A writer from the north of England, Ann enjoys writing about the unexplained and the paranormal, as well as historical crimes and mysteries.
Gay Gibson was a girl going places. At 21, the young actress had tasted success on the South African stage, but when the theatre where she was performing was condemned as a fire risk, she found herself out of work. Keen to spread her wings and brimming with confidence, she decided it was time to head home. England and the theatres of the West End beckoned. In October 1947, she set sail from Johannesburg on the Durban Castle. In one hand she clutched a first-class ticket bought by an admirer; in the other, she held an introduction to a theatrical agent. Stardom was within her grasp.
A Shipboard Romance
The Durban Castle was a ship half empty and most of her passengers were elderly. The voyage was long and Gay Gibson was a girl used to being admired and pampered. At dinner each evening she sat with the same two gentlemen, neither of whom interested her romantically. Now and again she would take a turn of the dance floor with a young ship’s officer, but for most of the time she was bored. If we are to believe the man convicted of her murder, he soon caught her eye and a flirtation began.
James Camb was a 31-year-old ship’s steward. Except for a few years during the war, he had worked on cruise ships since he was 17 and he loved it. Married with a child, cruising gave him the opportunity to carry on extramarital affairs. Reviled by the rest of the crew, he reveled in his nickname, Don Jimmy, a play on the famous womaniser Don Juan. Dark and handsome, Camb measured the success of a voyage by the number of passengers he bedded. The young starlet Gay Gibson was bound to catch his eye. Bored and beautiful, she was ripe for the picking. He had one problem, shipboard romances between passengers and crew were strictly forbidden.
A Fateful Evening
The evening of the 17th of October was unbearably hot. Gay slipped on a stylish black evening gown and silver shoes for a dinner dance. As usual, she was the belle of the ball. At the end of the evening, she and her two male companions decided to take a dip in the pool. While the two gentlemen waited, she went to her room to fetch a bathing suit. Thirty minutes later she returned empty-handed. Instead, the three chatted and smoked until midnight when one of the men escorted her to her cabin. During the missing half-hour, night watchman James Murray overheard a strange conversation. He saw Gay talking to Camb on the Long Gallery of the Promenade Deck. The steward appeared to have stopped Gay on her way to her cabin. Murray heard him say, ‘I have a bone to pick with you, and a big one at that.’
Was this a joke or a threat?
Earlier in the day, the stewardess for Gay’s cabin had caught Camb hovering outside. Suspecting that he was bothering the young woman, she threatened to report him.
At 1:00 AM, Gay was back on board the Promenade Deck. Deep in thought, she was staring out to sea and smoking a cigarette. When the boatswain, Conway, asked her if she was alright, she claimed she couldn’t sleep because of the stifling heat. Conway offered to find her a cool place to sit but Gay declined the offer and returned to her cabin. Had she arranged an assignation with Camb on the Promenade Deck as he later claimed?
A Call for Help
At 2:58 AM, the senior night watchman Murray and his junior, Steer, were in the First Class Galley. When both alarms rang for Cabin 126, the men were puzzled. The red alarm indicated a male steward was needed, the green a female. Steer made his way to the cabin. Both alarms were still flashing above the door and a light shone through the grille. Steer knocked on the door. A few seconds later, the door opened a crack. A male voice told him all was okay before closing the door again. What the man inside the cabin hadn’t realised was that Steer had recognised him. It was Camb, dressed in black pants and wearing a vest. Steer fetched Murray and the two stood listening at the door. The room was silent but the alarms still flashed. Murray decided to consult a senior officer but didn’t mention Camb. The officer dismissed his concerns, ‘The morals of the passengers are not our concern.’
Murray returned one more time to the cabin. The alarms had stopped flashing. The officer was right, it was none of his business.
Where Is She?
At 7:30 AM, the stewardess for cabin 126 knocked on the door. There was no reply. Trying the door she was surprised to find it open. Miss Gibson, she decided, must have gone to the bathroom. The room appeared normal except that the bed was a little more disheveled than usual. The stewardess, Miss Field, set about her tasks. When Gay hadn’t returned to her cabin by 9:30 AM, Field began to panic and went to the Captain. At 10:00 AM, Captain Patey put out an appeal for Gay over the ship’s tannoy. At 10:30 AM, he turned the ship about and began a search. The Durban Castle was 60 miles off the coast of Equatorial Guinea in shark-infested seas. He soon realised Gay Gibson was gone and the search was futile. At 11:30 AM, Captain Patey abandoned all hope of her recovery and set sail for England once more.
Camb’s shipmates were quick to report his interest in Gay Gibson. Camb, of course, denied everything, but his behaviour was odd. While the rest of the crew had adopted their short-sleeved uniform in the oppressive heat, he wore a jacket. His cabin mate confirmed that he had worn the jacket to bed and had only turned up in the early hours of the morning. Captain Patey, locked Gay’s cabin and forced Camb to submit to a medical examination. The ship’s doctor discovered scratch marks to Camb’s arms and neck. The steward claimed he had inflicted the scratches upon himself when he was hot in bed. He had made them worse when he rubbed himself down with a rough towel. As soon as the ship docked at Dover, Camb was arrested.
Camb denied all knowledge of Gay's disappearance but the police were persistent. In all, he changed his story six times before finally settling on his final version of the truth. With the comment, ‘My wife can know nothing of this,’ he made a full statement.
Camb claimed that he had gone to Gay’s room with a drink. She had opened the door wearing nothing but a flimsy robe. She seduced him and they engaged in consensual sex. During intercourse, she suddenly began to convulse and foam at the mouth. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and within moments she was dead. The steward desperately tried to revive her but did not press the alarms for help. When Steer and Murray knocked on the door, he panicked and stuffed her body through the porthole. Camb was positive the young actress was dead but added, ‘She did make one hell of a splash.’
Camb’s trial was held at Winchester Assizes. With no body, the prosecution had to make a cast-iron case. They constructed a replica of Gay’s cabin and engaged the services of top medical experts.
Gay, they argued, had not invited Camb into her cabin. She was not wearing a flimsy robe as Camb suggested but black pyjamas which she’d packed for the voyage. A thorough search of her luggage revealed that they were gone. When Camb attacked her, Gay pressed the alarms to alert the steward and the stewardess, but it was too late. Evidence from the bedsheets revealed Gay’s urine and there were traces of blood on her pillow. The prosecution experts argued this was proof that she was strangled. There would have been blood around her mouth, and the bladder often evacuated during strangulation.
Crucially, the prosecution were prevented from bringing up Camb's predatory sexual nature. Two women and a young girl came forward and claimed that they had been attacked by Camb on the Durban Castle. One of the women said Camb had dragged her into a tool shed and strangled her when she refused his advances. She awoke to find him standing over her laughing.
The defence were not as kind to Gay Gibson about her sexual history.
‘Gay Gibson was a girl who was not averse to casual sexual adventure.’
This was a young woman, they claimed, who was promiscuous. Police found a contraceptive device in her luggage. Why wasn’t it used if the sex with Camb was consensual? The answer, claimed the defence, was that she was already pregnant. She had allowed a man she barely knew to pay for her first-class passage and had more than one romantic dalliance in South Africa. Their main defence, though, was that Gay had an underlying medical condition. An officer in the A.T.S. claimed that she attended Gay Gibson after a fit. She found Gay ‘lying on a bed, her back arched, her tongue at the back of her throat. She was breathing heavily.’
Other witnesses described Gay as ‘hysterical and neurotic’. They had witnessed her turn blue and froth at the mouth before collapsing in a dead faint. Gay’s mother was furious. She was an ex-nurse and described her daughter as being in the rudest of health.
‘I am proud to be the mother of Gay Gibson- one of the finest types of English womanhood physically, mentally and morally.’
The jury believed her. Camb was sentenced to life in prison, only escaping the hangman’s noose because the abolition of the death penalty was being debated in Parliament. Winston Churchill was furious.
‘The House of Commons has, by its vote, saved the life of the brutal lascivious murderer who thrust the poor girl he had raped and assaulted through a porthole of the ship to the sharks.’
— Winston Churchill
Camb was released after serving 12 years in prison. He managed to stay out of trouble until 1967 when he attacked a 13-year-old girl and was jailed again. He was released in 1969 and travelled to Scotland where he gained work as a head waiter. Within months, he was charged with sexual misconduct with three schoolgirls. He was imprisoned once more and died of heart failure in 1978. To the bitter end, he denied the murder of Gay Gibson, a star whose light faded far too soon.
- ‘The Porthole Murder Case’ Dennis Herbstein
- ‘The Trial of James Camb’ Geoffrey Clarke
- ‘The Death of an Actress’ Anthony Brown
- ‘The Daily Mirror’
- ‘The Northern Echo’
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Ann Carney (author) from UK on March 22, 2020:
Thanks Tim, you take care of yourself during these awful times.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 21, 2020:
Fascinating and well written. I may avoid being a passenger on a ship for a bit now. I truly enjoyed your work. Thank you immensely.