During and after World War 2, hundreds of ships sailed from or arrived in Durban harbour en route to or from various theatres of war, their decks often packed with soldiers of the UDF and the Commonwealth. Below decks crew would be busy at their tasks and often patients would line the wards of the hospital ships. It must have been an emotional moment for everybody concerned.
Singing for her servicemen was our own “Vera Lyn” who was popularly known as “The Lady In White”. The story goes that in April 1940, troops on board a troop ship goaded Perla Sielde Gibson, a soprano, to sing. “Hey Ma, sing us a song… Ma, come on, be a sport. Ma, give us Land of Hope and Glory Ma…” Perla was not perturbed and cupping her hands to her mouth broke into song. There was silence and then the troops joined in, their voices being heard above the hustle and bustle of wartime Durban. It was the start of a ritual which she would continue doing as long as there were troopships to sing to.
As the troopships undocked she would start singing patriotic songs, often with the aid of a megaphone. Then, as the ship turned in the harbour basin she would move to the North Pier, waiting for it to appear. As it passed slowly through the channel, she would sing, her voice carrying across the water to the men on board, saying her goodbyes in song, singing till long after the ship had crossed the bar and was out of earshot. It was a pledge by Perla to meet or send off each troopship. Dressed in white and wearing a white hat, she sang patriotic songs for more than 1000 troopships and over 350 hospital ships.
There is no doubt that this 50 year old mother of three made a difference as is testified by so many soldiers, sailor’s and airmen who were on board these vessels who remember her with fondness, her musical renditions heard on board those ships, causing many a lump in many throats. She never allowed the grief from losing one of her own sons to stop her singing to the troops. She passed away in 1971, just before her 83rd birthday, official recognition coming slowly. A stone cairn with a bronze plaque was completed in June 0f 1972 on the North Pier where she would have stood, singing to her boys. It was donated by the men of the Royal Navy and reads:
Royal Navy Memorial
To the Memory of Perla Gibson
“The Lady in White”
Who sang to countless thousands of
British Commonwealth and Allied Servicemen
As they passed through Durban over the years
1940 to 1971
This tablet was presented by
The Officers and Men of the Royal Navy
When the North Pier was redeveloped the plinth was moved to a temporary spot near the Ilanga newspaper offices until a decision could be made about its future. Although, given the nature of the subject it should realistically be sited in the harbour. At the time of this update (03/06/2015) the plinth is situated at 29°52’17.99″S, 31° 2’55.87″E although it is not in view of the street.
In 1995 a statue to Perla was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II, it was commissioned in 1995 by Sam Morley who wrote the book “Durban’s Lady in White“. The statue was created by local artist Barbara Siedle, who is the niece of the ‘Perla Siedle Gbson, and it was placed in a prominent place next to the Emtateni Centre, which was part of the Ocean Terminal Building on the T-Jetty. Unfortunately access to the memorial was almost impossible due to the security in the harbour.
The Perla Siedle Gibson Mobile Library was also founded to serve British seamen on all ship and a 5 room unit at the Highway Hospice was created with funds raised in her memory. The boarding establishment at Glenwood High School was named Gibson House after Roy and its colour is white in her honour.
The memory of Perla Siedle Gibson left an indelible mark on those servicemen who experienced her performance, and her dedication to her task was legendary, she did not miss a ship!
In June 2016 it was announced that the statue would be relocated to the Port Natal Maritime Museum as it was no longer accessible at the current location next to the former Ocean Terminal. (http://bereamail.co.za/85430/statue-to-be-relocated/). The move was finally made at the end of September 2016 and the statue was relocated next to the Britannia Room, but still within the harbour area. (http://bereamail.co.za/93965/lady-in-white-moves-into-new-home).
The statue as at 17/06/2017
Further reading: Gibson, P.S., The Lady in White, Purnell & Sons, 1964.
Durban’s Lady in White. An autobiography. Perla Siedle Gibson. Aedificamus Press, 1991.
Special thanks to Allan Jackson for the picture of Perla’s statue. Please visit Fad for more Facts about Durban. Also thanks to Shelly Baker for the images of the plinth and the statue.
© DRW 1997-2018. Updated 28/07/2011. Moved to blog 26/08/2014, updated 18/01/2015, 03/06/2015, 20/06/2016