watching. One of their favorite places was a spot on one of the islands where they could watch the puffins with their penguin –like demeanor and red mating beaks. Grace could sit for hours on the short sea grass and watch them bustling in and out of their burrows and diving into the ocean. Her other pleasure was to sit in the boat while it bobbed up and down in front of one of the craggy islands where the guillemots swarmed in their thousands. Here the bird colony became an organism in its own right and they would watch the birds nudging each other on and off the rocks. One got the impression that there were so many of them that when one landed another fell off to dive headlong into the foamy seas.

Despite their father daughter trips Grace’s decline continued. In April 1842 she rowed to Bamburgh to visit her sister, another of her great pleasures. Shortly after her return to Longstone she fell ill. She died of tuberculosis in her father’s arms on October 20th, 1842, four years after the wreck of the Forfarshire – and a few days short of her twenty-sixth birthday.

William, now fifty-seven, never recovered from Grace’s death. He knew Mrs. Dawson’s anguish – knew how empty life could become. He lived on with his sadness for another twenty-three years. Often he would take his regrets and anguish out in the coble and shout questions into the wind.

“Why didn’t I protect her better? Why didn’t I shield her from the publicity?”

“Why did the Forfarshire have to come? Couldn’t I have hidden Grace’s telescope and saved her?”

In his heart William knew that what he had done was right and so after his outbursts he would calm down. Then he would go and lie among the puffins or linger before the guillemots. In the solitude of the birds, he could feel her essence fondling his heart calmly assuaging his regrets to give him peace. It was a hermit’s or lighthouse keeper’s peace, the peace of solitude and communion with something greater than one man’s life.