The Porthole Murder – C.P.Dorries O.B.E. — 23rd January 2017.

Christopher Dorries, the Senior Coroner for Sheffield and Barnsley, was on his second visit to us.
This time, he delivered a talk on the so-called ‘Porthole Murder,’ when a 21-year old girl called Gay Gibson (her stage name) dis­ap­peared from the MV Durban Castle, a 17,000-ton cruise ship, in 1947, in shark infes­ted waters 90 miles off the West African coast on a voyage from South Africa to Southampton.
The murder trial included a beau­ti­ful act­ress, sex, a ‘ladies’ man’ deck stew­ard who pur­sued her, and a body which dis­ap­peared without trace from the small 80 sq ft cabin, No 126, which had a 17’’ dia­meter open­ing porthole.
Gay Gibson, born in India in 1926, did war ser­vice in the ATS and Intelligence branch. When she was dis­charged from the forces she was given a med­ical and passed as fully fit with a normal heart rhythm (evid­ence rel­ev­ant to the trial). She had aspir­a­tions to be on the stage, and after the war she went to stay with her par­ents in South Africa.

She joined a trav­el­ling show, worked and played hard and had an affair which led her to seek advice on con­tra­cep­tion from a doctor (this led to sup­pos­i­tion that she may have thought later that she was preg­nant). There was also a report at that time that she had fein­ted whilst having sex (another rel­ev­ant fact in the trial). The show she was appear­ing in closed down and, on Friday 10th October 1947, she boarded the Durban Castle, bound for the UK.
James Camb – 31 years old, mar­ried with a child — had served on Arctic con­voys during WW2 and was a deck stew­ard (bar hand) on the Durban Castle. He had a repu­ta­tion as a ladies’ man who desired ‘female con­quests.’
Gay Gibson was in First Class, prob­ably paid for by someone else (her lover who had made her pos­sibly preg­nant). James Camb was not per­mit­ted to go to the cabin areas, but he pur­sued her nev­er­the­less and was once seen tres­passing in those areas.
On 17th October, after dining with two friends she had met on board, Gay went to her cabin and was never seen again. The cabin maid raised the alarm the next day when there was no sign of her, her pyja­mas or long dress­ing gown.
During the night of the 17th/18th at 2.48am, both stew­ards’ but­tons in cabin 126 (one for a female stew­ard, one for a male stew­ard) were vig­or­ously pressed. No stew­ards were on duty, but the night­watch­man heard the bells and because both had been pressed he thought it was urgent, so within one minute he was there and opened the door ajar without knock­ing. He saw what he knew to be James Camb’s arm and knew Cambs’ voice when he said ‘’It’s OK. Everything is alright.” He assumed that, with the man’s repu­ta­tion, it was just another of his female affairs, so he went away. However, he went to the cap­tain and repor­ted the incid­ent, but did not men­tion James Camb by name, so the Captain thought it was just a lovers’ tiff and dis­missed it as not some­thing to inter­fere with.
When a search of the ship the next day didn’t find the girl, the night­watch­man then men­tioned James Camb, who was ques­tioned and denied any know­ledge of the situ­ation. He claimed he was being vic­tim­ised, but his mates did not believe him, espe­cially because of his repu­ta­tion, and he was unusu­ally wear­ing long sleeved shirts which covered scratches on his arms, which he said was prickly rash. He was how­ever arres­ted in the UK on 25th October 1947 and ini­tially just allowed to talk to explain his actions.
However, after ques­tion­ing began and he had picked up on the fact that Ms Gibson had allegedly in the past fein­ted whilst having sex, he said: ‘’So she might have died of a heart attack and not been murdered’’. He then admit­ted that he had been to see her as she had asked for a drink in her cabin. She had let him in, wear­ing only a long dress­ing gown and she had agreed to have sex, during which she went limp. He thought she had had a seizure. He pan­icked and put her through the porthole (it was proved in court that this was pos­sible) and then returned to his own cabin and pre­ten­ded noth­ing had happened.

The evid­ence against him was that he didn’t make any effort to get help, and merely gave her arti­fi­cial res­pir­a­tion for more than 30 minutes although he had no real idea how to do that. If he had thought she had died of nat­ural causes, why didn’t he leave the body for a post mortem? Stains on the sheets were pos­sibly com­men­sur­ate with death by stran­gu­la­tion. Why throw an unused pair of pyja­mas out of the porthole if she was naked, as he said?
He had changed his story and lied. The jury took 45 minutes to find him guilty. Further damning stor­ies then sur­faced about his pre­vi­ous beha­viour. He was sen­tenced to hang, but Parliament was debat­ing a repeal of the hanging bill at that time and his sen­tence was changed to life impris­on­ment. He was released in 1958.
In 1971 he was con­victed of assault­ing young girls and served a fur­ther seven years in prison. He was released in 1978, but died in 1979.
There are murders today at sea, though usu­ally to do with drug run­ning. Chris assured us that, although recor­ded hom­icides in the 1880s were the same as now, crime is down and the length of sen­tences are up.
We will no doubt be invit­ing Chris to return to give us another talk, but prob­ably not the one he gives to lady audi­ences ‘’The Quickest Way to a Mans’ Heart is with a Bread Knife’’.
It was a very grip­ping morn­ing.