Sir Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald will forever be venerated as world famous speed record holders. They shared those characteristics manifest in all men of greatness, a sense of courage and perseverance. They followed each other in the success of their respective careers and were both active Freemasons.
Malcolm Campbell was born at Chislehurst, Kent on 11 March 1885 to William Campbell and Hazel Castley, a meek mother and an authoritarian and strict father.
His ancestry can be traced back many generations to a Scottish Highland family of long-standing military traditions in Argyll, which may well have influenced his exceptional personality and resolute character.
From a young age Malcolm became fascinated by engines and the railway and more especially the underlying forces that drove the machinery. His schooling was not of particular note except for sport and the later connection to Freemasonry.
At the age of eleven, at Guildford Preparatory School, he read King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard. It installed in him that sense of adventure that allows the imagination of a youngster to go wild and the book affected him for life. In 1898, at 13, he was sent to the distinguished ancient Uppingham School in Rutland and in 1924 he was to be initiated in his old school Lodge.
Malcolm never lost his great enthusiasm for racing and his fascination with speed. In 1910, between the period of his employment by Lloyd’s of London and his service in the Royal Air Force, he entered and won his first automobile race at the Brooklands circuit. He was never to look back.
His name and career were to be closely associated with Brooklands through his life. He continued and set many motorcycle and car speed records as well as in motorboats. He received his knighthood in 1931 for his distinguished achievements. Malcolm Campbell was undoubtedly the most successful racing driver of his time, dubbed ‘the speed king’.
In the middle of his extraordinary career as a racing driver, on 15 October 1924 he become a Freemason and was Passed and Raised in the following three months. There has been some confusion with regard to his initiation because registration records held at Grand Lodge show Malcolm Campbell’s name written below that of George Noel Buckton.
George Buckton was initiated in Lodge Kumaon No. 1870, District of Bengal, India. He joined Old Uppinghamian Lodge No. 4227 on the same date that Campbell was initiated, and the two Brethren were then Passed and Raised together on 9 December 1924 and 14 January 1925 respectively.
The entry for Malcolm Campbell states ‘do’ below Buckton’s initiation date. This has led to the erroneous presumption that Malcolm Campbell was initiated in Lodge 1870 and was a joining member of the ‘closed’ Old Uppinghamian Lodge in 1924. The school Lodge still today draws its membership solely from Old Boys and their children and Masters at the School.
In February 1928, Malcolm and his wife Dorothy sailed for Daytona Beach in Florida, arriving there on the 12th and breaking a new speed record the same day! It was the first of several visits with the famed ‘Bluebird’. He was to return to Daytona annually in the early 1930s, each time achieving a new and faster record.
There have been persistent reports of his joining various Masonic bodies in the United States during these periods, most persistently his supposed membership of the Zangi Grotto in Daytona Beach. The Grottoes of North America is a Masonically affiliated fraternal body founded by Leroy Fairchild in September 1889. Membership is restricted to Master Masons and it claims to be ‘primarily an organization for good wholesome fun and frolic’.
There is no trace of Malcolm Campbell’s membership of the Grotto. In fact, there is no record in any of the various Masonic bodies, including the Grand Lodge of Florida, which would indicate any kind of Masonic activity by Malcolm Campbell in the US.
He was, for a while, very active as a Freemason. His second wife Dorothy, Lady Campbell remembered that he was keen and eager when he was initiated into his old school Lodge. For several years he attended the meetings and felt that there was no institution to rival Freemasonry. He told Dorothy ‘Freemasonry is all the religion I need – if I can only live to the ideals of the Craft, I would want nothing more.’ Yet quite suddenly he completely lost interest and resigned from the Lodge on 10 January 1934.
The Lodge records only show two other entries relevant to Malcolm Campbell. On his being knighted on 1931, a letter of congratulations was forwarded to him by the Lodge and recorded in the minutes. Similarly, on his resignation, a note in the minutes shows that he was approached with a view to his changing his mind. He did not do so.
In 1929, when Campbell was still a member of the Lodge, a special presentation of a Masonic Gate was made to the school. It coincided with two important events at the time. The completion of the memorial building to the victims of the First World War as well as the School Lodges Festival held at the school in that year.
There is only sparse information about the gates, which still stand proud at one of the two entrances to the school. The Lodge minutes do not mention the gates at all and the school records show a William Ellis, an old boy and a Governor of the school, who was involved in the reconstruction of the area around the gates and their installation on the site in 1929. There is little else, except for the pride that the school has in the very beautiful and prominent gateway to the grounds.
In 1935, Sir Malcolm was the first to reach the 300 miles per hour mark in his celebrated Bluebird at Bonneville Flats, Utah. From here he chose to move to speedboat racing, and in 1939 set a new world record of 141 miles per hour. Sir Malcolm Campbell died after a long illness in 1949. His very special ‘speed’ legacy was taken up by his son Donald, who continued in his father’s tradition, soon to become world famous in his own right.
Rather surprisingly the Masonic membership of Donald Campbell only came to light relatively recently, when the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London were presented with his Masonic apron and case in April 1993. Most of the records that show Malcolm Campbell to have been active in the Craft fail to mention his son Donald as a Freemason.
Donald Malcolm Campbell was born at Kingston, Surrey on 23 March 1921. He had a hard act to follow. His father was a true British hero adored by the nation. The relationship between father and son was never a happy one and certainly complicated by the fact that Sir Malcolm, overwhelmed by his own career and consuming ambition, found little time for his son who, in turn, idolised his dad.
The tense relationship is manifest in an incident now well recorded. For his seventh birthday, Donald received a toy motorcar with a small and complete tool kit as a gift by his dad. Within hours he had dismantled the toy car into small pieces, with nuts and bolts dispersed in the house and garden. Malcolm Campbell was not amused. On the contrary, surprisingly angry and unsympathetic, he did not speak to his son for several days until the toy car had been re-assembled back into its original state.
Donald was brought up, with his sister Jean, by a nursery governess and was soon sent to Horsham Preparatory School, seeing little of his father during his youth. Nonetheless, he admired and respected him and was to emulate his famous father with great pride and success.
He began in reverse, so to speak, and took on speedboat racing first. It was almost natural to attempt his first record in the seat of his father’s well-tested boat, the Bluebird K4, which he purchased from his father’s estate. However, his early efforts were frustrated.
In 1951, he crashed on Coniston Water in the Lake District, at a speed of 170 mph, and notwithstanding numerous other failures, he persisted and his perseverance paid off. In 1955, on Ullswater, and in his own newly designed Bluebird K7 boat, he set his first 202 mph world speed record on water.
Between July 1955 and December 1964 Donald Campbell was to set world water speed records on seven different occasions, reaching 276.33 mph. He was honoured with the CBE for his achievements. In between these various failed attempts and record-breaking feats, Donald became a Freemason. He was initiated on 16 February 1953 into the prestigious Grand Master’s Lodge No. 1, having been introduced and proposed by the then Master, Robert James Coley, a wealthy scrap metal dealer and benefactor.
By a good stroke of luck the Junior Deacon at the ceremony of Donald’s initiation is alive and well. I had the pleasure of speaking with Sir Kenneth Newton, Past President of the Board of General Purposes, and the most senior Past Master of the Lodge, having himself been initiated on 17 December 1945.
He well remembers Donald Campbell’s initiation. ‘An excellent candidate’ recounts Sir Kenneth. ‘Donald was undoubtedly a little nervous and I could feel a light tremble in his arm as I led him round the Lodge room. He was, however, an excellent Mason, attended regularly and acted as a gentleman in every way’ concludes Sir Kenneth. Donald was Passed and Raised in April and May of the same year. His enthusiasm for the Craft is reflected in his exaltation into the Grand Master’s Chapter No. 1 on 6 July 1954. Donald, like his father, never took office in Lodge. He appears to have enjoyed the fraternity, and his attendance at Lodge, and was also present at the bicentennial celebrations of the Grand Master’s Lodge No 1 at the Mansion House in 1957.
Following his successful water speed record in November 1955 on Lake Mead in Nevada, Donald decided to emulate his father’s success and attempt the world land speed record. He began to build the new Bluebird with a view to achieving 400 mph, and on 17 July 1964 the astonishing speed of 403.10mph was set at the dry Lake Eyre in South Australia – a new world record.
Within six months, in December 1964, he broke the world water speed record, reaching 276.3mph on Lake Dumbleyung in Australia. Donald Campbell remains the only person in history to have held both water and land speed records in the same year.
On 4 January 1967, on Coniston Water in Cumbria, where he had crashed his first boat in 1951, Donald Campbell was to meet his death. In redesigning the Bluebird K7 in order to achieve a speed in excess of 300 mph, Donald and his engineers may have overestimated the physical capacity of the boat. The disaster occurred at over 300 mph and Donald was killed, effectively attempting to break his own world record.
His remains and the wreck of Bluebird K7 were not recovered until 2001. A service of Remembrance and burial took place at St Andrew’s Church, Coniston Village, on 12 September 2001.
The Campbells will forever remain great British heroes. As befits the quality of character of any man of consequence, they too will have embraced aspects of Freemasonry enhancing the spirit of their many achievements.
Credits and bibliography
Aspell, Timothy: Secretary, Old Uppinghamian Lodge No. 4227
Bettles, Fiona: Marketing Manager, Uppingham School
Cambbell, Lady Dorothy Malcolm Campbell: The Man as I Knew Him, London, 1951
Encyclopædia Britannica: Campbell Sir Malcolm, 2005
Fairclough, Ian: Secretary, Grand Master’s Lodge No. 1
Simmons, Clayton E: Deputy District Grand Master, District 16, Grand Lodge of Florida
Villa, Leo & Gray, Tony: The Record Breakers – Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell Land and Water Speed Kings of the 20th Century, London, 1969
Wilson, Gordon: Scribe E, Grand Master’s Chapter No. 1