On Women's History Month we look at the famous story of the heroic Grace Darling. To begin we're looking at the wreck that started the chain of events.
On a cold September night in 1838 the paddle-steamer Forfashire was struggling up the east coast of England from Hull on route to Dundee in Scotland. The heavy winds, rain and waves battered the stricken vessel. As the vessel came into danger the quick thinking actions of a young woman would cause a sensation that gripped the nation, inspiring a generation and bringing unprecedented fame.
The Forfarshire was built and registered at Dundee in 1836 and measured132ft long, 20ft broad amidships, and with a midships depth of hold of nearly15 ft. She was altogether quite an elegant vessel, and represented the new steam age, not the most luxurious of vessels but said to be both ‘splendid and convenient’.
She was commanded by Captain John Humble, who had a lot of experience serving on east coast colliers and the Forfarshire regularly plied the east coast between Dundee and Hull with passengers and freight.
Accommodation was offered to passengers in three categories. There were twenty ‘cabin' passengers charged £1. 5s. each for the single journey; nineteen 'steerage' and 'deck' passengers who were charged up to 15s, ‘deck’ accommodation was specifically restricted to 'common soldiers and sailors' and cost only 7s. 6d and finally there was the twenty two crew. Besides Captain Humble and his wife, there were 61 people on board.
On her previous voyage the Forfarshire had experienced boiler trouble, so before leaving Hull a local firm of marine engineers were paid to close a small leak in the centre boiler.
However, as she began her trip up to Dundee the starboard boiler began to leak. Alan Stewart, the chief engineer organised two pumps to be set up to remove water from the hull and refill the leaking boiler. This was in vain, the leak was so bad that the Forfarshire lost power and speed.
Instead of putting the ship in for repairs at the nearest harbour, Captain Humble pushed on and passengers were pressed into service at the pumps, as water leaked uncontrollably from the boiler into the hold.
As the ship battered up the Northumberland coast, the boilers finally gave way and the engine stopped. With the engines out, sails were set on the two masts, usually reserved for emergencies or auxiliary power on these early steam vessels.
As the weather deteriorated and without power, Captain Humble turned the Forfarshire back to the south, maybe to try to find safety behind the Farne Islands off Northumberland.
The Farne Islands are an outcrop of around 20 rocky islands rising up out of the water just over a mile from the mainland. The number of islands depends on the tide, making it a particularly dangerous place for ships. Between 1740 and 1837 there were 42 ships recorded as having been wrecked at the Farne Islands.
Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the provision and maintenance of navigational aids was aware of the dangerous nature of the site and installed two lighthouses on the islands. The first, the Inner Farne Lighthouse was built on the innermost island in 1811. The second was built on Longstone Island, the most seaward island, in 1826.
As the Forfarshire headed towards the islands on that stormy night it is possible that Captain Humble mistook the two lighthouses and thought the ship was safely between the mainland and the innermost island. Exactly what Captain Humble intended will never been known he was swept over board and drowned and the ship ran aground on the rocks on Big Harcar island.
Tomorrow we introduce the heroine of the story - Grace Darling