A promising 21 year old actress who lived as she wished, not to the conventions of the day, goes missing on a cruise ship.
Series 3 episode 22 (84)
The Pothole murder of Gay Gibson.
Eileen Isabella Ronnie ‘Gay’ Gibson, known as Gay Gibson was born in India on 16 June 1926, her father worked in India and Iran and as a child she had been sent to England to be educated. From an early age she had been interested in a theatrical career.
At the age of 17 she served in the ATS (Women’s army) during world war 2 which had started when she was 13 years of age.
Gay was transferred to a theatrical touring company called ‘Stars in battledress’ performing throughout Europe, Gay taking leading roles in the productions, she was highly thought of as an actor and was thought to have the potential for a career on the stage and film.
Gay was described as star quality, but some said that she was temperamental and perhaps neurotic, but everyone thought she was reliable and never missed a performance, she had a professional attitude towards her career.
In February 1947, Gay had been granted compassionate leave to visit her parents who were relocating to South Africa. She was given a full medical on her release and she was graded A.W.1; (which seems to mean top condition for a female with good vision), so her general physical condition was good, her hearing was a little impaired owing to an old infection of the ear and she was a little wheezy from a recent cold but this would soon pass. Her mother who was a state registered nurse said that Gay had always enjoyed good health.
It was a private Dalby who had performed with Gay during 1946 with ‘Stars in Battledress’ who would describe Gay as hysterical and neurotic based on an incident when she had a hysterical attack in an Officer’s mess when she was infatuated with an army driver called Pierre. This was the only incident that Dalby referred to and this seems to have been an incident when she became drunk and had been working hard.
Her mother said that she was not particularly interested in men or marriage, she had one interest in life and that was her theatrical career.
While in South Africa in 1947, Gay joined a repertory company performing a play called ‘The Silver Cord’. Gay was such a success that she was offered another starring role in ‘The Golden Boy’ opposite Eric Boon a well known ex-boxer who was considered to be a womaniser and party loving playboy.
The actress had not had a happy experience in playing ‘Lorna’, a prizefight manager’s morally-ambiguous girlfriend in Golden Boy, a South African production that paid very little in salary. Witnesses were later to state that Gay Gibson was, in real life, close to the role she had last played. She had proved to be an emotional actress subject to fits of hysteria and fainting. Could it be that she was a very young actress playing a leading role and not getting much support?
There were suggestions that Gay was considered promiscuous for the time and used contraception. She travelled with a theatrical company and was away from home so she would have had opportunities to carry on affairs. There were unsubstantiated rumours of her being pregnant (although if she was using contraception, this seems a contradiction). There were to prove many rumours about Gay, none substantiated by any facts. What does seem to be true was that Gay was a 21 year old a long way from home and surrounded by manipulative people.
There were also rumours that Gay had an undiagnosed medical problem. An actress that worked and shared a dressing room with her in South Africa; and appeared on British tv called Doreen Mantle (Mrs Warboys in the sitcom ‘one foot in the grave’?) claimed that Gay had a heart condition and would faint during rehearsals and her lips would often go blue. If this was true, she only reported it over 50 years later! There were never any medical records suggesting that there was a problem.
Gay Gibson decided to travel back to the UK., she had become noticed and had been offered roles in the West End of London which would boost her career and had testimonials and letters of introduction to theatrical contacts.
Gay was young and it seemed that she had a promising theatre career, she must have been a tough personality having toured during wartime, toured in different countries a long way from home, never missing a performance and she was just 21 years of age.
Gay was to travel back on the Union Castle line ship the Durban Castle that left South Africa on the 10thOctober, the voyage would take about 12 days.
The Union castle line had at least one express sailing a week: Cape town, South Africa to Southampton. It seems that it was a pleasurable cruise for the passengers with a lot of entertainment laid on, there is a Facebook page for passengers to share their happy memories and link up. The Union Castle ships, carried the mail, cargo and passengers, the service continued until 1977 when passengers were lost to airlines and cargo to Container ships.
The Durban castle had rows of cabins and Gay had one of the better cabins, an outside cabin, number 126 with a porthole facing the sea, on ‘B’ deck . The cabins lower down in the boat were for those with a third class ticket. ‘B’ deck had a shaded area where some of the first class passengers such as Gay Gibson were berthed.
The top deck was the promenade deck where the lounges, smoking room and games areas were to be found. Above that there is the boat deck and the sun deck.
Cabin 126 was less than 9 foot by 9 foot. The porthole was in the middle of the outer wall above the bed and opened inwards and upwards. The ship sailed on
October 1947 and the trip would take between 11 and 14 days.
The Durban Castle was built in 1938 and broken up in 1962.
For this trip, the Durban Castle was travelling light, 60 passengers, only a third of capacity. there were not a lot of young people on board. Gay had been allocated a dining table in the first class lounge with Mr Hopwood, official of the Union castle line and Wing-Commander Bray. Both men charming but considerably older than her, they dined together each evening and they became friendly after just a couple of days.
Gay seemed disinclined to take any active part in the social life of the ship being content with walks round the deck with the two men. She was said to be quiet but friendly and easy to get on with. She was happy to talk about her life on stage but did not give much away about herself.
On the night of 17/18 October 1947 at 2.58 the watchman’s bell rang and the cabin lights were showing red and green for cabin 126, indicating that buttons had been pushed inside cabin 126 on the button board near the bed summoning assistance from both a steward and a stewardess, it being very unusual for both to be called at the same time.
The nightwatchman’s assistant, Mr Steer went to cabin 126 , knocked and tried to enter, the door opened a few inches and was slammed in his face.
Steer just saw a man’s face, it was James Camb, a deck steward. Camb said “its alright’ as he slammed the door. Steer must have thought that the passenger Gay Gibson was having a fling with Cambs.
James Camb was a deck steward and his duties were to tend to the wants of the passengers in the saloons and the lounges and on deck. He would also prepare trays to be taken to the cabins of passengers but he was not to take the trays himself. James Camb should not have been on ‘B’ deck, it was an area out of bounds for him.
Steer went to tell the nightwatchman Mr Murray what had happened, and they returned to the cabin. The door was closed, they waited five minutes, watching and listening, but nothing.
It was now about 3:10am and Murray was due to report to the Bridge so he left Steer outside the door to cabin 126. Murray told the Officer what had happened, bells had been rung, a man was seen in the cabin of Miss Gibson but he had slammed the door saying everything was alright, Murray not saying that they thought it was James Camb that had been seen, it seemed that they were protecting a fellow crew member. The officer of the watch dismissed him saying that the morals of the passengers were not his affair, thinking that two passengers had been in the cabin.
Murray went back to cabin 126, the light was still on, he returned again 10 minutes later and the lights were off and all was silent. Murray and Steer decided to leave the matter and resume their duties.
Later that morning, at 7:30 am, the stewardess Miss Field went to cabin 126 and receiving no answer to her knock, tried the door, which was open, Gay normally kept her door lock and so the maid thought she had gone to use the bathroom as the cabin was empty. Field started to tidy up, she found the bed more disturbed than usual and there were stains on the sheets.
when Gay did not return after the cabin was tidied, Field went in search of Gay and when she discovered that nobody had seen her, she reported the matter.
The captain of the boat ordered that the ship’s tannoy system be used to appeal for information, as there was no response, a message was put out to all ships in the area asking for any information. It was assumed that Gay Gibson had gone overboard and so the Durban Castle tracked back for an hour but soon resumed its course after it became clear it was a hopeless case, the ship being about 100 miles from land and in waters that contained sharks including the Great White.
Meanwhile an investigation was underway on the boat and the Master learnt that James Camb had been seen in the cabin by Mr Steer; Camb denied this saying that he had returned to his cabin
.The captain put an extra lock on the door of cabin 126 and ordered that it remained undisturbed for the rest of the voyage so that the police could investigate when the ship reached Southampton.
Inquiries continued, William Pott shared a cabin with Camb which caused more suspicion to fall onto Camb as it could not be confirmed that he returned to the cabin shared by six other men at the time he claimed to be asleep.
Captain Patey told Camb that he was suspected in playing some part in the disappearance of Miss Gibson, Camb agreed to a medical examination by the ship’s surgeon Dr.Griffith.
Griffith found scratches on Camb’s shoulder and wrists, Camb insisted that he had nothing to do with Miss Gibson’s disappearance and he had inflicted the scratches on himself when feeling itchy in the heat and roughly used a towel on himself.
Two days later Steer came into contact with Camb in the crew wash house and Camb asked Steer if he had told the captain that it was him that was seen in cabin 126. Steer who had been instructed what to say when he came into contact with Camb replied that he had not.
Camb is said to have replied ‘Thank Goodness, as I have not been with her homeward bound this trip, I am in a tight jam’. A strange remark as Camb had never before been on a ship with Gay Gibson.
So, who was James Camb? He was a 31 year old married man of stocky build, his home address being Clover Street, Glasgow. He had a young daughter of three years of age.
He had spent most of his life working at sea as a steward on the large liners.
On the Durban Castle he was said to be unpopular with other members of the crew and had an unpleasant reputation over his attitude and actions towards women.
While working on the Durban Castle, he was known to have assaulted women passengers on three different occasions. He had once entered a woman’s cabin and was only repelled after a struggle, he had also tried to force his attentions on a young girl in her cabin and the third case, he tried to strangle a woman passenger on deck in a shelter where tools were stored, she lost consciousness and woke to find Camb standing over her.
No action was ever taken against Camb because none of the women were prepared to testify fearing the publicity. This may have emboldened Camb who had a tendency to force himself onto women. These were the incidents that were know of, there may well have been many others.
The ship’s master, Arthur Patey continued his investigations and discovered that three days into the voyage Miss Field, Miss Gibson’s stewardess had spoken to James Camb, the steward on the promenade deck, and he told her that Gay Gibson was pregnant. Miss Field said that if that was true, it was a dangerous thing to say and she ended the conversation.
On Friday 17th 5.00pm , Miss Field Saw James Camb near Gay Gibson’s cabin, she told him that it was forbidden for him to be on a passenger deck and if he did not leave she would report him.
About 2 hours later, Miss Field saw Gay Gibson for the last time, she was dressed in a black evening gown and silver shoes for a dinner/dance that was taking place that evening.
As usual, Gay dined with Mr Hopwood and wing commander Bray and took coffee with them afterwards. She had had a couple of drinks and as it was such a hot night some people said that they were going for a swim, she said that she was going back to her cabin for a swim suit, half an hour later she returned to say that she was unable to find it, this was the only time during the evening that she had been out of sight of Hopwood or Bray.
During the half an hour Gay went to find a swim suit, the ship’s senior watchman James Monay heard Gay Gibson and Camb talking together, Camb was saying:
“ I have a bone to pick with you”. Monay was unable to hear any more of the conversation
Gay was escorted to her cabin later that evening by Mr Hopwood at about 12.20am. After she Hopwood and Wingco Bray had been on the promonade deck together.
Gay was seen a little later by a member of the crew smoking a cigarette outside her cabin, looking out to sea by herself.
Like all ships, there were always rumours but the crew tended to keep quiet about anything affecting other members of the crew. I spoke to someone with experience of this and he said that each ship had a reputation. Some boats were drinking boats, some boats were homosexual boats , some boats were druggy boats, and so on. The crew members often asked to be part of a particular crew.
There had been many rumours about James Camb wanting to have sex with women, he was said to have a woman on every boat and in every port. Although he was thought to be a womaniser, he was not thought to be capable of murder.
There was a dance on the first night of the voyage for the passengers. Gay Gibson danced with several male passengers and was noticed by Camb who remarked to another steward serving that night the ‘he had half a mind to take a drink to her cabin that night’. Such a remark was typical of the kind made by Camb who had a high opinion of himself and thought he was irresistible to young women. He wore his black hair slicked back and thought he resembled Tyrone Power the Hollywood actor. Camb had the nickname ‘Don Jimmy’ after Tyrone Power’s role of Don Diego in the 1940 film ‘The Mark of Zorro’. Camb was always boasting of his conquests to other members of the crew and if they criticised him he would reply that they were jealous of him.
There was another rumour that was going around the crew that Miss Gibson was having a fling with a Junior officer on board the boat, a South African who had his own cabin.
The crew thought that James Camb had gone to have sex with Gay Gibson after she had been giving him the ‘come on’ there had said to have been some flirting chit chat when Camb said to Gay Gibson that he had a mind to come to her cabin for a drink to which she was said to have replied ‘its up to you’. This conversation was never authenticated.
After she went missing, rumours went swirling around the ship that there was an arrangement that Camb would go to her cabin at 1.00am she would keep her door unlocked and join her, this having been a method used by Camb in the past.
Camb flatly denied having been in Gay Gibson’s cabin, insisting that Steer was mistaken. He drew suspicion, however, during the rest of the voyage by wearing a long sleeve jacket when short sleeve uniforms were commonly worn in that tropical zone. Camb was hiding the scratches on his arm, possibly caused by Gay Gibson fighting for her life, while he continued his duties for the rest of the voyage.
Although most of the crew thought that Gay must have gone overboard, there were rumours about Camb after he was said to have been seen in her room just before she went missing. Given Camb’s previous history some of the crew must have thought that Camb may have had something to do with her disappearance and they must have recalled and thought of the case of 34 year old Ivan Poderjay.
Ivan Poderjay was suspected of smuggling his dead wife aboard the Olympic in December 1933 leaving New York bound for Southampton. It was just thirteen years since that case.
It seems fairly certain that Ivan Poderjay commited bigamy by marrying wealthy Agnes Tufverson from Chicago and disposed of her dead body from a porthole.
Although Poderjay was extradited to the USA; without a body being found, he was only charged with bigamy. He served five years in prison but the judge voiced his opinion that Poderjay should have been before the court for murder.
Poderjay was released from prison on 1 Feb 1940.
This was the only other murder where it was suspected that the body of a woman had been pushed through a porthole without the need for dismemberment, although there had been other suspected murders at sea, three alone on the Queen Mary. All of these cases involving the port of Southampton. There is an organisation called International Cruise victims as it seems that there are many people going missing on cruises in modern times.
The Gay Gibson disappearance aroused a great deal of public interest and press speculation. While the Durban Castle was still at sea, newspapers had published reports about the trouble on board. It was the sort of story that sold newspapers, the youth, beauty and promise of the missing woman, the lack of a body, the fact she had disappeared mid ocean. That the woman had starred opposite the very well known Eric Boon, playboy and lightweight boxing champion. The case became known as the ‘Porthole murder’.
Newspaper reports said that police officers had flown to meet the ship in the Azores, but this was not true and those on board the ship continued their voyage with an atmosphere of intrigue and rumour as James Camb continued his duties with the rest of the crew. That must have been a strange situation for the crew, I would assume that the passengers had no idea of the rumours.
The Durban Castle arrived at Cowes roads (deep water moorings near the entrance to Southampton water). At 1.25am 26th October, the Southampton police came on board, inspected the cabin and interviewed Camb. The police told him that he was suspected of being involved in Miss Gibson going missing and he was escorted to Southampton Police H.Q. Photographs were taken of the cabin.
After further questioning, Camb changed his story and said that Miss Gibson had asked him to leave a glass of rum for her when the bar had closed for the night. At 11.00pm, he saw her going towards her cabin and he followed her to ask if she wanted lemonade with her rum, he said she was looking for a swim suit, she told him that she did not want any lemonade and so he left and went back to his duties.
The police were not persuaded by Camb’s story. They told him that there was evidence that Miss Gibson had been pushed through the port hole (window of the cabin). Apparently fabric fibres had been found; and if the police were able to place Camb in her cabin then it would be very difficult for him.
Camb asked if that meant that he had murdered her and he would be charged with murder. Camb was told that if he had a reasonable explanation for Miss Gibson’s death and disappearance it would not be believed if he didn’t tell the truth now.
Camb then asked that if Miss Gibson had died from a cause other than being murdered, like a heart attack or something, it would not be murder?
While Camb was thinking about his next moved, police officers asked him if he was in the habit of visting female passengers rooms, Camb admitted that he did and he had spent time alone with them in their cabins on other trips, but if he would be found out, he would get the sack.
Then Camb said that he wished to make a statement which became his final story
CAMB WAS A LIAR AND TOLD MANY DIFFERENT STORIES, WE SHALL CONCENTRATE ON HIS FINAL VERSION CONCOCTED AFTER HE HAD SPOKEN TO THE POLICE AND FOUND OUT WHAT THEY KNEW OR SUSPECTED.
Camb said that on the second or third day out from Cape Town, the 11th or 12th October, he saw Miss Gibson sitting alone in a bay window in the long gallery. She ordered a drink and they fell into conversation, she told him that she had been acting in Johannesburg and was deeply in love with a man named Charles and she thought that she may be pregnant., but it was still too early to tell.
She then asked Camb if she could have afternoon tea in her cabin and Camb explained that she could ring for the cabin steward who would take it to her after Camb himself had prepared it.
That afternoon, Camb said that he received a message asking him to take the tray personally and he went to her cabin to say that this was not possible as it was against the rules and anyway he would be serving on deck at that time.
While he was with her in cabin 126, she gave him a standing order for a supper tray to be prepared by him and bought to her by the night watchman when she rang for it.
Camb said that they had several conversations over the next few days but he could not recall the subject matter.
On the 16th October, Miss Gibson asked him to leave a large rum for her when the bar closed to be left on the ‘bottle box’ (not sure what this is, presumably a box for empty bottles).
Camb said that he finished work at about 1.00am and went to cabin 126 but found it was empty, so he went to smoke a cigarette and returned to Miss Gibson’s cabin at about 2.00am where he met with her . He said that she was wearing dressing gown with nothing underneath the gown and after some conversation got into her bed with her at her consent and sexual intercourse took place.
During the sexual act, Camb said that Miss Gibson suddenly clutched at him foaming at the mouth, he immediately stopped and she lay very still. He felt for her heart beat but he said there was none.
When he was asked how the bells were rung to attract attention, Camb said that he did not know how this happened and he was surprised when the night watchman Mr Steer knocked at the door and trying to open it. Camb said that he told the night watchman that everything was in order and closed the door and continued to try artificial respiration for a few minutes but could find no sign of life.
He claimed that he then panicked as he thought a report would be made to the officer of the watch and he would be found in a compromising position. Camb said that he took the lifeless body to the porthole which was still in the dressing gown and after a struggle he managed to jettison the body at about 3.30am.
Camb was quoted as saying that the body, upon hitting the water surface “made a helluva splash,” making almost a joke of his actions which was considered callous by the police interviewing him.
In the first police interview aboard the Durban Castle, Camb expressed wonder at the service bells having been pushed. “I cannot offer any explanation as to how the buttons came to be pushed, it does seem that he was truthful in that he did not known that presumably Gay Gibson had summoned help, which never came.
Camb then told the police who were questioning him that he was pleased to get it off of his mind and he was concerned that his wife may find out about the matter and could it be kept from her? If she finds out, Camb said that he would do away with himself. Camb seemed more concerned about his wife finding out about his indiscretions rather than a woman being killed.
Camb was detained by the police and charged with the murder of Gay Gibson.
A preliminary hearing took place before the Southampton magistrates whereby Camb said that he was not guilty of murder as she died in the way that he had described. He said that his mistake was in trying to conceal what had happened.
It became clear that the state of Gay’s health would be central to the trial that was to take place at Winchester assizes.
The prosecution approached Professor Webster at Birmingham for his opinion as whether Miss Gibson could have died in the way described by Camb. Webster agreed that it was a possibility, and that information was passed onto Camb’s defence team
The Case was heard at Winchester Assizes on Thursday 18th March 1948, the court being full and the case being headline news in the popular press although it was an important day in politics for a number of stories, not least the signing of the Treaty of Brussels being a big step towards the founding of the EEC.
James Camb who seemed to be a calm and cool replied ‘Not guilty sir’ when the indictment was read out.
The prosecution barrister accused Camb of murdering Gay Gibson and throwing her body which may have been alive or dead through the porthole 90 miles from land, after she had rejected his advances. She had rung bells for help and scratched Camb and he had strangled her and threw her out of the porthole to get rid of the evidence.
Amongst the exhibits produced by the prosecution was a scale example of the cabin with a porthole.
Bloodstained sheets, with the presumed blood of Gay Gibson.
A female contraceptive device, a pessary with spermicide was found, a Coronex contraceptive, a pessary (a Dutch cap) with Coronex contraceptive jelly found in a large brown suitcase.
This indicated that she was not actually using contraception at the time she went missing, possibly because she was not expecting a sexual encounter or possibly that she was already pregnant and there was no longer the need to use contraception.
There was no disagreement over the fact that James Camb was with Miss Gibson the night that she died or the fact that he had put her through the porthole, the question was did he murder her? The evidence was to prove troublesome
Witnesses for the prosecution agreed that the characteristic signs of death from strangulation were present but the signs were equally consistent with death from natural, cuases.
The common features of strangulation were the blood stained saliva stains on the sheet and scratches of the wrists and neck of Camb. There were also traces of urine in the bed, showing that the body had voided the bladder during strangulation.
Professor Webster also explained how death may have occurred from natural causes for example the bursting of a small congenital aneurism in the brain, a condition which was undiagnosable prior to death. Or it may have been a result of heart disease, in a case of somebody of Gay Gibson’s age this would be indirect heart disease resulting from a septic focus in the body (septicemia)
or from a condition bought on by asthma. It seemed that Professor Webster wasn’t going to rule anything out.
Those who sat through the court case thought it was generally considered that strangulation was more likely reason for death on the evidence presented, especially as Gay had been given health examininations when she had left the army just seven months previously which showed that she was in good health.
The Defence barrister Mr Caswell was going to have to prove that Gay’s death was from natural causes. He was also going to have to make aspersions over the character of Gay Gibson in particular her sexual history which would have been considered outrageous for a 1940’s audience but would have corroborated Cambs story that he was invited to her cabin for sex.
Caswell started his defence by saying that it is never pleasant to have to attack the character of a dead person, especially when the person is a girl, but it seems that Gay Gibson was not averse to a casual sexual adventure.
Gay’s mother stood firm as she said how proud she was to be the mother of Gay Gibson the finest type of English womanhood, physically, mentally and morally, when she was questioned but it must have been difficult for her when confronted the names of alleged boyfriends put to her and that Gay used contraception. Premarital sex being taboo in the UK before the sexual revolution of the 1960s; although it was common, it was pretended that it didn’t happen as a result of the conventions introduced during the Victorian period.
The Defence asked about Gay’s passage being paid for her back to the UK from South Africa. Gay’s mother said it was a loan by a businessman wanting to back Gay’s acting career, the loan to be repaid after she had made a success of herself. The alternative story was that Gay had been paid off £350 after getting pregnant by a nightclub owner.
The Defence had hired a private investigater to find witnesses in South Africa to come and give evidence at the trial, they only invited witnesses that helped prove Cambs story.
Henry Gilbert was the producer of ‘Golden Boy’ in which gay Gibson starred, Mike Abel was an actor who played a gangster in Golden boy. Gilbert’s wife Doctor Shoub who was said to be Gay’s confident and helped advise her.
All three of these people agreed that Gay was neurotic and hysterical and on several occasions she had fainted for no apparent reason. They also said that Gay had told them that her parents had been killed in the bombing of London during the Blitz and her two brothers had perished in the Navy when in fact all were alive and well.
There may have been other explanations for such behaviour that were not explored, also no matter how temperamental Gay Gibson may have been, her health must have been quite robust to go through arduous rehearsals and the strain of playing a leading role without missing one days absence.
There seems to be room to think that their testimonies can’t be that trusted. It was suggested that Mr Abel (and his wife), Mr Gilbert and Doctor Ena Schoub had been bought from South Africa and wined and dined on public funds to give evidence for the defence, and it was something of a holiday for them.
Also there were people ready to vouch for the character of Gay Gibson that had got to know her well, such as her landlady who were not invited to come across and speak for the prosecution.
It was later claimed by the daughter of Ena Gilbert (Schoub) that Mike Abell did not tell everything at the trial because he had been having an affair with Gay Gibson and Abell’s pregnant wife was watching him give evidence in court. She said that Ena had told her some years later that Abell and Gay Gibson were having sex in his car when she had a fit and Abell had thought she had died as she went completely limp and lifeless, a few minutes later she woke up! And another similar case was stated when they were returning from a show she fainted and it was again thought she had died when she suddenly woke up as if nothing had happened! If this information had come out when they were giving their evidence it would have helped the case of James Camb as it would have suggested that Gay Gibson had a medical condition. It was never proved that there was a problem with Gay Gibson’s health.
The Defence called witnesses to give evidence regarding Gay Gibson’s health, but this was not convincing. A Miss Evelyn Armour was an officer in the ATS who said while she was serving in London during July 1946 she was called to see a girl who was ill in the billets. It was said to be Gay Gibson who was said to be lying on a bed facing upwards with the back of her head and her heels on the bed and her back arched. Her tongue was in the back of the throat and she was breathing heavily.
Professor Webster said he thought it may be a mild epileptic attack or a hysterical attack. ( he also suggested tetanus or strychnine poisoning) . But it was of no matter because no official report had been made and therefore she wasn’t seen by any medical specialist and Mr Dalby who had also been called to the Defence said that Gay was not in London during this time as she was on tour with ‘Stars in battledress’ and Miss Armour was sure on the dates, so more confusing and useless evidence.
It seems that the Defence did not convince anyone regarding Gay Gibson being ill with heart trouble or something to cause her to have fits. All the witnesses could be criticised for one reason or another. All the actual evidence pointed to Gay Gibson being in robust health.
It seemed that the case was to be decided on four questions:
Who rang the bells calling for stewards the night Gay went missing , and why?
There was a bell panel situated by the side of the bed in cabin 126. There was a button to turn on a green light for a stewardess and a red light for the steward.
Both of these buttons had been pushed in Gay Gibson’s room before she went missing.
The nightwatchman had gone to investigate , knocked at the door with no answer , so he tried the handle and the door opened, he saw James Camb standing in the room wearing a white singlet and dark trousers. Camb said “it is alright” before slamming the door.
There was no sight or sound from Gay Gibson.
Steer had reported it to the nightwatchman Mr Murray. They had reported it to the officer on watch who dismissed it as two passengers in the cabin, not having been told it was the steward James Camb.
Steer and Murray were a little unsure of what to do, they went back to the cabin and saw that the lights were out and all was silent, so they let the matter rest.
In retrospect it seems clear that Camb went to the room for sex, possibly after being encouraged by Gay Gibson; he says at 2.00am, but we only have his word for that timing. She did not bolt the door and the lights signalling assistance did not go off until 3.00am an hour later.
We do not have any witnesses to say that Gay Gibson was leading James Camb on, encouraging him to go to her cabin. The unbolted door must have been down to Camb as he was the last person to enter the room.
The forensic evidence seems a little weak, there is no record of semen being found, it was not discussed if Camb was a condom user.
Camb was certain that he did not ring the bells by design or accident. The circuit was tested and found to be in good working order.
The buttons could not be pressed accidentally as they needed a certain pressure.
The only real explanation is that Gay Gibson pressed them to summon help, pressing both buttons as help was required urgently.
It was also suggested that the Watchman assistant knew it was Camb in the room and did not ask to see Gay Gibson as he was accustomed to Camb’s numerous ‘shipboard romances’
Why did James Camb throw the body overboard?
There was a popular fallacy that a person could not be convicted of murder if no body had been found, so this would be a reason for Camb to jettison the body of Gay Gibson, he would have been aware of the Podenjay case.
The Defence said that Camb had panicked when Gay Gibson had died and was not thinking straight. He wanted to give the impression that Miss Gibson had fallen overboard and to deny all knowledge of having been in her cabin and hope that the Master’s further inquiries would not be too intensive.
The prosecution had argued convincingly that Camb was not the sort to panic and had been a cool and collected witness throughout the process.
During the trial, his Defence barrister asked Camb if he realised that the body of a dead person is the most valuable evidence as to the cause of death? And if innocent then you have destroyed the best evidence in your favour. Camb said that he did not think of that at the time.
The Prosecution were correct in pointing out that if Miss Gibson had died a natural death as Camb claims it would have been much easier for him to slip away unobserved from the cabin. The prosecution continued that if Camb had thought she had fainted, why would he attempt artificial respiration? Give her water or brandy or smelling salts, or would it be much to expect him to summon a doctor?
How did Camb come to have the scratches on his wrist?
When Camb got up on the 18th October, the morning Gay had gone missing he was wearing a white stewards jacket rather than a simple cotton vest that he normally wore. This was to hide scratch marks on his wrist and neck which the prosecution said had been inflicted by Gay Gibson trying to fight him off.
When he realsied that he had to be examine by the ships surgeon Doctor Griffiths, who took photographs and explained them as being on the right side of his neck and on the rear of his neck about an inch in length and other scratch marks on his shouder blade, arms and wrist, thay were wounds as would be inflicted by a cats claw and they had been done recently, just hours before.
The wrist scratches had almost certainally been inflicted by human finger nails. The injuries were not consistant with scratching or using a rough towel, and there was no indication of skin irritation that may cause someone to itch themselves. It seems that this was damming evidence that camb could not explain away.
Where were the black pjamas?
Camb was caught in a number of untruths. He insisted that the actress had been wearing only a flimsy yellow nightgown with no undergarments when she invited him into her room.
Yet Gay Gibson’s black pyjamas which she was known to have packed and taken with her on the sea voyage, were missing and it was concluded that she had been wearing these when Camb pushed her through the porthole which further suggested that she had not invited the steward to have sex with her.
The prosecution insisted that Camb had invented the story of being invited into the cabin; that he arrived at the actress’ door under the pretext of delivering a drink to her and once she opened her door he forced his way inside and tried to rape her. She had fought back furiously, scratching his arms and wrists and he strangled her. Somehow, during the struggle, Gibson had managed to press the service buttons and this brought Steer to Cabin 126. By the time he arrived Camb had just finished murdering the actress and pretended that nothing was amiss. This seems to fit all the known facts.
Eileen Field, the maid that looked after Gay’s room said that her black pyjamas and her flowered dressing gown were nowhere to be found.
Camb claimed that he had been lying on top of Gay Gibson having sex with her when she died. This does not seem to be the truth, as when she died and voided her bladder, the urine went on the sheet and not onto Camb. The stain made a mark 15 by 9 inches on the sheet.
Camb said that Gay did not object to his advances, but the bell being rung tells us this was not the likely case.
Camb claims that Gay was naked but this was not true as she must have been wearing pyjamas when he pushed her through the porthole, if he had access to her body he would have known that she was wearing pyjamas.
The prosecution successfully argued that Camb was a liar when he claimed to have sexual intercourse with Gay, the disappearance of the black pyjamas and the non use of the contraception seems to indicate this. All the evidence that existed pointed to James Camb murdering Gay Gibson.
Camb had been badly savaged by Mr Roberts in cross examination. After giving his story, Mr Roberts asked Camb.
“Would you describe yourself as a truthful man? His reply being.
“ I think so sir”
Then, time after time, in Cross examination, Camb was forced to admit that he had lied to save himself. His answers were said to have been so callous that the words used, underlined the selfishness of his nature.
He agreed that he was not worried about Miss Gibson or her family, his main concern was that his wife would not find out about the affairs he was having with other women while at sea.
When Camb left the witness box it was said that he was cold blooded and after the evidence that he gave nobody would believe that he was the sort of person to panic.
The Defence continued to argue that Camb’s behaviour was consistent with that of a man in panic finding himself with a dead body. Camb saw the whole of his career and his marriage coming to an end and that was the reason for his panicked response by throwing Gay Gibson through the porthole.
Mr Joshua Caswell continued to argue for the defence that Professor Webster and other medical witnesses had said that Gay Gibson could have died in the manner described by Camb and there was some evidence that she was in poor health and if there was disagreement then there was doubt and therefore Camb should be given the benefit of that doubt. Also, he again suggested that Gay Gibson was the type of girl that would not be reluctant to invite a man to her cabin.
What Mr Caswell did not say was that Camb had changed his story six times and did not come up with his final version until he had ascertained what the police knew before constructing his final defence story.
It could be argued that Mr Caswell for the defence was gambling ‘all or nothing ‘on James Camb’s life. Caswell did not go for the option of manslaughter. He could have gone for the fairly standard defence in fatal rape cases in that ‘she started to scream and I accidently smothered her in trying to keep her quiet, that has been used quite a few times with success.
I suppose he could have used the autoerotic ‘sex games gone wrong’ excuse, so popular of late. This may not have gone done too well with a jury in the 1940s. However, the disposal of her body would seem to rule out a successful manslaughter defence.
Caswell seemed to rely on the fact that there was no proof that murder had taken place. He could have gone with a story that James Camb and Gay Gibson had rough sex, she had been drinking heavily and was depressed and started crying and acting strangely. Camb could say that he left her saying that she was going to end her life by jumping overboard, but he did not take her threat seriously. If there was reasonable doubt, that scenario may have been his best defence.
Mr Justice Hilberry gave his summing up which was thought to side with the case put forward by the prosecution.
He suggested that she may have invited him to her cabin and changed her mind. Or, maybe she invited him and not expecting him to do what he did and rang for help, which seems a likely scernaio.
After four days of trial and following a forty-five-minute deliberation, the jury found Camb Guilty of murdering Gay Gibson.
Camb, who had ‘lorded it’ in the dock, was stunned at the decision. Before sentence was passed by Justice Hilbery, he was asked if he had anything to say. He replied in a quavering voice: “My Lord, at the beginning of this case…I pleaded not guilty. I repeat that statement now. That is all.
The judge said that the sentence of the court upon you is that you are taken hence to a lawful prison, and then to a place of execution and you be hanged by the neck until death and then your body be buried within the precincts of the prison, and may the lord have mercy on your soul.
His attorneys filed an appeal and while this was being considered, the House of Commons added an amendment to the new Criminal Justice Bill then before Parliament, one which would abolish capital punishment. The Home Secretary, while this bill was still being debated in the House of Lords (which later rejected it), decided to commute all death sentences at that time, so it was fortunate timing for Camb in escaping the death penalty as he had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Winston Churchill's intervention
Camb was originally sentenced to hang, but avoided capital punishment because a no-hanging bill was being discussed by parliament.
Reacting to the news, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: "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."
Camb's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1959 but was convicted a number of years later of other sexual offences and spent his remaining years behind bars.
HE WAS RELEASED ON LICENCE IN SEPTEMBER 1959. HE KEPT OUT OF TROUBLE FOR SEVERAL YEARS BUT WAS EVENTUALLY ARRESTED FOR SEXUAL OFFENCES AGAINST SCHOOLGIRLS IN 1971 AND WAS SENT BACK TO PRISON FOR THE REMAINDER OF HIS SENTENCE. CAMB WAS CLEARLY A THREAT TO YOUNG WOMEN.
HE WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON IN 1978 AND DIED A YEAR LATER.in 1979 still protesting his innocence having maintained Ms Gibson had stopped breathing and was already dead when he threw her body from the cabin's porthole - something he later described as "beastly".