SS Forfarshire

About the SS Forfarshire

One of the main advantages of using steam as a boat power source is that it allows ships to sail regardless of the wind, which allows for a more regular schedule. Due to this, in the 1830s, steamboats were regularly used as passenger boats ferrying people and goods along British and Scottish channels. One such passenger boat was the SS Forfarshire, which ferried passengers and merchant cargo between Dundee and Hull in the United Kingdom. 

This is an advertisement from the Hull Newspaper in 1836 advertising the new ship offering transport between Hull and Dundee: 

Figure 1: Newspaper Clipping Advertising for SS Forfarshire Transport (1836)

The SS Forfarshire included cabins and ‘sleeping apartments’, and passengers were provided food and beverages served by the steward of the ship. The Ladies’ State Room also included a specific female attendant to assist the passengers. Several levels of accommodations were offered, including the Chief Cabin, which catered to the wealthiest passengers and had the most extravagant amenities. Next was the second cabin, then the deck level. Oftentimes the upper decks were assumed to be safer, as they allowed passengers a better chance of escaping in case the ship sunk.1 The boilers of steamships were prone to springing leaks when a rivet popped out, although these were easily managed and often passengers were none the wiser. 

A boiler leak is exactly what brought about the downfall of the SS Forfarshire The SS Forfarshire continued to transport passengers back and forth for several years until it sank on September 7, 1838. The Forfarshire was captained by John Humble and traveled from Hull to Dundee. The ship was carrying sixty-three passengers along with a cargo of bale goods and sheet iron, the material used for repairing and building new boilers.2 The journey appeared to be progressing as planned, and the SS Forfarshire was steaming along its course. As they approached the Farne Islands, the weather became rapidly worse, as swells increased with waves so high it felt like they would steal the sailors right off the side of the ship, winds whistled at incredible speeds, and thunder crackled.3 The Forfarshire could see the lights of the Longstone Lighthouse when suddenly the ship hit the jagged rocks surrounding the Farne Islands and began to sink! Many passengers were lost, as the wreck occurred in the middle of the night and many of them were sleeping, although some escaped via the lifeboats. Newspapers covered the sinkage thoroughly, and the event gained immense national and international attention due to the heroism of Grace Darling. 

Quickly after the news broke, representatives from the company such as George Cammell that owned the Forfarshire issued a rebuttal article, arguing that the news was exaggerating the events and creating an unfair narrative.4

This article declared that the boilers were checked and declared fit for sailing before the ship left port in Dundee, which was a routine occurrence. Cammell also agreed that boilers were often liable to losing a rivet, which would cause a small leak but not the sinking of an entire ship. He also explained that the type of boiler used typically lasted between 3-4 years and the particular set aboard the Forfarshire were 2 years and 4 months old, which reduced the likelihood of their failure. Another aspect he pushed was the fact that the steel plates to make boilers were being carried as routine cargo to dispense at ports along the route, not aboard to specifically repair the on-board boilers. However, a distinct and fully confident conclusion was close to impossible since the ship and equipment were unable to be examined following the wreck.

Figure 2: Letter to the Editor Following Coverage of SS Forfarshire Sinking (1838)

“… that the newspaper press in gernal has been led to view this painful shipwreck, not so much as an unavoidable accident, as attributable to the insufficient state of the steamer’s boilers when she was put to sea… [h]aving now laid before you the foregoing statement of facts, with the accomplanying depositions, I would ask if it is likely the Company would peril the lives of themselves and others, not to mention their property, by sending to sea an unseaworthy vessel, as has been so grossly represented”

– William Just (manager of the Dundee and Hull Steam-Packet Company) in a letter published in the Hull Packet; and East Riding Times on September 28, 1838.
An image of the United Kingdom, marked with key points of the SS Forfarshire story and voyage in several colored flags (2024)
Figure 3: Map of the SS Forfarshire Voyage and Wreck Site (2024)

Dundee and (Kingston upon) Hull are where the SS Forfarshire departed from. Scarborough is another port city where the ship sometimes made stops along its journey to pick up passengers and additional cargo. Big Harcar/the shipwreck icon is the general location of where the SS Forfarshire sunk. 6

Figure 4: Key to Locations on Map

According to firsthand accounts and newspaper reports of the time, the SS Forfarshire sunk in/around the Farne Islands. The labeled shipwreck icon in this map is an estimated location based on Marianne Farningham’s book about Grace Darling which includes a very detailed description of the wreck5.

Here is a link to access the full map to explore yourself!

Figure 5: Zoomed-in Map of Approximate SS Forfarshire Wreck Site (2024)

If you’re interested in Grace Darling, here are two songs about her!

The first song's lyrics share her story. The chorus sings:
"And she pulled away o’er the rolling seas
Over the waters wide
“Help, help!” she could hear the cry
Of the shipwrecked crew.
But Grace had an English heart
The raging storm she braved
She pulled away mid the dashing spray
And the crew she saved."

The second song is a love song of sorts about Grace Darling, including many metaphors about being safe from the storm and the idea of ‘saving grace’ both metaphorically and Grace literally saving lives!

Elsie Newburg
Elsie is a first-year at Carleton College from Saint Paul, Minnesota. She plans to major in biology on the premed track to eventually become a physical therapist. Her specialty on the project was locating primary sources, the shipwreck itself and working with WordPress. Her favorite marine animal is a sea otter!
Austin Flamm
Austin is a first-year at Carleton College. He is from Columbus, Ohio. He plans on majoring in History. He focused on shipwrecks in Victorian popular culture. His favorite marine animal is the beaver.
Alice Lin
Alice is a first-year at Carleton College from South Dakota. She plans to possibly double major in biology and chemistry on the pre-med track. She focused on Grace Darling and the shipwreck’s heroine story. Her favorite marine animal is the beluga whale.
Reed Schubert
Reed is a third-year at Carleton College from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is pursuing a major in Computer Science with a minor in Cognitive Science. He focused on the historical context and safety regulations of steamboats for the project. His favorite marine animal is the sea turtle.


  1. Wohlberg, Jennifer. “Steamboat Passenger Ferries in Nineteenth-Century London: A Cultural Survey.” Masters Theses, 2003.
  2. Farningham, Marianne. Grace Darling, the Heroine of the Farne Islands: Her Life and Its Lessons. 1875. Reprint, The Walter Scott Publishing Co., LTD, 2007.
  3. Farningham, Marianne
  4. “Forfarshire Steamer- Steam Navigation Sec.,” The Hull Packet; and East Riding Times, September 28, 1838.
  5. Farningham, Marianne
  6. Elsie Newburg, SS Forfarshire Map (Google My Maps, February 2024),