Donald Malcolm Campbell (19211967), by Peter Keen, 1956
Campbell, Donald Malcolm (19211967), land and water speed record-holder, was born on 23 March 1921 at Canbury, Kingston Hill, Surrey, the only son and younger child of , racing motorist, and his second wife, Dorothy Evelyn, daughter of Major William Whittall. He left Uppingham School in 1937, following rheumatic fever, to serve with a Lloyd's underwriting firm. Invalided from the RAF in 1940, having been rejected for flying training, he spent a frustrating war as a special constable. In the late 1940s he invested in the Kine Engineering Company of Redhill, where he became managing director and fifty per cent shareholder. Always involved in his father's ventures, he decided after Sir Malcolm's death in 1948 to defend his water title, set in 1939 at 141.74 m.p.h., using his father's boat. Only after unsuccessful attempts in 1949, 1950, and 1951 did he seek and find funds for a new boat, called, like all his cars and boats, Bluebird. With this all-metal hydroplane, powered by two Metro-Vickers Beryll jet engines, he regained the record on Ullswater on 23 July 1955 at 202.32, raising this on six successive occasions, ultimately to 276.33 m.p.h. on Lake Dumbleyoung, Australia, on 31 December 1964.
In September 1960 Campbell turned to the land record. Driving a Bluebird, newly designed by Kenneth and Lewis Norris, using a Bristol-Siddeley Proteus jet engine, he sustained a hairline skull fracture in a crash at 365 m.p.h. while assaulting the land record of 394.2 m.p.h., set by John Cobb in 1947. Three years later, another new Bluebird was prevented from going for the record by floods at Lake Eyre, Australia, a delay which brought much criticism of Campbell from his backers, led by Sir Alfred Owen. But the following July Campbell returned to cover the measured kilometre at an average speed of 403.1 m.p.h. for the two runs, becoming the first person to take a shaft-driven vehicle over 400 m.p.h. and to break both land and water speed records in the same year. The next year the American Craig Breedlove took a jet-propelled car over the distance at 600 m.p.h. At the time of his death Campbell was unsuccessfully seeking backers for a jet-driven car to go through the sound barrier.
Campbell now turned back to the water. In 1966 a more powerful Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus jet engine with a 5000 lb thrust was fitted to Bluebird, intended to take the record over 300 m.p.h. After two months of frustrating delay, caused by bad weather and technical difficulties which reduced public interest and renewed public criticism, Campbell finally made his attempt on Coniston on 4 January 1967. On the outward run he achieved 297 m.p.h. Returning even faster to get his average over 300 m.p.h., Campbell's fears were confirmed: at this speed the bow lifted, and the boat somersaulted and plunged into the lake. The remains of Campbell's boat were located in 2000 and removed from the water in March 2001. His body was recovered from the lake in May 2001 and, after a funeral at St Andrew's Church, Coniston, was buried in the parish churchyard. In October 2002 an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.
Though a trained engineer, an enthusiastic and effective advocate of his own cause, courageous and deeply patriotic, Campbell was not an easy man. He seemed driven to defend and challenge his father's achievement, but his enthusiasms were too boyish and his concerns overshadowed by the public shift in interest to the achievements of space scientists and astronauts. Campbell's crusade became uninteresting and irrelevant to the New World and advertisers were finding more rewarding ventures for sponsorship. He lived into a world which had outgrown him. He was appointed CBE in 1957.
Campbell married three times: on 8 September 1945, Daphne Margaret Harvey Harvey (b. 1923/4), daughter of William Calvert, engineer (marriage dissolved 1952); in 1952, Dorothy, daughter of Amos McKegg of Palmerston North, New Zealand (marriage dissolved 1957); in 1958, Antoinette Maria (Tonia Bern, the cabaret singer), daughter of Antoine Joseph Bern of Belgium. His third wife survived him. He had a daughter, Georgina, born in 1946.
H. G. Pitt, rev.
The Times (5 Jan 1967) · D. Campbell and A. W. Mitchell, Into the water barrier (1955) · A. Knowles, With Campbell at Coniston (1967) · A. Knowles and D. Campbell, Donald Campbell C.B.E. (1969) · D. A. de S. Young-James, Donald Campbell: an informal biography (1968) · L. Villa and T. Gray, The record-breakers: Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell (1969) · b. cert. · m. cert. [Daphne Margaret Harvey Harvey] · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1967) · The Times (26 Oct 2002)
BFINA, documentary footage
BFINA, news footage
BFINA, Record breakers, 1955
BFINA, This week, 4 Jan 1967
BL NSA, documentary recording
photographs, c.19271967, Hult. Arch. · P. Keen, photograph, 1956, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in Knowles and Campbell, Donald Campbell · portrait, NPG
Wealth at death
£38,066: probate, 15 June 1967, CGPLA Eng. & Wales