Spotlight On …

Donald Campbell

Written by Victoria Green

Sometimes an object is just an object until the story behind it is revealed. Then it takes on a whole new significance, and your perception is altered. It becomes ‘more important’.

The National Leather Collection is the proud owner of a particular pair of pale leather gloves. Driving gloves, to be precise, made and presented by Messrs Silas Dyke & Sons. See, the gloves are ‘just’ a pair of gloves until you notice the signature by the cuff; that of a Mr. Donald Campbell. What first struck me was that Donald Campbell had fairly small hands.

The gloves are accompanied by a letter, written and signed by Mr. Campbell himself on the 12th July, 1965. It reads:


I would be delighted for you to exhibit a pair of the Donald Campbell Driving Gloves in the Museum.

These gloves are produced by Dyke Glove Manufacturers of Melbourne Port in Dorset.

The gloves are a delight to wear, being light and comfortable and providing extreme sensitivity of touch to the fingers; something vital to the control of ultra-high performance machines.

I have worn these gloves through both trials and World Speed Record Attempts, with the Proteus Bluebird and the Bluebird Hydroplane.

Yours Sincerely,
Donald Campbell”

© National Leather Collection 2018

Donald Campbell’s autographed driving gloves

© National Leather Collection 2018

Donald Campbell’s signed letter of donation

Most of you are probably already familiar with the name ‘Donald Campbell’. Certainly, if you’ve watched the news this last week, you’ll have heard it. After being recovered from the bottom of Coniston Water in 2001, Donald Campbell’s Bluebird is once again ready to fly.

For those who don’t know, Donald Campbell was a British speed record breaker, who broke eight absolute world speed records on land and water in the 1950s and 1960s. He is the only person ever to have set both land and water speed records in the same year (1964). I’m sure that the desire for speed came naturally to Campbell – his father was Sir Malcolm Campbell, holder of thirteen world speed records in the 1920s and 1930s. Campbell is often described as ‘restless’, and driven to emulate (and surpass) his father’s achievements. To the world he was a colourful speed king, but beneath the publicity Campbell was motivated by patriotism and considered his achievements to be for the greater good of Britain.

After a disappointing summer of record attempts with Bluebird K4 in 1949, even more bad news. In 1950, American Stanley Sayres raised the record from 141 mph to 160 mph, a speed that was beyond K4’s capabilities without substantial modification. It was a game of cat and mouse; Campbell achieved 170 mph in summer 1950, only to see Sayres achieve 178 mph in 1951. It wasn’t until 1953 and the development of the Bluebird K7 hydroplane that Campbell was able to challenge for the World Speed Record. This he did spectacularly, setting seven world water speed records between July 1955 and December 1964. The final result? 276.33 mph achieved on Lake Dumbleyung. After recovering from a terrible crash at 360 mph during trials in Utah, Campbell finally claimed the Land Speed Record on Lake Eyre, Australia in 1964, hitting an eye-watering 403.10 mph. He had conquered both land and water. But was he satisfied? Of course not.

Campbell wanted to go faster. He envisioned a supersonic rocket car with a potential maximum speed of 840 mph. Bluebird Mach 1.1 was going to be developed by Norris Brothers, with a take-off assist rocket engines used in military aircraft and fuelled with kerosene. In order to generate publicity for his new rocket-car, Campbell decided to attempt a Water Speed Record for the last time in Bluebird K7. This was to be the ill-fated last flight of Campbell’s Bluebird. On 4th January 1967, after achieving speeds of around 300 mph, Bluebird K7 flipped over in the water, killing Campbell and destroying the hydroplane.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Bluebird was recovered from Coniston Water. Campbell’s body was located two months later, still wearing his blue nylon overalls. The story goes that on the night before his death, while playing cards, Campbell had drawn the queen and the ace of spades. Reflecting upon the fact that Mary, Queen of Scots had drawn the same two cards the night before she was beheaded, he told his fellow players that he had a fearful premonition he was going to “get the chop”. It was not possible to determine the cause of Campbell’s death, though a consultant engineer giving evidence to the inquest said that the force of the impact could have caused him to be decapitated.

Now gloves, that were once just gloves, become something more. Provenance does indeed increase the value of an item, particularly within a museum. Of course, it fires the imagination to wonder who and what and when. Who held this tankard last? Who rode in this sedan chair, and where to? But when such questions can be answered, it is our privilege to tell these stories and engage our visitors with everyday leather objects that have the most extraordinary pasts.

© National Leather Collection 2018

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