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Flashback – January 6

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

1967

"I'm going..."

They were the last words of an old-fashioned British hero, Donald Campbell, who died while trying to set a new water speed record in his jet-powered boat Bluebird on Coniston Water in the Lake District on January 4, 1967.

What happened next as he lost control while travelling at over 300mph was seen in grainy black and white pictures on the television news that day. The front of Bluebird lifted clear of the water, the speedboat somersaulted, and came back down with an almighty splash.

The speedboat in which Campbell had been trying to break his own water speed record – 276mph, set in December 1964 – disintegrated and sank to the bottom of the lake. Campbell was killed.

But there was a survivor on that fateful day over 50 years ago. Campbell had a lucky mascot, a teddy bear called Mr Whoppit, which floated to the surface and was fished from the water.

For many years Shropshire's Mr Whoppit, which had been made by the famous Ironbridge teddy bear firm Merrythought, was the only trace of Campbell and his machine which could be found.

It was not until 2001 that the wreckage of Bluebird, and Campbell's remains, were recovered from the depths.

Back in 1967 engineer Jack Bare, who was originally from Kendal before moving later to Codsall, was part of Campbell's team and designed and made the rudder for the ill-fated Bluebird.

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Mr Bare, who celebrated his 80th wedding anniversary with wife Joan in August last year, was often at Coniston for the trials of Bluebird, though he was not present at its crash.

And that crash was not the end of the story, either for Mr Whoppit, a Merrythought bear from the 1950s who had been given to Campbell by his friend and manager Peter Barker as a racing mascot in 1956 or 1957, or for Bluebird itself.

Campbell took Mr Whoppit to every record breaking attempt and together they broke the water speed record seven times and the land speed record once.

Mr Whoppit, whose original name was actually Woppit, went through various adventures, both in his record attempt days and later, as Campbell's daughter Gina followed in the family tradition and was also a racer and record-breaker who adopted Mr Whoppit as her own mascot. She achieved the women's world water speed record in 1984.

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As for Bluebird, after a team led by engineer Bill Smith recovered the wreckage of the hydroplane in 2001, it was painstakingly restored at his workshop on Tyneside.

Playing a key role was Cradley Heath-based engineering firm Thyssenkrupp which provided the project with material including sheet metal and 350kg aluminium billets.

Greg Buxton, a then-employee of Thyssenkrupp, who knew Bill through their shared passion for diving, introduced his employers to the project, and the first donations were made in 2006.

But what to do with the restored Bluebird? Controversy erupted last year. Some wanted to put Bluebird on permanent display at a museum in the village where Campbell is buried, where a new wing, called the Bluebird Wing, was built to house it with £800,000 being raised through donations. However, others wanted the craft to tour the world as a way of inspiring future generations.

Currently, according to the website of the Ruskin Museum at Coniston, only the tailfin of Bluebird is on display there, and it is "on loan."

Sadly, Mr Whoppit has also been embroiled in controversy.

In 1995 Gina put the bear up for auction, billed as the fastest teddy in the world. This caused a rift with Campbell's widow who said Gina was breaking a pledge to keep the mascot in the family.

In the event Mr Whoppit failed to reach his reserve, with bidding at Christie's in London ending at £32,000, when the bear had been expected to fetch between £50,000 and £60,000.

In 2017 Gina clutched the mascot as she returned to Coniston on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy and placed flowers on the spot where her father died.

Today Mr Whoppit even has his own website, and the bear was recreated last year by Merrythought as a limited edition replica for Danbury Mint – price £149.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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