The BBC TV's docu-drama about Donald Campbell's life in his last years




In his time Donald Campbell crossed many lakes in two continents in his superb K7 vessel, or as the press sometimes called it: the blue lobster. There might have been a third if the US had a lake on offer. Donald loved the adventure of travel. The Bluebird K7 was a turbo jet-engined three-point hydroplane with which the UK's speed ace set seven outright world water speed records during the 1950s and 1960s. Donald lost his life in K7 on January the 4th 1967 whilst making a bid to raise the speed record to over 300 miles per hour (480 km/h) on Coniston Water - a noble cause. K7 was designed largely by Ken and Lewis Norris with the assistance of Donald Stevens and practical input from Leo Villa.





K7 Bluebird at Barmera in Australia, Donald Campbell's jet boat



A stunning photograph of the K7 at the Barmera Monash Football Club, Australia, in 1964





Donald Campbell began his record-breaking career in 1949. Hitherto, he had been using his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell's, propellor-driven hydroplane Bluebird K4 for his attempts, but in 1951 it was destroyed by structural failure, when its gearbox sheared its mountings and punched through the floor of the hull.


Following rival racer John Cobb's death in Crusader in 1952, Campbell began development of his own all metal jet-powered Bluebird K7 to challenge the record held by the American hydroplane Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Designed by Ken and Lew Norris, the K7 was an aluminium, three-point hydroplane with a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3500 pound-force (16 kN) of thrust.


Like Slo-Mo-Shun, but unlike Cobb's tricycle Crusader, the three points were arranged in "pickle-fork" layout, prompting Bluebird's early comparison to a blue lobster. It was very advanced, and remained the only successful jet-boat until well into the 1960s.


The name "K7" was derived from its Lloyd's unlimited rating registration. It was carried on a prominent circular badge on its sponsons, underneath an infinity symbol.





Encased in plastic, the jet engine stands as a shrine to the fateful day in January 1967, when Donald Campbell crossed the lake too fast. Jet engines were developed before WW2 by Frank Whittle, then not progressed by the Ministry of Defence who were not so forward thinking as they might have been, which, if they had been on the ball, could have shortened that war.


Bluebird K7 Records

With the death of John Cobb in September of 1952, and the inability of Frank Hanning-Lee to find backers for his White Hawk WSR project, the path was clear for Donald to tackle the WSR. The attention that Crusader was getting was sure to alerted DC to the commercial prospects and sponsorship.


Campbell set seven world water speed records in K7 between 1955 and 1964. The first of these occurred at Ullswater on 23 July 1955, where he set a record of 202.15 mph (324 km/h). Campbell achieved a steady series of subsequent speed-record increases with the boat during the rest of the decade, beginning with a mark of 216 mph (348 km/h) in 1955 on Lake Mead. Subsequently, four new marks were registered on Coniston Water, where Campbell and Bluebird became an annual fixture in the later half of the fifties, enjoying significant sponsorship from the Mobil oil company and then subsequently BP. There was also an unsuccessful attempt in 1957 at Canandaigua in New York state in the summer of 1957, which failed due to lack of suitable water conditions. Bluebird K7 became a popular attraction, and well as her annual Coniston appearances, K7 was displayed extensively in the UK, USA, Canada and Europe, and then subsequently in Australia during Campbell's prolonged attempt on the land speed record (LSR) in 1963 - 64.



Bluebird hydroplane graphic     


Goodwood in 1960, the K7 Bluebird on a low loader



In order to extract more speed, and endow the boat with greater stability, in both pitch and yaw, K7 was subtly modified in the second half of the 1950s with the installation of smoother streamlining, a blown cockpit canopy and, from 1958 onwards, a small wedge shaped tail fin, modified sponson fairings, that reduced aerodynamic lift, and a fixed hydrodynamic fin, fixed to the transom to aid hydrodynamic stability, and exert a marginal downforce on the nose. Thus she reached 225 mph (362 km/h) in 1956, where an unprecedented peak speed of 286.78 mph (461.53 km/h) was achieved on one run, 239 mph (385 km/h) in 1957, 248 mph (399 km/h) in 1958 and 260 mph (420 km/h) in 1959.

Campbell then turned to the LSR, and after surviving a high speed crash in his Bluebird CN7 turbine powered car, he spent a frustrating two years in the Australian desert, battling adverse conditions. Finally, after Campbell exceeded the LSR on Lake Eyre in 1964, at 403.10 mph (648.73 km/h) in Bluebird CN7, Campbell snared his seventh water speed record on 31 December 1964 at Dumbleyung Lake, Western Australia, when he reached 276.33 mph (444.71 km/h), with two runs at 283.3 mph (455.9 km/h) and 269.3 mph (433.4 km/h) completed with only hours to spare on New Year's Eve 1964.

This made Campbell and K7 the world's most prolific breakers of the Water Speed Record. Campbell became the only person to break both the Land Speed Record and the Water Speed Record in the same year.



Donald Campbell's final run January 1967


The Final Water Speed Record attempt and Donald Campbell's death

In June 1966, Campbell decided to once more try for a water speed record with K7: his target, 300 mph (480 km/h).

K7 was fitted with a lighter and more powerful Bristol Siddeley Orpheus engine, taken from a Folland Gnat jet aircraft, and lent to the project by the MOD, which developed 4,500 pound-force (20 kN) of thrust. The new K7 had a vertical stabiliser (also from a Gnat Campbell had purchased ) and a new hydraulic water brake designed to slow the boat down on the five-mile Coniston course. The boat returned to Coniston for trials in November 1966. These did not go well; the weather was appalling and K7 destroyed her engine when the air intakes collapsed under the demands of the more powerful engine, and debris was drawn into the compressor blades. The engine was replaced, Campbell using the unit from the scrapped, crash-damaged Gnat aircraft that he had purchased at the project's start. The original engine remained outside the team's lakeside workshop for the rest of the project, shrouded in a tarpaulin.

By the end of November, after further modifications to alter K7's weight distribution, some high-speed runs were made, but these were timed at well below the existing record. Problems with the fuel system meant that the engine could not develop maximum power. By the middle of December, Campbell had made a number of timed attempts, but the highest speed achieved was 264 mph, and therefore still shy of the existing record. Eventually, further modifications to K7's fuel system (involving the fitting of a booster pump) fixed the fuel-starvation problem. It was now the end of December and Campbell was all set to proceed, pending only the arrival of suitable weather conditions.

On 4 January 1967, Campbell mounted his record attempt. He was killed when K7 flipped over and broke up at a speed in excess of 300 mph (480 km/h). Bluebird had completed a perfect north-south run at an average of 297.6 mph (478.9 km/h), and Campbell used a new water brake to slow K7 from her peak speed of 315 mph (507 km/h). Instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of this run to subside, as had been pre-arranged, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately.




RESTORATION: New parts of the steel frame are green. 1. The first of 23 frames 2. Frame 15 where the boat snapped 3. Air intake frame 4. Yellow roll jig to spin the craft for welding 5. Cockpit area.



The second run was even faster; as K7 passed the start of the measured kilometer, she was traveling at over 320 mph (510 km/h). However her stability had begun to break down as she traveled at speed she had never achieved before, and the front of the boat started to bounce out of the water on the starboard side. 150 yards from the end of the measured mile, K7 lifted from the surface and after about 1.5 seconds, gradually lifted from the water at an ever increasing angle, before she took off at a 90-degree to the water surface. She somersaulted and plunged back into the lake, nose first, unlike John Cobb's Crusader, where the forward hull disintegrated.


The boat then cartwheeled across the water before coming to rest. The impact broke K7 forward of the air intakes (where Donald was sitting) and the main hull sank shortly afterwards. Campbell had been killed instantly. Mr Whoppit, Campbell's teddy bear mascot, was found among the floating debris and the pilot's helmet was recovered. Royal Navy divers made efforts to find and recover the body but, although the wreck of K7 was found, they called off the search after two weeks, without locating his body.



Mr Whoppit, Campbell's luck mascot


Mr Whoppit, Campbell's luck mascot


Campbell's last words on his final run were, via radio intercom:

“ Pitching a bit down here...Probably from my own wash...Straightening up now on track...Rather closer to Peel Island...Tramping like mad...and er... Full power...Tramping like hell here... I can't see much... and the water's very bad indeed...I can't get over the top... I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here... I can't see anything... I've got the bows out... I'm going!....ugh ”

The cause of the crash has been variously attributed to Campbell not waiting to refuel after doing a first run of 297.6 mph (478.9 km/h) and hence the boat being lighter; the wash caused by his first run and made much worse by the use of the water brake, (These factors have since been found to be not particularly important. The water brake was used well to the south of the measured distance, and only from approx. 200 mph (320 km/h) The area in the centre of the course, where Bluebird was traveling at peak speed on her return run was flat calm, and not disturbed by the wash from the first run, which had not had time to be reflected back on the course. 



Across the  Lake painting by Paul Dove


Across the Lake painting by Paul Dove (acrylic on canvas) - bold Turneresque use of colour



The fuel tank was in approximately the same position as K7's centre of gravity, and therefore had little impact on the boats weight distribution), and potentially a cut-out of the jet engine caused by fuel starvation. (The configuration of K7 at high speed meant that the thrust of the jet engine provided a downward pressure at the bows of the boat. K7 was operating at her absolute limit in terms of a nose up pitching angle of 6'. A sudden loss of power caused by an interruption to fuel flow would mean that this down-thrust was lost and K7's bows would have risen above the 6' safe limit). Some evidence for this last possibility may be seen in film recordings of the crash below - as the nose of the boat climbs and the jet exhaust points at the water surface no disturbance or spray can be seen at all. Jet powered models of the K7 appear to perform rather better for some reason.





Milliseconds before death, Donald Campbell plunges into a watery grave where he will remain undisturbed for the next 34 years.








A bitter dispute as to ownership and rights to operate, has broken out and is still unresolved at time of writing (25-01-2023). We are sure all fans of Bluebird land and water speed record vehicles, will be pleased to see the K7, above, running again on water. As many readers will know, Bill Smith has spent 15 years of his life restoring the jet powered Bluebird, the passion of Donald Campbell, until he pushed the design too far in 1967. Despite agreement as to operational rights, the Ruskin Museum in Cumbria is now seeking to default on that agreement, without offering Mr Smith compensation for his fifteen years of project management and time spent actually working on the fated hydroplane. This might seem like a one off dispute, until you look back in time at the various disputes between Sir Malcolm Campbell and Rolls-Royce, Donald Campbell and Ken Norris, and Don Wales and the designer/builder of the Bluebird Electric racing cars. Taken in that context, the present dispute is just another in a chain, that seems to have passed down the family as an embedded DNA profile. Of course that is just speculation, whereas the history of disputes is indisputable. When it comes to paying, just like the addiction to speed, it seems to run in the family, allegedly.







An experienced salvage diver named Bill Smith, recovered the K7 in 2001 and for the next 13 years has worked on restoring the craft to its former glory, by way of a tribute to one of the greatest speed kings that ever lived. It is hoped that a great deal of scientific data might have been gleaned from the re-build.


In July of 2014, Tonia Bern-Campbell visited the National Motor Museum to give a talk about Donald and herself on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Donald's fateful final trip across the lake.



Lady Dorothy Campbell



Lady Dorothy Campbell, Donald's mother. She survived Sir Malcolm's stroke, and despite their best efforts to ensure that their son Donald did not take up such a risky sport, Donald found a way. There was also the potential that Donald may have been unsuccessful in his attempts, so detracting from Sir Malcolm's excellent record, but in fact Donald did an amazing PR job, taking the legend to new heights. Whereas, subsequent more recent efforts to go fast have been unimpressive low speed fillers, not really progressing the art - as Lady Campbell, Sir Malcolm and Donald would, we feel, undoubtedly have wanted, despite the inevitable father and son rivalry.






Across the Lake details the final two months in the life of British "speed king" Donald Campbell, here played by the ubiquitous Anthony Hopkins. Haunted by the spectre of his equally famous father, who years earlier had set the world land speed record, Campbell is determined to carve his own niche by challenged the water speed record in his own personal motored vessel, the Bluebird. Alas, this undertaking proves to be the headstrong Campbell's undoing. Verteran stage and screen actress Phyllis Calvert makes a rare TV appearance as Donald's mother, Lady Campbell (seen above). Across the Lake was telecast by BBC1 as a Docu-Drama in 1988.

Also starring Phyllis Calvert, Juliette Grassby, Ewan Hooper and Rosemary Leach

Directed by Tony Maylam







You could not have cast a better actor to play Donald Campbell. Anthony Hopkins is superb and we think has a genuine interest in land and water speed records and the contenders. He also plays Burt Munro in The World's Fastest Indian.







Plot - An American pulp novelist, Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol), meets his rich neighbors across the lake and is soon seduced by beautiful blonde Carol (Hillary Brooke), the wife of the older Forrest (Sid James). Forrest is badly injured when his boat has an accident in the fog, and Carol throws him overboard.

After first refusing to go along with her attempt to call it an accident, Kendrick agrees when they plan to meet in a month's time and live off her dead husband's money. But when the coroner calls the death an accident, she secretly marries another old flame three weeks later and changes residences. 







House Across the Lake - Movie poster, a similar name to the BBC TV film, but a completely different plot that is pure fiction. Across the Lake, the BBC title is based on factual events in the life of Donald Campbell also leading to a death, but a spectacular finale brought about by one man trying to make a difference.





When Kendrick finds out about the betrayal he angrily confronts her and she sneers at him that she only used him and that there's nothing he could do about it. Mark confesses, knowing that doing so would only mean a prison sentence for him.

A Hammer production directed by Ken Hughes, featuring - Alex Nicol as Mark Kendrick; Hillary Brooke as Carol Forrest; Sid James as Beverly Forrest; Susan Stephen as Andrea Forrest; Paul Carpenter as Vincent Gordon; Alan Wheatley as Inspector MacLennan; Peter Illing as Harry Stevens; Gordon McLeod as Doctor Emery; Joan Hickson as Mrs. Hardcastle; John Sharp as Mr. Hardcastle; Hugh Dempster as Frank. Run time 68 minutes.



Ken Hughes: Director
J Elder Wills: Art Direction
Walter J Harvey: Cinematography
James Needs: Film Editing
Nina Broe: Makeup Department
Philip Leakey: Makeup Department
Ivor Slaney: Original Music
Anthony Hinds: Producer
Ken Hughes: Script
Bill Salter: Sound Department






A record breaking power-boater survived a high speed crash at the same beauty spot where Donald Campbell was killed 45 years earlier. Keith Whittle's 130mph wipeout brought back vivid memories of the terrifying final moments of the doomed Bluebird K7 on the same stretch of Coniston Water in the Lake District.




Haven't we been here before? The lucky driver, Keith Whittle, swam away from this one. Gina Campbell had a near identical experience in a similar design of boat.



Keith had just set a new record for the Formula 2 class of racing boats before his 200hp craft Pepstar spectacularly looped the loop in front of hundreds of shocked spectators. Keith had reached 132mph - smashing the previous best in his of 124mph. Fearing the worst, to the utter amazement of the crowds gathered for Coniston Powerboat Records Week, Keith swam away from the inverted craft without so much as a scratch.


An eyewitness, Martin Campbell is quoted as saying: 


"Your initial response is hoping the driver gets out and he did but it is still quite shocking when it happens.

On the lake you have several boats with divers on board and as soon as a boat goes over it is full throttle over to them. "Most drivers carry oxygen but Keith didn't need it, he managed to get out straight away.

It all happened in an instance and he was a bit shaken up. Medical staff checked him out and he was fine, just a bit stiff."



Keith Whittle - pilot, Coniston backflip and happy landing


Keith Whittle - shaken but not deterred



"They are there to set records and know the risks involved but everything worked out okay." Coniston Power Boat Records Week is the only event in the Powerboat Racing Calendar to bring together all classes of boat."

Jim Noone, chief technical measurer, is quoted as saying: 


"Keith was trying hard for the record and when you're right on the edge these things can happen."

"But the safety element has advanced in the past ten years and crashes like this are very survivable.

"He was a bit shaken and a bit cold but other than that he was fine."

"The water conditions were perfect and there were nine records set through the week and Keith had at least two of them."

"The high speed runs are always exciting and you have a mixture of relief and elation, it was the last run of the week and certainly the most dramatic." 





  Anthony Hopkins plays Donald Campbell





Anthony Hopkins plays Donald Campbell in the fact based BBC TV tribute docudrama that was never released, but should have been available in wide screen and hi definition, if they were to do the speed king justice. The arrogance of this institutionalized organization is nothing less than astonishing. Especially when one considers that they are playing with public money.






Napier Lion

Rolls Royce









Jetstar (not a bluebird, but a runabout that Donald loved)



Donald Malcolm Campbell CBE, gravestone, died january 1967



The gravestone of Donald Campbell CBE. Note the blue bird legend (top right slate headstone) that inspired a nation of engineers, and that we have adopted to carry on the great mans futurist tradition in developing advanced technology for vehicles on land and water.






I Luv That Movie Wordpress Across the Lake DVD 1988 Anthony Hopkins

Rotten Tomatoes Across The Lake

Brit Movie Films The-House-Across-the-Lake_1953

K7 project bluebird

Wikipedia The_House_Across_the_Lake

I Offer Across The Lake 1988 Donald Campbell DVD





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