Historical Murders presented by Paul Stickler

The

Porthole Murder

aka Body Overboard

18 October 1947

Headshot for the Porthole Murder
Headshot for the Porthole Murder

On 18 October 1947, 21-year-old Gay Gibson disappeared from the Durban Castle ship as it sailed from Cape Town to Southampton.

When the police boarded the vessel upon its arrival in Southampton, they started an investigation. Slowly, a picture emerged that a first-class deck steward, James Camb, had been seen inside her cabin immediately before she went missing. For the week that Gibson had been on board, Camb claimed that he had become friendly with the missing woman and had served her with drinks on a number of occasions. When asked by the captain whether he had any knowledge of Gibson’s disappearance he said had not. He had injuries to his body for which he gave an innocent explanation but maintained that he was unable to assist with any helpful information. When later asked by the police, and confronted with the information that he had been seen inside the missing woman’s cabin, he now told a completely different story involving being invited to Gibson’s cabin and engaging in a sexual liaison.

Illustration for the The Porthole Murder
“I managed to lift her to the porthole and pushed her through. I am fairly certain that at the time she was dead, but I was terribly frightened.” James Camb, October 1947

What happened next was only known by Camb himself, but he claimed that moments later, Gibson was dead.

He panicked, decided to make it look like she had committed suicide and disposed of her body through the porthole. Camb was charged with her murder, despite her body never being found, and pleaded not guilty. The trial at Hampshire Assizes the following year occupied the front pages of newspapers and was made even more exciting by witnesses from South Africa providing important information for the jury as well as cutting edge forensic analysis and opinions. Camb was convicted but did not hang for reasons not to do with the murder itself but for a political debate which was taking place in the House of Commons. More details would emerge about Camb’s activities, and the story has a fascinating aftermath involving witnesses not presented to the court and a final twist to Camb’s final days.

The victim...
Victim Image
Eileen Isabelle Ronnie Gibson

Eileen Isabelle Ronnie Gibson, nicknamed Gay because she was always good company. Gay was born in India in 1926 to English parents Joe and daisy Gibson. She had two brothers, Paul and Joe both of whom also dies from unnatural causes after Gay’s death. She was brought up in Birkenhead before being called up for national service in 1945. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and later an entertainment company known as Stars in Battledress. It is known that she suffered from a significant ear infection and probably respiratory problems, and these may well have been contributing factors to her death. It is a moot point as to whether Gay was pregnant at the time of her death.

Another pile of photos from The Porthole Murder
  • Why was Gay Gibson in South Africa in the first place?

    She had accompanied her parents to Durban where her father worked for an oil company. She had secured work as an actress in Johannesburg before suddenly announcing she intended to travel back to Britain.

  • Was it possible to prosecute people for murder when there is no body?

    Yes, there were numerous precedents for juries being able to try defendants when no body existed. Clearly, the prosecution must prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the person is actually dead.

  • What do we know about the Durban Castle ship?

    The Durban Castle was one of many ships operated by the Union Castle Line in Southampton. It was a relatively small ship, 17,000 tonnes, which regularly sailed from Southampton to the Cape of Africa. It was built in 1938, used for military troop movements during the second world war and eventually scrapped in 1962.

  • Was a conviction for manslaughter available to the jury?

    Yes, though Camb was not able to rely on this outcome. Camb’s account of the death of Gay Gibson prevented him claiming that she had died as a result of a reckless act.

  • Was it actually possible for a body to be pushed through a porthole?

    Yes, though it measured only 16¾” in diameter. Gay was of slight build and the cabin bed was immediately below it. Two people present at the time of the trial have more recently said that a body could be passed through the porthole.

Further reading...
Cover of Death of an Actress

Death of an Actress

Antony M. Brown

2018

Presentations

The Porthole Murder case is available as a presentation. Whether delivered on world-wide cruise ships or in a local village hall, it's absorbing, informative, and entertaining. Contact Paul Stickler for more information...

Paul Stickler presenting on stage on a cruise ship