The speaker at the latest meeting of the Probus Club of Basingstoke, Paul Stickler, is a retired detective, an FBI graduate, with degrees in history and criminology and is working towards a PhD in history. He is well qualified to investigate cold cases such as he described – the Porthole Murder.
This was about a young woman aged 21 called Gay Gibson. Despite her name being Eileen Isabelle Ronnie Gibson she was called Gay because she was always happy. She had been discharged from the ATS after the war with medical advice not to travel in the tropics as an ear infection would be problematic. Headstrong as she was, she immediately joined her parents in Durban, South Africa where her father had been transferred with his job. Becoming bored she moved to Johannesburg as a secretary and then had ideas about becoming an actress. Moving to Cape Town she became involved in the theatrical world proving to have abilities in the acting scene.
Again, expressing boredom, she decided to return to England to develop her acting career. In 1947 she sailed first class on the Union Castle line MV Durban Castle non-stop from Cape Town to Southampton. On the voyage she vanished without a trace.
What was discovered showed that she had formed a relationship with 31 years old James Camb, a First Class deck steward. He initially denied any form of contact but then, following proof that his palmprint had been found on the inside of her cabin door, admitted Gay Gibson had died while they were in bed together.
He had panicked and managed to thrust her body through her cabin’s porthole which was why she was never to be seen again. Whether she was dead was impossible to establish but in evidence at the trial of James Camb, which attracted national newspaper headlines, he claimed she had gone rigid and was frothing at the mouth and blood had come from her nose. Such characteristics are seen if someone has been strangled.
Some actors had witnessed similar medical episodes during rehearsals in Cape Town when Gay Gibson had fainted, going rigid, frothing at the mouth and her lips turning blue. Crucially, all did not travel from South Africa for the trial. One was Doreen Mantle, who became well known as the character Mrs Warboys in the television series One Foot in the Grave. She shared a dressing room with Gay Gibson in the weeks prior to the sailing and witnessed similar medical episodes but was persuaded by her father not to get involved with the case. In contradictory evidence, believed by the jury, her mother claimed she was a well brought up English young woman without any known medical conditions. And yet her fellow actors knew that she was a party girl and there was some suspicion that she was pregnant.
At the Hampshire Assizes, held in the Great Hall, Winchester, the jury took only forty minutes to find James Camb guilty of her murder and he was duly sentenced to hang. He avoided capital punishment because a no-hanging bill was being discussed by parliament. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Reacting to the news, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said; “The House of Commons, 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.”
What emerged was that James Camb had tried to become involved with a sixteen and eighteen-year old girls on the same voyage but this was not used at the trial as this was before Gay Gibson vanished.
James Camb was released from prison in 1959 but was later convicted of other sexual offences and spent his remaining years behind bars. He died in 1979 still protesting his innocence about Gay Gibson’s death.
The audience were left to come to their own conclusions about the case. But the charge could have been one of manslaughter rather than murder if the true medical condition was able to be established that Gay Gibson died from natural causes. But without the body there could be no autopsy to establish the actual cause of death.
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