Murder, suspicious deaths and disappearing at sea aboard liners and cruiseships of the past.

Actress Gay Gibson, the victim, steward James Camb, the killer and the “death ship” Durban Castle. A first class passage from South Africa that turned from lust to murder aboard a cruise ship of the past.

Murder, suspicious deaths and disappearing at sea aboard liners from Cunard to Union-Castle have made cruise history.   The romantic decks of “The Love Boat” can be a very dangerous place.  And crimes still happen today aboard cruise ships.  The International Cruise Victims organization is an advocate group with many suspicious deaths listed.

As for cruising the past, history finds there were two or three murders supposedly linked to Cunard Line’s RMS Queen Mary before WW 2.  Another murder druing the during the winter of 1933 a certain Mr Poderjay most likely smuggled his dead wife aboard the liner RMS Olympic in a trunk and disposed of her out of a porthole.

Then in 1947, a decade later, another ship, another porthole and another body hit the headlines.  This time there were be no doubts about what really happened.

Porthole As Evidence – The porthole from Eileen Gibson’s cabin on the Union-Castle Line vessel Durban Castle is carried into Winchester Assizes during the murder trial of James Camb, 23rd March 1948. Camb was later convicted of murdering Gibson, an English actress, during a voyage from South Africa to England in October 1947. At the trial Camb admitted disposing of Gibson’s body through the porthole.

James Camb, a ship’s steward on board the Union-Castle Line vessel Durban Castle which plied between South Africa and England, was a predator who had attempted to seduce many female pasengers. On one fateful voyage, attractive 21years old actress Gay Gibson caught his eye.

She had recently appeared in a number of plays as part of her duties with the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. Gibson (‘Gay’ was a stage name – her real name was Eileen Isabella Ronnie Gibson) sailed for England from Cape Town in October, 1947; she occupied Cabin 126 on B deck – a First Class berth.

To South Africe in the 1940s by Union-Castle first class.  Gay Gibson never finished the passage.

On the 18th of that month, when the liner was about 150 miles off the West Coast of Africa, she was reported missing. It was initially assumed that Gibson had fallen overboard; Captain Arthur Patey ordered the ship turned about. Despite desperate searches of the shark-infested waters, no trace of her was found.

Captain Patey conducted an investigation on board as Durban Castle continued to steam toward Southampton. Watchman Frederick Steer reported that the service bell of Cabin 126 had been pushed several times – as if frantically – at 2:58 am on 18th October and he had responded to the call.

He stood outside the cabin and knocked. Steer noticed that both lights (red and green bulbs positioned outside the cabin) were on – indicating that the occupant had called for both the steward and the stewardess. Usually passengers rang for only one or the other. The door opened a crack and the watchman caught a brief glimpse of a man in uniform – James Camb – who quickly closed the door and said through the grille of the door: “It’s all right.” Steer went back to his duties, assuming that Camb (whom he knew to be a steward) had answered the passenger’s call.

The “Death Ship” DURBAN CASTLE.

Camb flatly denied having been in Gay Gibson’s cabin, insisting that Steer was mistaken. He drew suspicion, however, during the rest of the voyage by wearing a long sleeve jacket when short sleeve uniforms were commonly worn in that tropical zone. When asked to bare his arms, Camb revealed scratches which he claimed resulted from a tropical heat rash.

The Captain had promptly informed his chiefs at the Union Castle Line’s head office about the actress’ disappearance. Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigations Department relayed instructions: “…padlock and seal the cabin…disturb nothing…CID officers will come aboard at Cowes Roads.”

When the ship the drew into the waters at Cowes Roads, off Southampton, police officers came aboard and quickly gathered information about Gay Gibson and James Camb.

The actress had not had a happy experience in her most recent role, playing ‘Lorna’, a prizefight manager’s morally-ambiguous girlfriend in Golden Boy, a South African production that paid very little in salary. Witnesses were later to state that Gay Gibson was, in real life, close to the role she had last played. She had proved to be an emotional actress subject to fits of hysteria and fainting.

Before leaving South Africa, she had allegedly told a friend that she was pregnant. One account had it that she had accepted the fare of £350 for the voyage from a less-than-reputable nightclub owner.

Passengers attended a dance on the first night at sea; Gay Gibson was present, she danced with several male passengers and was noticed by Camb who remarked to another steward: “I have half a mind to take a drink to her cabin tonight.”

This kind of remark was typical of the 31-year-old Camb who wore his black hair slicked back like some Latin lover from the 1920’s. He thought of himself as irresistible to young women – though they tended to find his Lancashire accent more amusing than arousing.

To his shipmates, Camb was known as “Don Jimmy” – a notorious womaniser who, though married, boasted about having an affair with a female passenger on every voyage. Two women had accused him of rape in the past, but this did not lessen the ardour and efforts of Camb in approaching female passengers; he took great pride in attracting the prettiest women on each trip. Said one of his fellow stewards: “Jimmy was always saying that we were jealous of him.”

Camb was brought before Detective Sergeant Quinlan who interrogated him slowly; telling him that if he had any explanation for Gay Gibson’s disappearance, this was the time to volunteer such information. The steward then asked: “You mean that Miss Gibson might have died from a cause other than being murdered, she might have had a heart attack or something?” He said that Gay Gibson had invited him to her cabin that night and he had brought her a drink. She was wearing a nightgown with nothing on beneath it; she removed this garment and he climbed into bed with her. During sexual intercourse (Camb said), her body suddenly stiffened, then went limp. He climbed out of the bed and described how he saw that she was foaming brownish froth at the mouth and that only one eye appeared to be slightly open.

“I tried artificial respiration on her,” Camb claimed. “While doing this, the night watchman knocked at the door and attempted to open it. I shut the door…I panicked. I did not want to be found in such a compromising position.” He related how he went to the door of the cabin and told Steer that everything was “all right.” When Steer went away, Camb returned to the actress on the bed, saying that he “could not find any sign of life…After a struggle with the limp body, I managed to lift her to the porthole and push her through.”

In another police interrogation, Camb was quoted as saying that the body, upon hitting the water surface “made a helluva splash,” thus revealing his cruel, indifferent attitude toward Gibson. In the first police interview aboard the Durban Castle, Camb expressed wonder at the service bells having been pushed. “I cannot offer any explanation as to how the bells came to be rung as I most definitely did not touch them myself.” He admitted lying to the Captain about being in the actress’ cabin, stating he had decided to tell the truth later. “I realised,” Camb admitted, “that I was definitely incriminated by the witness Steer.”

Officers and crew aboard Durban Castle in the 1950s.

On 29th March, 1948, Camb was tried for murdering Gay Gibson before Justice Hilbery at the Winchester Asizzes, prosecuted by G.D. Roberts and defended by J.D. Casswell. His defence was a feeble one. He had already admitted shoving the body of Gay Gibson through a porthole for a lonely burial at sea. Camb undoubtedly and mistakenly thought that by getting rid of the body, he would be getting rid of the evidence of his crime, and that conviction was not possible without the presence of a body.

This, of course, was not the case; the previous murder-without-a-body case in England was that of Thomas Joseph Davidson who was convicted of drowning his 8-year-old son in 1934 and who had been sent to prison for life for the murder. In 1949, John George Haigh – The Acid Bath Murderer – was convicted despite his belief that no jury could find him guilty because he had dissolved his victims in sulphuric acid.

But there was evidence against Camb. The scratch marks on his arms had been examined by the ship’s physician, Dr. Griffiths, after Captain Patey had ordered the steward to submit to a medical examination. Griffiths testified that he found these marks on Camb’s shoulders and wrists and these scratches, in his opinion, had been made by a woman defending herself, not by someone undergoing some sort of seizure. Stains on the pillow in the cabin were examined by Dr. Donald Teare, a well-known pathologist and he testified that these were bloodstains. The blood was Type O. Since Camb’s blood was Type A, it could be assumed that this was blood from Gay Gibson’s body, not Camb’s. Dr. Teare stated that these stains, along with emissions of urine could be expected from one who had been strangled to death, emissions that would not stem from someone having a heart attack. Ironically, Dr. Frederick Hocking, a defense witness, reported that, indeed, urine stains had been found on the sheets of Gay Gibson’s bed.

South African Cricket Team returning to Capetown from the UK aboard the Durban Castle in 1948 – a year after the scandalous shipboard murder.

Camb was caught in a number of untruths. He insisted that the actress had been wearing only a flimsy yellow nightgown with no undergarments when she lured him into her room. Yet Gay Gibson’s black pajamas which she was known to have packed and taken with her on the sea voyage, were missing and it was concluded that she had been wearing these when Camb pushed her through the porthole which further suggested that she had not invited the steward to have sex with her.

The prosecution insisted that Camb had invented the story of being invited into the cabin; that he arrived at the actress’ door under the pretext of delivering a drink to her and once she opened her door he forced his way inside and tried to rape her. She had fought back furiously, scratching his arms and wrists and he strangled her. Somehow, during the struggle, Gibson had managed to press the service buttons and this brought Steer to Cabin 126. By the time he arrived Camb had just finished murdering the actress and pretended that nothing was amiss when he sent away the watchman. Some writers have suggested that the watchman Steer, though he knew that Camb was in the cabin, did not ask to see Gibson, the legitimate occupant, since he was accustomed the steward’s numerous “shipboard romances”.

Several people acquainted with Gay Gibson were brought from South Africa to testify for the Defence. Mike Abel, an actor who’d worked with Gay Gibson, swore that she had fainting fits five times in his presence. Henry Gilbert – the actor-producer – and his wife Dr Ina Schoub (who had seen her in her medical capacity) also stated that she suffered from a number of complaints – including Asthma. All three described Gibson as neurotic and sexually-active. The Defence evidently wished to make Camb’s story of accidental death sound more plausible by attacking the dead girl’s moral standards.

Officers aboard the Durban Castle in the 1950s in First Class Dining Room.

The steward’s own admission that he had callously shoved the victim’s body through a porthole worked against him, along with the impressive forensic evidence provided by the prosecution. After four days of trial and following a forty-five-minute deliberation, the jury found Camb Guilty of murdering Gay Gibson. The steward, who had posed like a peacock in the dock, was stunned at the decision. Before sentence was passed by Justice Hilbery, he was asked if he had anything to say. He replied in a quavering voice: “My Lord, at the beginning of this case…I pleaded not guilty. I repeat that statement now. That is all.” He was then sentenced to death. His attorneys filed an appeal and while this was being considered, the House of Commons added an amendment to the new Criminal Justice Bill then before Parliament, one which would abolish capital punishment. The Home Secretary, while this bill was still being debated in the House of Lords (which later rejected it), decided to commute all capital sentences still pending to life terms and Camb was one of the condemned who cheated the hangman due to this briefly-open legal loophole.

Witnesses to the murder.

It was after this commutation that several women came forward to tell how Camb had sexually attacked them on previous voyages of the Durban Castle, two of them claiming they had been raped. Another woman said that she had been attacked on deck by Camb who dragged her into a tool room where she fought desperately as he tried to strip her clothes away. He had lost patience and strangled her. She passed out, she claimed, and when she regained consciousness, she said that Camb was standing over her, grinning.

Camb was paroled in 1959; he changed his name to Clarke and was working as a head waiter in May 1967 when he was convicted of sexually attacking a 13-year-old girl. He was, incredible as it may seem, merely placed on a two-year period of probation. He later went to Scotland where he worked once more as a head waiter in a restaurant. A short time later he was charged with sexual misconduct with three schoolgirls; this time Camb’s parole was revoked and he was returned to prison to serve out a life term.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

One comment

  1. The Picture is not of the South African Cricket team it is of three members of the English cricket team l/r Len Hutton , Alec Bedser and Dennis Compton

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