Remarkable People

ID #5352

Perla Gibson, The Lady in White, Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Perla Siedle Gibson was a soprano and artist who became internationally celebrated during WW2 as the Lady in White when she sang to troopships moving in and out of Durban harbour.

Gibson was born in Durban in 1888, the daughter of Otto Siedle, a prominent local shipping agent, businessman and musician of German extraction. She studied music and art in Europe and the US and gave recitals in London and New York. Her youngest brother was Jack Siedle, the South African Test cricketer. During WW2 Durban was an busy waystation for convoys of ships en-route to North Africa and the Far East. Gibson became famous among thousands of Allied troops when she serenaded them as their ships passed in and out.

One account of the origin for Gibson's custom was that it arose when she was seeing off a young Irish seaman her family had entertained the day before. As his ship departed he is said to have called across the water asking her to sing something Irish, and Gibson responded with a rendition of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". She decided to sing to every ship connected with the war which entered or left the harbour. Over the following years she went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in white with a red hat, she would stand at a spot at the mouth of Durban Bay where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close by, and sing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone from a torpedoed ship, which grateful British soldiers had given her.

Soldiers' talk led to the fame of the Lady in White spreading around the world. A British army newspaper called Parade, dated 3 March 1945, described Gibson 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 saw ships moving in.

Gibson was married to Air Sergeant Jack Gibson, who served in Italy, and had two sons and a daughter in the military. She sang to all their ships as they left for war. She even sang on the day she received news that her son Roy had been killed fighting in Italy.

She died in 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday. A year later a bronze plaque donated by men of the Royal Navy was erected to her memory on Durban's North Pier on the spot where she used to sing. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue of Gibson near the Ocean Terminal in Durban harbour. NFPerla

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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:51
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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