Photographer’s Tale: Donald Campbell, 4 January 1967

On the 4th of January 1967 the eyes of the world were drawn to a cold, deep stretch of water in the English Lake District.

Donald Campbell was the holder of eight world speed records and was the only person to set both land and water world speed records. Following in his father’s footsteps, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had held 13 world speed records in the twenties and thirties Donald seemed determined to beat his father’s records.

He died seconds before breaking his own water speed record as his jet powered boat Bluebird K7 somersaulted and broke up as it impacted with the water.

Photographer Michael Brennan was assigned to cove the record breaking attempt and he tells us here of how the day progressed.

It was a frigid January morning in Cumbria.

Donald Campbell had sat atop and around his jet-propelled vehicle for weeks without moving any distance.

The hint of a lack of funds ran around the Bluebird camp,with the chance that a quick two hundred quid from the Daily Sketch newspaper might finance a quick,dangerous record water attempt.

The Wednesday morning of January 4 saw me and other photographers from every major daily newspaper camped out along the shores of Coniston. My representation for the newly minted “SUN” was a bit hampered by the fact that I didn’t have a long enough lens.

An hour before Campbell’s attempt at the World Record,a deal was struck between me and the much experienced Daily Mail photographer Peter Howard. It was agreed I could borrow the Daily Mail’s spare 400mm Novoflex and if I “got lucky” then my images would be distributed among all the competing newspapers.

A small promontory off the lake and facing the town of Coniston found us waiting for the much-anticipated event.

I clung tightly to the Mail’s 400mm Novoflex attached to a hand driven Pentax 35mm body (physically moving the wind-on lever to the next exposure on the film).

Campbell came down the lake from right to left. While impressive it clearly hadn’t broken any records. Anyone present would testify a huge ‘wash’ was apparent from the boat’s initial run.

Apparently,a million demons,not the least of which was the fact that he was running out of money must have compelled Campbell to immediately turn the boat around and throttle the vehicle to full power in the opposite direction. The fact that the wash was still bouncing around the lake must have completely skipped his plans.

Hearing the whine of the jet engine as the vehicle came toward me was a help to know on what track and where to focus. Seeing the boat coming closer I kept the focus on one spot ( I would guess somewhere around four hundred yards away). As Campbell hit my point of focus Bluebird lurched upward,the way a jet would at take-off.

I clicked one frame and instinctively panned right and clicked again. The third frame was of the aftermath of the crash.

I don’t remember any loud explosions. In fact after the vehicle hit the lake the only sound was of small plastic bags coming to the surface. They had been installed within the boat to protect the wire connections.

After half an hour or so fellow photographers gathered and tried to assess who had what. I didn’t know of my outcome so I set off to drive back to the office. As I approached Manchester I stopped at a public phone box and phoned The Sun’s Northern office to speak to picture editor Ron Graham.

Before I could tell my story Ron passed on the sobering news that the Editor Arthur Brown had told him,”should Brennan not have the pictures of Campbell crashing in Bluebird then let him know “Don’t bother returning to the office… he’s fired.”
Pete Redfern warmed up the D76 developer and put the two rolls in the tank. He emerged with the sequence of Donald’s Campbell’s death.

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