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William Light Collection

 PRG 1 5 182 
 Letter to George Jones PRG 1 10 3 

  Australian Memory of the World Register 2008

Joint nomination by the State Library of South Australia and the Adelaide City Council

William Light Collection PRG 1

The State Library's papers of Colonel William Light, the first Surveyor General of South Australia, comprise inward and outward correspondence with individuals and organizations in South Australia and London, notebooks, diaries, sketchbooks and artworks. They cover the period from his service in the British Army in the Peninsular Wars 1809-1812 to his death in South Australia in October 1839, and papers relating to his estate up to 1841.

The Light papers are one of the most important collections of personal papers relating to the foundation period of the colony of South Australia from 1836 onwards. The papers show evidence of the plan Light adopted for the principal town of Adelaide with its distinctive surrounding parklands and the site for its port, and the opposition to the sites selected. They refer to Light's preference for accurate (but slower) trigonometric survey techniques rather than the Colonization Commissioners preferred running survey. Adelaide was the first town planned in the world using a trigonometric survey for cadastral purposes

Most of the Light papers at the State Library are those which survived a fire at his hut in Adelaide in January 1839. The correspondence shows his relations with all the other key players in the foundation period of the colony, especially relating to the site of the city, the survey of land and establishing a suitable port. Light's background in the Mediterranean gave him confidence in the safe harbour offered by the Port River and in the Mount Lofty Ranges providing rainfall on the adjacent plains, making the area most suitable for his settlement.

His role as the first Surveyor General of the new province was carried out alongside his ever present struggle with illness, his exasperation with other officials and the difficulties of managing the all important survey of land for the new colonists around Adelaide. His papers give clear insight into the problems he faced and how they were dealt with, including the lack of time he was given to accomplish the enormous task.

The papers are important for their insight into the controversy about whether Light or his deputy George Strickland Kingston was the originator of the plan for the city of Adelaide.  The Kingston archives have all but disappeared. The Light papers have been extensively consulted by historians engaged in this ongoing debate.


Maria Gandy, Light's companion, inherited all his papers on his death. In 1840 she married Dr George Mayo but died in 1847. Their son George Gibbes Mayo inherited the Light papers and died in 1894. His three surviving children, under directions drawn up and signed in 1958, deposited the majority of the papers in the Barr Smith Library, with the ultimate provision that they be presented to the Libraries Board of South Australia for permanent preservation. These papers were transferred on 27 November 1967. The Peninsular Wars diary 1809-1812 was acquired in June 1922 under the terms of the will of R. Cooper.

The recent addition to the record group of a letter by Light to his friend George Jones enhances the significance of the records as it predates by five weeks previous knowledge on the selection of the site for Adelaide. It was purchased from Christies Auction House in London in 2005.



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