Chapter 1. Sudden Departures
Southern Daily Echo, Saturday 25 October 1947
Actress Disappears on Voyage to Southampton
Southampton CID officers spent several hours aboard the Union Castle liner Durban Castle at Southampton today, making a thorough inspection of the first-class cabin occupied by a 21-year-old, auburn-haired London actress Miss Eileen (Gay) Gibson, who disappeared on the night of 17-18 October during the voyage from Cape Town. Miss Gibson was returning to this country after taking part in a stage show at Johannesburg.
Gay Gibson went to her cabin shortly after midnight following a dance, which she had attended with the other first-class passengers. Early the next morning a stewardess went to the cabin with the morning tea, but Miss Gibson was missing. Captain Patey was informed. The liner was turned back whilst a search was made within and around the ship. When no trace of the young actress could be found, Captain Patey sent a radio signal to the London office of Union Castle Line asking the police to meet the ship because of "complications".
During the night, two CID officers took statements from two first-class passengers and three or four members of the crew, including a stewardess. All the articles and furniture in the missing woman's cabin - including the bedstead and bedding, carpets and rugs - were removed from the cabin during the morning.
This morning the single-berth accommodation that Miss Gibson had occupied was barred and padlocked. A man came ashore accompanied by detectives, and was taken to Southampton Police headquarters for questioning.
When a local paper broke the story of Gay Gibson's disappearance it soon became headline news across the country. The sensational case provided a distraction from the bleak austerity of post-war Britain, where the euphoria of Victory in Europe had been replaced by the reality of continued rationing. This was reflected in the other lead story of the Southern Daily Echo that day - "Perils of Cold and Hunger", which was a phrase used by President Truman to highlight the mounting peacetime problems facing Western Europe. Little wonder that "60,000 cases of grapefruit on the way to Britain" was a headline jostling for space next to the "Actress Disappears" lead.
It was a different era to today, especially for travel. The sound barrier had been broken by Chuck Yeager less than a fortnight before, and the jumbo jet and package holiday were still decades away. For most people, long-distance travel, if undertaken at all, was by liner. For an aspiring actress returning to England, the two-week voyage on a ship such as the Durban Castle was the only option. This lavender-hulled liner was a vessel of the distinctive and much-loved Union Castle fleet, which regularly plied the route between England and South Africa, carrying tons of mail and thousands of passengers each year.
The disappearance story moved quickly and sensationally. On the following Monday, the Echo's lead story was "Missing Body Murder Charge at Southampton". It was reported that James Camb, a deck steward on the Durban Castle, had been remanded in custody "on a charge of murder on the high seas". A little under five months later, he was tried in the imposing Great Hall of Winchester. Press interest, always high for a murder trial because conviction carried the death sentence, was almost frenzied. Indeed, Camb's experienced barrister would later write that, of all the 40 murder trials in which he was involved, none intrigued the public more or was generally as well remembered. Legally, the case was open to more doubt than usual because there was no body of the victim to provide vital clues to the guilt or innocence of the accused. The case centred largely on the testimony of Camb, the evidence found in the cabin and the character and health of Gay Gibson. After a dramatic four-day trial, Camb was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Many consider there was insufficient evidence to convict. Julian Symons, a respected crime writer at the time, believed the guilty verdict was the least defensible of any contemporaneous murder trial. But if Camb was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, it leaves unanswered the most important question of all: what happened on that balmy night when the Durban Castle steamed over the equator off the coast of West Africa? Was the jury correct in thinking Camb was responsible for her death or were the deck steward's repeated claims that he did not murder the actress true all along?
Until now, the police case file has remained closed and never been seen by the public. For the first time, in this book, all the evidence will be examined and assessed. The definitive story can now be told as this extraordinary case is presented to you, the Cold Case Jury. In Act One, I will take you back in time, reconstructing how events unfolded, with different versions of how the young actress might have met her untimely end. Key points of evidence will be introduced and discussed. In Act Two, you will see original evidence - including statements of witnesses not called to the trial and reports of the investigating police officers. Finally, in Act Three, I present my view of the case. But you do not have to accept my judgement. It is your opinion that matters. As in a real court of law, the verdict always rests with you, the jury.
Before we examine the events that led to the death of the young actress, we must begin by establishing the health and character of Gay Gibson. Both of these factors were crucial issues at the trial of the man accused of murdering her, and will have an important bearing on your view of the case.
Continued in the book Death of an Actress published by Mirror Books on 5 April 2018