Donald Campbell exhibition, Leatherhead Museum
The Bluebird model
An exhibition on the life of Donald Campbell launches Leatherhead Museum into Spring. Alice Dunn writes about Surrey's best loved speed racer
An exhibition on the life of Surrey born speed record breaker Donald Campbell, holder of 13 world speed records in the 1920s and 30s in the famous Bluebird cars and boats, launches Leatherhead Museum into Spring.
The museum explores the rise of Campbell as a speed record holder and his tragic death behind the wheel in a record attempt when he was just 45 years old. The exhibition also features a model of the Bluebird-Proteus CN7 donated by Brooklands Museum in Weybridge.
Donald Campbell is the only person to hold both the land speed record and the water speed record simultaneously when he reached a breathtaking 298mph. On 17th July 1964 he reached 403.1 mph on the salt flats of Lake Eyre in Australia, capturing the land speed record for a four-wheeled car.
Donald Campbell was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1921 at his family home, which is now Canbury School, and spent most of his childhood at Povey Cross near Horley in Surrey. He volunteered for the RAF in the beginning of World War II with the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot as his father, Malcolm, had been in World War I. Unfortunately he was found unable to serve due to the after-effects of rheumatic fever in childhood. Instead he spent the war working as a ferry pilot and engineer, skills which would prove to be beneficial later on in his burgeoning career.
Sir Malcolm Campbell was the first in the family to set speed records, although he was reportedly a distant father as he was often abroad travelling to participate in races.
Interestingly when Malcolm began racing cars in 1910 he named his car Bluebird after the play The Bluebird by Maurice Maeterlinck, which was running at the Haymarket Theatre at the time.
When Sir Malcolm Campbell died after a series of heart attacks aged 63, it appeared to be the turning point in Donald’s interests, as he was motivated to follow in his father’s footsteps when he heard that people in America were trying to break Malcolm’s records. Six months after his father’s death Donald attempted to break Sir Malcolm’s water speed record at Coniston Water, but narrowly missed.
Donald Campbell seemed to live his life in the fast lane too; he married three times. In 1957 he was awarded a CBE for his record breaking and in recognition of the renown he brought to the UK during his record attempts abroad.
He died at Coniston Water in 1967 as the Bluebird lifted out of the water, somersaulted and broke apart as it hit the water. His last words were chillingly preserved by Paul Evans, who was in charge of radio communications. Campbell reported the accident as: “The water’s dark green and I can’t see a bloody thing. Hallo the bow is up. I’m going. I’m on my back. I’m gone.”
The exhibition ponders the questions Donald’s career raised: what is the worth of personal and national glory? Is speed a goal worth risking everything for? Are racers and record-breakers heroes worth celebrating?
It wasn’t until 2001 when the Bluebird K7 and Donald Campbell’s body were recovered through the efforts of The Bluebird Project, a group of divers, historians and engineers, who eventually raised the wreck from the water where it broke up and sank.
His legacy and memory is present in Surrey. Donald lived at Priors Ford in Leatherhead during the last years of his life, which is now Campbell Court.
Donald Campbell: His Life and Legacy is at Leatherhead Museum until August. Visit leatherheadlocalhistory.org.uk
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