Colonel William Light
Colonel William Light: Self Portrait, c.1815
|Died||6 October 1839 (aged 53)|
|Occupation||British Colonial Official, Surveyor-General|
|Known for||Choosing the location and designing the layout of Adelaide|
Colonel William Light (27 April 1786 - 6 October 1839) was a British-Malaysian naval and army officer and a painter. He was the first Surveyor-General of the Colony of South Australia and he is famous for choosing the site of the province's capital, Adelaide, and for designing the layout of its streets and parks - in the Adelaide city centre and the Adelaide Park Lands.
Light was born in Kuala Kedah, Kedah (now in Malaysia). He lived in Penang (Pulau Pinang) until the age of six, when he was sent to England to be educated. He was of Eurasian background, the son of Captain Francis Light, the Superintendent of Penang who had married Martinha Rozells, William's mother, according to the native custom. Rozells was of Portuguese or French, and Siamese or Malay descent.
At the age of 13, Light volunteered for the Royal Navy, in which he served for two years. He then travelled through Europe and India before joining the 4th Dragoons regiment of the British Army in 1808. After courageous service in Spain against Napoleon's forces from 1809 to 1814, during the Peninsular War, he served under the Duke of Wellington and went on to serve in various parts of Britain as a Captain.
Light married E. Perois in Derry, Ireland, in 1821, and later lost his wife in tragic circumstances. In 1823 he returned to Spain to fight the French invasion as aide-de-camp to Sir Robert Wilson. Originally volunteering as a private in the Vigo militia, he was made a Lieutenant-Colonel. He was badly wounded at Corunna and saved from execution by the French. After returning to England he married his second wife, Mary Bennet, natural daughter of the Duke of Richmond, and travelled with her in Europe, the Mediterranean, and Egypt.
Between 1830 and 1835 he helped Mohammad Ali, founder of modern Egypt, to establish a Navy. Light captained the Pasha's steamship Nile from the River Thames to Alexandria and served in the Egyptian Navy.
Light was initially considered for the position of Resident Commissioner - this was, however, given to James Hurtle Fisher. Instead, in 1836, Light was appointed Surveyor-General of the new Province. He sailed for South Australia with Maria Gandy and her brothers (his second wife having left him for another man), and some of his survey staff on the Survey Brig Rapid.
There Light was the first to accurately chart the Port Adelaide River, selected the location and designed and laid out the plan of the City of Adelaide. The Adelaide city centre was planned by Light to span the River Torrens, and with six City Squares and a figure-eight of open space, the Adelaide Park Lands. One of the reasons he chose the location was because clouds drifting over the nearby Adelaide Hills would provide rainfall. This was a promising indicator of good conditions for avoidance of drought prone areas. Another was that the location was adjacent to the perennial creek grandly named the River Torrens; the available supply of fresh surface water was a key requirement, and had resulted in the rejection of, or relocation of, settlement sites on Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln and Holdfast Bay (now known as Glenelg).
When Light was designing Adelaide, his plans included surrounding the city with 2,300 acres of parklands. This would provide the urban population in the City of Adelaide with public walks, which were to be preserved in perpetuity. Populous towns in Britain lacked freely accessible open space for recreation and South Australia was to provide a model for reform.
It is sometimes claimed that Light also designed the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. However, this is not possible; Light died in Adelaide in 1839, whereas Christchurch was not settled until 1850. The settlement and planning of Christchurch was based on the same principles that had been first tested with the founding of South Australia, Edward Gibbon Wakefield's theory of systematic colonization.
Light's role in founding and designing the South Australian capital is remembered as Light's Vision, and commemorated with a statue, relocated from Victoria Square to Montefiore Hill, (also named "Light's Vision"), where it now points towards the River Torrens and the southern part of the City of Adelaide.
Extracts from his diary in 1839 are quoted on a plaque attached to the statue, and highlight the difficulties Light faced in having this site chosen:
Light's statue was moved to Montefiore Hill from the site where it was originally erected at northern end of Victoria Square. Light's survey of the City of Adelaide commenced from the corner of North Terrace and West Terrace, and there is a plaque in the vicinity of Light's and Fisher's huts and the first Land and Survey Offices. This plaque is now situated outside the main entrance of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Light's design for Adelaide is noted[by whom?] as one of the great planned metropolises; the city's grid layout, with alternating wide and narrow streets, interspaced with six public squares, has made it an ideal modern city, able to cope with traffic, and the Adelaide Park Lands that surround it provide a "city in a park" feel.
In December 1837 Light led an exploration from Adelaide, discovering and naming the Barossa Valley.
Light resigned from his position in 1838, after refusing to use less accurate surveying methods for country surveys, and formed a private company, Light, Finniss & Co., with B. T. Finniss, Henry Nixon, William Jacob and Robert G. Thomas (these last two being among his assistants who came out on the Rapid), offering a range of services to prospective purchasers of City and Country properties, and to Local Government bodies. In January 1839 the Land and Survey Office, and his adjoining hut (along with that of James Hurtle Fisher), burned down, taking some of the province's early records and many of Light's possessions with it.
Light spoke several languages and was an artist. Many of his watercolours were published in London in 1823 and 1828, and a number of his works, including an incomplete self-portrait, are in the collection of Art Gallery of South Australia on North Terrace.
Light died of tuberculosis on 6 October 1839 in Adelaide, aged 53. He was buried in Light Square, one of the six squares of the City of Adelaide. A memorial was erected in 1843. This eroded and crumbled and was replaced in 1905 with a monumental obelisk, topped with a surveyor's theodolite, that signals his resting place. It notes that Light is the only person legally buried after settlement within the city square.
Light is commemorated in a number of ways, including: