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.