There’s been a murder – said in my best Jim Taggart impression… or should that be, “There’s bin a murdah”? I should explain. It was the early hours of this morning when I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. There is nothing worse than trying to get to sleep and failing, so to take my mind off sleep, I turned the television on quietly so as not to disturb any of the sleeping bears. The BBC News Channel was telling the story of a murder case from 70 years ago aboard the cruise ship Durban Castle. Fresh evidence was casting doubt on the original conviction of a deck steward for the ghastly deed. The victim was a young actress thought to have been murdered on-board the ship but may actually have died from natural causes, it is now being claimed.
Although James Camb, a man with a history of sex assaults on young women, was convicted of murdering Gay Gibson, 21, a new book suggests she may have died of natural causes. Gay was on the Durban Castle, sailing from South Africa to Southampton, with dreams of making it in London’s West End, when she disappeared.
She had allegedly invited handsome Camb, who was 10 years her senior, into her first-class cabin. But just what happened inside Cabin 126 is still a mystery. Camb was found inside the cabin by a night watchman after alarm bells were pushed from beside Gay’s bed.
Camb was arrested at Southampton and claimed Gay suffered a fit and died during consensual sex, but admitted panicking and pushing her body through the porthole. His trial heard Gay’s urine was found in the cabin, with her blood and saliva, consistent with someone being strangled. Camb, who had been accused of sexually assaulting three other women, had scratches on his wrists and shoulders.
At Trial, Camb was convicted of killing the actress after he admitted throwing her body out of a porthole during the voyage to Southampton in 1947. He always insisted this was done in panic and that she had died following a medical episode while they were in bed together.
Her body was never found – something an author says casts doubt over his guilt.
Camb died 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”.
He had spotted the 21-year-old on the ship after it departed from South Africa, according to their fellow passengers. Camb, then 30, initially denied seeing her, but later admitted she had become ill while they were “being intimate” and was “frothing from the mouth”.
Actress Doreen Mantle – who later gained fame as Mrs Warboys in the sitcom One Foot in the Grave – shared a dressing room with Miss Gibson in South Africa prior to her return to England. She said it was understood she had a heart condition and was “not a well girl” before her death. Miss Gibson fainted several times during rehearsals and her lips would often “go blue”, Ms Mantle said. But she did not give evidence at Camb’s trial after her father persuaded her to stay in South Africa and to not get involved.
“I was in a terrible state,” she said. “I said ‘I could have saved his life because I don’t know that he did it.’”
Her version of events corroborated evidence submitted by their colleague, Mike Abel, who told the court he had also seen Miss Gibson faint and froth from the mouth during several medical episodes. But this was dismissed by the judge after Miss Gibson’s mother gave evidence stating her daughter had been in good health.
Antony Brown, who has authored a book about the case, told the BBC the absence of a body meant there would always be doubts about Camb’s guilt.
“If Gay Gibson did suffer any sort of condition that could have led to sudden natural death, it increases the chances of misadventure or manslaughter,” he said. “In other words, James Camb could have been telling the truth.”
Camb was originally sentenced to hang, but avoided capital punishment because a no-hanging bill was being discussed by parliament at the time. 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.
So this morning I sat there thinking, “If Camb went on to commit further sexual crimes, does that not add weight to the argument that he did the deed aboard the Durban Castle?” So I jumped onto the internet to see if there was anything I could find. This piece on the BBC News had left me with more questions than it had answered.
I found that although Camb was indeed arrested again, this was only because he was gay and committing sexual acts with another man in those days was a very serious crime. There was never any question that the acts for which he was later arrested were consensual. There was never any violence or force involved.
So did he commit murder aboard the ship or did he just panic when Gay Gibson died of an undiagnosed heart condition? Did he throw her body out of the porthole because of the panic and not to try and cover up a murder?
Thanks BBC News, I’m not going to get any sleep now, am I?