The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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Who Was Donald Campbell?

Ruskin Museum Coniston - Donald Campbell

Born in 1921, the Speed Ace Donald Campbell was Britain’s blue-eyed boy of World Water Speed Record-breaking in the 1950s. His matinee idol looks brought glamour to the grey years of post-War austerity. His Bluebird K7 encapsulated the technological promise of the Festival of Britain. And between 1955 and 1959 he broke the outright World Water Speed Record on six separate occasions, four of them on Coniston Water. These were the golden years, when Fortune smiled on him.

In the 1960s, he turned his attention to the World Land Speed Record, once monopolised by his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell. Fickle Fortune’s smileĀ  turned to a scowl. A disastrous crash at Utah in 1960 had a permanent effect on his physical and mental health. It was 1964, in Australia, before he was able to make another - and this time successful - run, which he followed by raising the World Water Speed Record to 276 . 33 mph on Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia, on the very last day of the year. He may have cut it fine, but he remains the only person to have broken both the World Land and World Water Speed Records in the same year. The achievement is unlikely to be equalled.

1964 should have been his annus mirabilis, but, somehow, his unique and inimitable double success was never registered by the British public.

The press had turned against him, finding land and water speed records distinctly passe now Man was in space. And, anyway, the Americans had gone much faster on land in rocket-powered vehicles, even if they weren’t wheel-driven : the rules were too old-fashioned, too nonsensical. Campbell was an anachronism .

Bluebird K7 - One Last Time

He didn’t believe that. He determined to play the Americans at their own game by developing a supersonic, rocket-powered but wheel-driven car, which would not only take the World Land Speed Record to a new level but also demonstrate that British technology and expertise remained unbeatable. To raise the necessary sponsorship and financial backing, he decided to use his trusty old war-horse, Bluebird K7, one last time, to take the World Water Speed Record past 300 mph.

In spite of warnings from the ever faithful and indispensable Leo Villa, engineer and mechanic extraordinaire - that he must remember that K7 was already eleven years old, that she had been designed for an ultimate top speed of 250 mph, that she had broken an unheard-of seven World Records to date, that she carried many St Crispin’s Day scars - Donald Campbell resolved to return again to Coniston, the scene of so many past triumphs.

Bluebird K7 - The Final Run

He came in November 1966. He brought a re-engined K7, more powerful on paper, theoretically capable of 300 mph on water. Technical problems with the boat and the terrible weather led some people to believe there was a jinx on him. The press lost patience, preferred to insinuate that he had lost his nerve, rather than admit they were tired of being cold and wet, and sadistically racked up the pressure. Campbell found hidden depths of moral courage. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The footage of the crash is one of the most iconic and easily recognised film sequences of the 20th century. On 4 January 1967, Donald Campbell and Bluebird K7 were catapulted into legend. The Speed Ace died in the sublimely tragic manner of the hero of a Greek drama, or of an Icelandic saga, and instantaneously joined that select band of folk heroes which includes Captain Scott and Edmund Hillary, who set out to achieve the seemingly impossible.

What was Donald Campbell’s pedigree?

The ‘Racing Campbells’ Dynasty begins with Malcolm Campbell [1885 -1948], a man who, from boyhood, had always been obsessed by anything associated with speed. In his early youth, he had won the London to Land’s End motor-cycle trial, and, with the ambition to capture the ‘Triple Crown’ of World Speed Records on Land , Air and Water, had constructed his own plane, [based on Bleriot’s], which crashed disastrously within a few yards of its hair-raising take-off. He served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, realised that the Air Speed Record had passed from the civilian to the military sphere, and thereafter devoted his full attention to the pursuit of motor-racing, and, inevitably, the World Land Speed Record. Pre-1914, he had served a comprehensive apprenticeship at Brooklands and other motor-racing circuits; post-1918, and especially after Leo Villa’s arrival in the workshop in 1921, Malcolm Campbell’s hugely successful racing career transformed his name into a by-word for speed.

He took his first World Land Speed Record on Pendine Sands, Wales, in September 1924, at a speed of 146.16 mph. He broke the record nine times in all, the final record falling in September 1935, when he achieved 301.13 mph on Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. He decided to retire, but got bored, and exchanged elements, breaking the World Water Speed Record twice in September 1937 on Lake Maggiore, at 126 . 33 and 129.5 mph in Blue Bird K3, and extending it to 130.93 mph on Lake Hallwyl, Switzerland, the following year.

A fortnight before the outbreak of the Second World War, Sir Malcolm broke his final record, on Coniston Water, in his new Blue Bird K4, with a speed of 141 . 74 mph on 19 August 1939. Thus began the connection with Coniston Water.

He realised that the great technical advance of the War years was the development of the jet engine. K4 was converted to jet propulsion, and Sir Malcolm returned to Coniston in 1947 in a bid to raise his record. He was a sick man, unable to control a by now ungainly and cumbersome boat somewhat derisively nick-named ‘The Coniston Slipper’.

He died in his bed, at home, as the clocks struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 1948. He didn’t leave either his record-breaking Blue Bird car or boat to his only son, Donald. But Donald had inherited the speed gene from his father.


Donald Campbell: A Coniston Hero - Learning Resource

A new downloadable learning resource for schools, aimed at KS1 & KS2, but also useful for KS3 & KS4


Lego Bluebird K7

A fabulous Lego Bluebird K7 Made by Ben, aged 11

A fabulous Lego Bluebird K7 made by Ben, aged 11, over the weekend following a family visit to The Ruskin Museum on 7th April 2016.