Like most cities, Durban has its fair share of historic statues and memorials, with most of them referencing the political history of the country by paying homage to past statesmen and traditional leaders. Few of them though, tell a story in quite the same way as the Lady in White, a bronze statue currently on display at the Durban Maritime Museum.
With a megaphone* in her hand, and her face lifted skywards, the animated life-sized figure is that of Perla Siedle Gibson (1888-1971), known popularly as the Lady in White. It was Perla’s voice that World War II servicemen would hear as they left or entered Durban Harbour, as Perla serenaded the ships with her oeuvre of patriotic songs.
The daughter of a prominent local shipping agent, Perla studied music and art in Europe and America, and was an accomplished soprano, giving recitals in London and New York. But upon marrying air force sergeant, Jack Gibson, Perla returned to her hometown of Durban.
There are differing accounts of how it came to be that Perla, clad in a white dress with a striking red hat, would sing to more than 5,000 ships and about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen from her post on Durban’s North Pier. One version of the story is that Perla was seeing off a young Irish seaman, who had been visiting her family. As his ship was departing he called across the water asking her to sing a song, and Perla responded with a rendition of When Irish Eyes are Smiling.
But perhaps her singing was Perla’s way of connecting with her children, all of whom had joined the war effort. Perla sung to all of the ships that her children left for the war on, and continued her serenade, even after receiving news that her son, Roy, had been killed in Italy.
Over the course of the war, the story of Durban’s Lady in White spread far and wide. A British army newspaper described Perla as a highlight of troops’ visits to Durban:
As the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining the landward rails saw a woman, dressed in white, singing powerfully through a megaphone such songs as “There’ll Always be an England!” and “Land of Hope and Glory.” A well-known local figure, she would drive down from her home on the Berea as soon as she could see that the ships were moving in.Parade, 3rd March 1945
Perla Gibson died in 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday. In 1972 a bronze plaque, donated by men of the Royal Navy, was mounted on a stone plinth on Durban’s North Pier, where Perla used to sing.
In 1995 Sam Morley, the editor of Durban’s Lady in White, commissioned a statue of Perla Gibson, using money from a fund-raising appeal in the UK. The statue was created by local artist, Barbara Siedle, the niece of Perla.
The statue, which was initially located on T-Jetty, next to the Portnet offices, was unveiled by Perla’s two surviving children, Joy Liddiard and Barrie Gibson, on the 15th August 1995. Unfortunately though, tight security at the harbour meant that few people got to enjoy the statue, and so on the 27th September 2016 the White Lady was relocated to the Durban Maritime Museum, where she remains today.
* It is believed that Perla’s megaphone came from a torpedoed ship, and was given to Perla by British soldiers as a sign of their appreciation