The death of Donald Campbell, Coniston Water, 4thJanuary 1967, and British News Picture of the Year, by Michael Brennan

Alan Sparrow of Fleet Street’s Finest introduces this month’s image

Michael Brennan was born in Sheffield in August 1943. He began his career as a messenger boy on a local paper, so often the route into newspapers for many aspiring photographers.

Brennan learned what he calls the “then well-respected trade of newspaper photography” after taking a job with South London’s Croydon Times. One of Brennan’s neighbours was George Phillips (see the work of George Phillips on @FleetStreetsFinest), a photographer who influenced Michael and who gave him tips on photography.

After six years at The Croydon Times, he moved back to the north and worked as a photographer for The Sunday People and The Daily Herald and later The Sun newspaper (launched in 1964 in succession to the Daily Herald and acquired by the present owners in 1969).

It was the 4th of January 1967 and the eyes of the world were drawn to a cold, deep stretch of water in the English Lake District.  Brennan was assigned to Coniston Water where Donald Campbell was attempting to break his own  world water speed record of 276.33mph.

Campbell was the holder of eight world speed records and the only person to set them on both land and water, following in his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had held 13 world speed records in the 1920s and 30s. Donald seemed determined to beat his father’s records.

Michael tells us how the day evolved.

''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.

“The Wednesday morning of January 4th 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 Mail's spare 400mm Novoflex and if I ‘got lucky’ 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 (on which you physically moved 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. As 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 skewered his plans.

“Hearing the whine of the jet engine as the vehicle came towards 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 400 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. 

“Campbell 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.

“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'snorthern 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.’"

The tragic death of Donald Campbell that day won Brennan the British News Picture of the year award.

Michael Brennan is now retired and living in Costa Rica

Michael Brennan’s picture and other news images  are available through Fleet Street's Finest,

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