Donald Campbell

Donald Campbell bigraphy, stories - Speed record holder

Donald Campbell : biography

21 March 1921 – 04 January 1961

Donald Malcolm Campbell, CBE (23 March 1921 – 4 January 1967) was a British speed record breaker who broke eight absolute world speed records on water and on land in the 1950s and 1960s. He remains the only person to set both world land and water speed records in the same year (1964).

Family and personal life

Donald Campbell was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, the son of Malcolm, later Sir Malcolm Campbell, holder of 13 world speed records in the 1920s and 30s in the famous Bluebird cars and boats, and his second wife, Dorothy Evelyn née Whittall.GRO Register of Births: JUN 1921 2a 815 KINGSTON – Donald M. Campbell, mmn = Whittall This background would shape Donald Campbell’s entire character, and indeed his life.

Campbell attended St Peter’s School, Seaford and Uppingham School. At the outbreak of World War II he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, but was unable to serve because of a case of childhood rheumatic fever. He joined Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd in West Thurrock, where he became a maintenance engineer. Subsequently, he was a shareholder in a small engineering company called Kine engineering, producing machine tools. Following his father’s death on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1948 and aided by Malcolm’s chief engineer, Leo Villa, the younger Campbell strove to set speed records first on water and then land.

He married three times: to Daphne Harvey in 1945, producing daughter Georgina (Gina) Campbell, born on the 19th September 1946; to Dorothy McKegg in 1952; and to Tonia Bern in December 1958, which lasted until his death in 1967. Campbell was intensely superstitious, hating the colour green, the number thirteen, and believing nothing good ever happened on a Friday. He apparently also had some interest in the paranormal, which he nurtured as a member of the Ghost Club. – "A Brief History" section

Campbell loved life and certainly lived it well. Despite being a qualified engineer, a successful businessman, a multiple record-breaker in his own right and a highly effective advocate of his own cause, Campbell was a restless man and seemed driven to emulate, if not surpass, his father’s achievements. He was generally light-hearted and was generally, at least until his 1960 crash at the Bonneville salt flats, optimistic in his outlook. Behind the public façade of speed king, he was a complex character – proud and vulnerable, increasingly anxious about his place in the world. He had effectively given himself an impossible task – carrying on his father’s role in an age when logic must have told him everything was against it. Campbell was a great patriot. The way he viewed it, his achievements were not for himself, but for the greater good of Britain.Donald Campbell: The Man Behind The Mask, David Tremayne, Bantam Press, London, 2004.


Between them, Donald Campbell and his father had set eleven speed records on water and ten on land.

The story of Donald Campbell’s last attempt at the water speed record on Coniston Water was told in the BBC television film Across the Lake in 1988, with Anthony Hopkins as Donald. Nine years earlier, Robert Hardy had played Donald’s father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, in the BBC2 Playhouse television drama "Speed King" – both were written by Roger Milner and produced by Innes Lloyd. In 2003, the BBC showed a documentary reconstruction of Campbell’s fateful water-speed record attempt in an episode of Days That Shook the World. It featured a mixture of modern reconstruction and original film footage. All of the original colour clips were taken from a film capturing the event, Campbell at Coniston by John Lomax, a local amateur filmmaker from Wallasey, England. Lomax’s film won awards worldwide in the late 1960s for recording the final weeks of Campbell’s life.

In 1956, he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews for the seventh episode of the new television show This Is Your Life.

An English Heritage blue plaque commemorates Campbell and his father at Canbury School, Kingston Hill, Kingston upon Thames, where they lived.