At Hull, in Yorkshire, on Wednesday 5 September 1838, the Steamship Forfarshire was loaded with passengers and a full cargo, bound for Dundee. There were around forty cabin and deck passengers. The exact number is unknown as there were no passenger lists; fares were collected onboard. There was a total of twenty two crew members, plus Captain John Humble, who had brought his wife along for the trip.
Whilst still docked at Hull, the ship's boilers had been inspected and a repair made. For some awaiting their first sea trip or first trip on a paddle steamer, this caused a little concern.
The ship sailed from Hull at 6.30pm, reaching the open sea at Spurn Point in some three hours. During the night, in heavy seas off Flamborough Head, one of the boilers sprang a leak. The crew made repairs that involved emptying the boiler, a noisy process that could not be disguised. This no doubt disturbed the sleeping cabin passengers and deck passengers and some began to question the crew’s actions.
As day broke on Thursday 6 September, there were more problems with the boilers. There was much talk and speculation; some now felt the Forfarshire was unsafe and should head for North Shields or Newcastle. The captain assured passengers there was nothing to be concerned about.
During the early evening they continued their journey north, passing the Farne Islands close to the Northumberland coastline, but problems persisted and the crew were forced to raise some sails to assist passage. By 11.00pm the ship had progressed beyond Berwick-upon-Tweed, but the weather quickly changed, with gale-force winds from the north battering the Forfarshire. The extra pressure exerted on the boilers caused more leaks. It was not possible to get sufficient steam to make headway. The passengers' earlier fears were confirmed when the boilers failed and the captain had to stop the engines. In storm-force conditions the Forfarshire began to drift south.
At 1.00am off St Abbs Head on Friday 7 September and with just a makeshift sail Captain Humble made the decision to turn back and seek shelter near the Farne Islands. But the storm increased. The dark night, the high seas and the lashing rain made it difficult to navigate; a changing tidal stream encountered off Berwick made it increasingly difficult to steer a course. Added to this the ship’s paddle-boxes were a hindrance in such conditions.
At last, Captain Humble could make out a light – the lighthouse of the Inner Farne. He hoped to find some little shelter and anchor there until the storm passed. Keeping the lighthouse to his port bow he headed towards the Fairway, the stretch of water between Inner Farne and the coast, but he had miscalculated. The light he had seen had been that of Longstone, further out to sea and surrounded by many dangerous rocks – and the Forfarshire struck them. At 4.00am it hit the Big Harcar Rock, about one mile from the Longstone Light.
The crew frantically lowered the quarter boat and eight of them jumped in. One cabin passenger, Ruthven Ritchie, had managed to leap into the boat, carrying his trousers over his arm! Whatever the intentions of the crew in the boat, and whether or not they began to search for survivors, the strong current through the channel of Piper Gut carried their small boat away from the wreck and into the open sea, to safety.
The Forfarshire lurched and struck the rock again, splitting the vessel in two. The front half became wedged on the rock; the aft, with the cargo and all below deck was lost to the sea. The passengers would have drowned in their cabins, including Captain Humble and his wife. Most of the others were swept overboard.
A few had survived on the deck, clinging on to what remained of the Forfarshire. The storm continued but the tide was falling, exposing more rock and causing the battered remains of the ship to become unstable. At this point John Tulloch, the ship’s carpenter, and Daniel Donovan, a steerage passenger, decided to jump onto the rock itself and encouraged the few other survivors to join them, including Mrs Sarah Dawson, with her two children.
Anxiously, they helped each other onto the rock but not before they noticed another passenger, the Reverend Robb, crouched in the engine room, hands clasped in a final act of prayer. They approached him. He was dead. From his bodily position it appeared he had not tried to save himself; he had resigned himself to his fate. They decided to save his body from the sea and dragged him onto the rock.
Barely able to stand and facing the teeth of the gale, the few survivors saw the light of the nearby Longstone Lighthouse.