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Memories of Durban

Malcolm E. Barker - 26 July 2010


The website, Facts About Durban, has revived for me several memories of when I lived there as a child during World War II, and I would like to share a few of them with the readers.

Durban Docks during WWII

I was six years old when my parents, older brother (Kenneth) and young sister (Pamela) moved to Cape Town from England in 1939. With the outbreak of war in September 1939 my father bought a car and we drove to Jo’burg and then down to Durban where we lived until July 1946, when we returned to London.

I was totally fascinated with ships in those days. For a while, my father worked as a ships’ providore, an agent arranging the provision of supplies for the ships. He would take me on board and then leave me to explore while he conducted his business. On other occasions I would go by myself to the docks to wander along the wharfs, watching the loading and unloading of ships as huge cranes dipped in and out of the hulls like so many birds feeding their chicks.

In 1940 we lived at Burlington Court, an apartment building on the North Beach seafront. From its balcony I had a grandstand view of the ships coming and going. There were times when the harbor was so full that there’d be a long line of ships anchored off the shore awaiting their turn at the quays. There was an almost endless parade of convoys on their way to and from battlefields in the Far East and North Africa. Pre-war luxury liners converted to troopships. Freighters converted to raiders. Warships of every kind. All shrouded in drab coasts of gray paint. All, that is, except the liners-cum-hospital-ships that now gleamed in white, with crosses of red prominent on their hulls. They all sailed into Durban harbor to replenish food supplies and other essential needs.

The Lady in White

A constant sight at the docks as ships came and went during the war was the legendry Lady in White. I remember her well. No matter the time of day, be it stormy weather or sweltering heat, this matronly woman dressed in white would be on the quayside with her megaphone, singing to the thousands of men and women crowding the ships’ decks.

Popular songs or classis—whatever those troops and seafarers called for—she would sing in her rich soprano voice, always ending with a moving rendition of an appropriate national theme: “Land of Hope and Glory” for the English, “Waltzing Matilda” for the Australians, “Star Spangled Banner” for the Americans, etc.

Only in recent years have I learned her name—Perla Siedle Gibson. She became an international concert singer and classical pianist. Her autobiography, “Durban’s Lady in White” was published by Aedificamus Press in England in 1991.

The Ovington Court

See here for more on the Ovington Court.

We were at Burlington Court when, in November 1940, the Ovington Court dragged her anchor in a storm and drifted onto the beach, right in front of our balcony. One of the ship’s two lifeboats made it to the beach safely, but the second sank on the way over, drowning four of the crew.

The captain and remaining seven crewmen waited until the morning. It was then that I watched from our balcony as one by one they were hauled to safety along the breeches buoy rigged from the ship to the beach. I’ve carried that memory for 70 years without recalling the ship’s name, or details.

That is, until I found it on the website last year! Your pictures of that tragic event have meant a lot to me, and I thank you for them. I remember quite clearly that the Ovington’s cargo of sugar seeped out of her hull and attracted sharks that had not been seen before off Durban beach. I remember the shark net being installed for the first time to keep them out.

Locust swarm

Another vivid memory I have about living at Burlington Court is that of the locusts. The sky was blackened by a solid mass of these buzzing creatures as they swooped down over the bowling greens in front of our building. By the time the last locust left the area hardly a blade of green grass remained. My sister and I fought them off as we struggled to pull down the balcony shades. Our Nanny put a couple of them on a stove until they popped!

I’ve tried, but without luck, to learn more about this rare event. I’m hoping some of your viewers might have more details. What date was this? Must have been 1940 or 1941. Where did they come from and where did they go?

Swapping babies

In those days when women went shopping they would leave their babies in their prams OUTSIDE the store! This seems unbelievable today but it was a fact then, when prams were large and cumbersome vehicles. One day a group of Australian soldiers from a convoy swapped babies in their prams. They thought it was funny, but it caused near hysteria among the mothers who had to go to City Hall (or, wherever) to sort out the mess

Malcolm E. Barker

On 10 November 2010, Malcolm E. Barker wrote:

Hello, Allan

The Playhouse cinema is mentioned in several accounts on your Facts About Durban site, so I thought you'd be interested in this ticket dated Saturday 13th July 1946. It is for Row C, seat 34 in the Stalls, at a matinee performance. I have no recollection what the film was, although I do know it was two days before I sailed to England with my mother, brother, and sister on the troopship Arundel Castle. I was 13 years old. For many years I kept the ticket in an Egyptian wallet my father gave me. It is an olive green color and measures 3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.

I remember that when the lights of the Playhouse went out the ceiling lit up like a starry sky. In those days we'd see more than one film at a time. First there'd be a newsreel, then either a cartoon or a travelogue, and then the trailer for an upcoming film. There was an interval before the main feature. During the war years many cinemas placed placards outside announcing the arrival of latest newsreels, this being long before television. And, of course, we called a cinema a bioscope.

Ticket courtesy Malcolm E. Barker

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