William Brooks Darling
The Seahouses Lifeboat Launches
The wreck of the steamer Forfarshire lay on Big Harcar Rock, within a mile of Longstone Lighthouse. On the mainland in the early morning it had been spotted from Bamburgh Castle walls and reported to Robert Smeddle. He immediately raced on horseback to alert the lifeboat crew, three miles away at Seahouses. As soon as news of the shipwreck reached them, seven lifeboatmen, including the Darlings’ youngest son, put out from Seahouses harbour. It was around 7.30am. The swell of sea was severe and they chose to take out an ordinary fishing coble, it being more manageable. They rowed for five miles, head-on into the teeth of the storm, unaware of the major role about to be played by the Darlings. With a superhuman effort they battled non-stop for two and a half hours to reach the wreckage of the Forfarshire at around 10.00am.
The Seahouses men found no survivors. A scene of devastation was all around and they saw the bodies of Reverend Robb and the two children on the rock. Unknown to them, William Darling had made his second successful trip, barely half an hour earlier. Their own efforts had been fruitless. Due to the continuing storm conditions they were unable to return home to the mainland and quickly decided to continue on to Longstone, to take refuge in the Darlings’ lighthouse.
With great difficulty the lifeboatmen reached Longstone and hauled their boat up onto the rocks. Exhausted, they climbed the steps, entered the kitchen and then stood, speechless. They had expected to find only Grace and her parents inside; instead there were twelve people staring back at them. William and Grace, equally shocked, thought it impossible for the Seahouses boat to launch a rescue in such conditions. A moment of shared disbelief followed, as everyone worked out what had happened - the boat had put out from Seahouses; perhaps more remarkably, William and Grace alone, in their coble, had rescued nine survivors.
The men learned with astonishment the role Grace had played in all this. William Brooks must have been thrilled at the outstanding bravery of his sister and been proud of the determination shown by his father in achieving such a rescue. After the initial acclaim however came the realisation for the seven men that having expected to eat, get warm and find rest in the lighthouse there was actually no room for them. There were now nineteen people and only seven ‘apartments’ as Grace called them.
The seven lifeboat men had to find shelter outside as best they could in dilapidated outbuildings that flooded at every high tide. Nursing nine survivors, some sick and injured, Mrs Darling and Grace did all they could to clothe and feed their sixteen visitors but provisions were running out and the storm continued. It was three days before anyone could leave Longstone. If it had been possible to do so there is no doubt the Seahouses men would have returned home earlier, at the first opportunity. Their families, having not heard from them, must have feared the worst.
Their forced delay in leaving Longstone confirms the extent of the conditions. Some commentators have played down the Darlings’ role in the rescue, saying the storm was slight and that Grace, left on her own, steadied the boat at Harcar Rocks with ease. They are clearly wrong. When the lifeboatmen eventually launched their boat on day three, the state of the sea was still so rough it proved impossible for them to approach Seahouses and their homes; they had to continue further down the coast to land at Beadnell, where they stayed the night.
The three Robson brothers, with Robert Knox, William Brooks Darling, his friend William Swan and Thomas Cuthbertson had undertaken a most perilous journey in the hope of saving lives. Undoubtedly they would have reached the survivors on Harcar Rock and saved them. The Darlings happened to beat them to it and received the accolades. The brave actions of the Seahouses men went uncredited and unrewarded and their deed has been largely forgotten ever since. Quietly and without fuss they returned to their families and their ordinary lives. Life for the Darlings would never be the same again.