29 November 2010

English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell

Father and Son Set Ten Land Speed Records and Eleven on Water.

An English Heritage blue plaque is to be erected to Sir Malcolm Campbell (1885-1948) and Donald Campbell (1921-1967), the father and son who between them set ten land speed records and eleven on water. The plaque will be unveiled at Canbury School, Kingston-upon-Thames at 10.30am on 29th November 2010 by Don Wales, grandson of Sir Malcolm and nephew of Donald Campbell.

Blue Plaque: Malcolm and Donald Campbell

Malcolm Campbell was born in Kent on 11 March 1885. He started racing cars in 1910; it was in a Darracq, in a 1912 race at the famous Brooklands race track, that Campbell suffered the first of many near-fatal accidents. This car was christened 'Blue Bird', after a stage play by Maurice Maeterlinck, and the name was used for all of his subsequent vehicles - and, later, those raced by his son Donald.

Campbell first broke the land speed record at Pendine Sands, Carmarthenshire, in September 1924; the following July, on the same course, he became the first man to exceed 150 mph. The late 1920s saw him vying for the record with Sir Henry Segrave (whose blue plaque was installed last year). Campbell set a new land speed high of 231.4 mph at Daytona, Florida in February 1931, for which he was knighted. The ninth, and last, of his land speed records saw Campbell - in a Blue Bird powered by a Rolls-Royce engine - become the first to top 300 mph; this was achieved on the Utah salt flats in September 1935.

Malcolm Campbell next turned his attention to the water speed record, which he broke four times between September 1937 and August 1939 in a Blue Bird hydroplane, on the last occasion reaching 141.74 mph on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Campbell worked for Combined Operations during the Second World War; latterly he suffered from glaucoma - possibly as a result of his disdain for safety goggles - and died at his Surrey home on New Year's Eve, 1948.

Campbell's son, Donald, followed in his father's footsteps and made his first, unsuccessful, attempt on the then American-held water speed record in August 1949. He eventually triumphed six years later, taking a new, jet-powered Bluebird to 202.32 mph on Coniston Water. For the rest of the decade Campbell ratcheted up more records on water; following his sixth - 260.35 mph in May 1959 - he made an attempt on the land record that nearly proved fatal. In July 1964 he finally claimed the land speed prize at Lake Eyre salt flats in Australia, recording a speed of 403.14 mph.

Campbell then returned to the water, and broke the speed record again on New Year's Eve 1964 - at 276.33 mph on Lake Dumbleyung, Western Australia. He thus became the first (and so far only) person to set both records in a single calendar year. These triumphs took him out of his father's shadow, but on 4 January 1967, Donald Campbell's life and career was cut short when he was killed in an attempt to take the water speed record over 300 mph on Coniston Water. The wreckage of the last Bluebird, and Campbell's body, were recovered in 2001.

Malcolm Campbell is connected to various addresses in and around London, but the only house where both he and his son can be commemorated together is Canbury, Kingston Hill, a substantial two-storey detached house dating from the late nineteenth century, now used as a school. Malcolm Campbell moved here in 1919, and married Dorothy Whittall the following year; their son, Donald was born at Canbury in March 1921. On the evening of the birth Malcolm was notoriously absent, helping a neighbour to build a dog kennel, leaving his father-in-law to call for a midwife. Dorothy Campbell had also to tolerate his car fanaticism, which usually meant his retiring to the garage for the evening once he had bolted down his dinner. In Dorothy's recollection the house 'suited us very well and I myself looked forward to spending many happy years in a delightful home'. Malcolm, however, became restless and in late 1922 the family moved to Povey Cross, near Horley, Surrey.

Father and son have been the subject of numerous biographies and memoirs, and of much speculation on their competitive relationship. Reputedly, Malcolm Campbell once told Donald, 'You will never be like me, we're built different', but in retrospect it is their similarities that impress: both were fatalistic about the dangers of racing and record-breaking, both were complex, intense personalities, and both were married three times.

Howard Spencer, English Heritage historian, said: 'The Campbells personified an era of British engineering achievement and derring-do. Seldom has it been more appropriate to honour two people with a single plaque.'

Don Wales said: 'I am immensely proud that my grandfather's and uncle's achievements have been recognised by English Heritage with this blue plaque. They were both very brave men, leading by example and pushing boundaries both personally and for Britain, showcasing British technology at its best. This plaque will help to keep their name and achievement in the public eye for future generations.'