State Library of South AustraliaState Library of South Australia

Light's notebooks and sketchbooks

Catalogue record

Creator: Light, William, 1786-1839

Object Source: PRG 1/4

Date of creation : ca.1818-1837

Reproduction rights are owned by State Library of South Australia. This image may be printed or saved for personal research or study. Use for any other purpose requires permission from the State Library of South Australia. To request approval, complete the Permission to publish form.

Format : Artwork, Mediterranean sketchbook: 100 x 315mm [open] South Australian sketchbook: 400 x 125mm [open]

Donated by the Mayo Family

Many of William Light's personal papers and sketchbooks were destroyed in a fire in his home in January 1839. Fortunately, some were saved and give us an insight into his decisions for the planning of Adelaide and also his character.

William Light was born on 27 April 1786 in Kuala Kedah in Malaya. His father Francis was the superintendent of Penang for the East India Company. At the age of six, Light was sent back to England where a family friend, Charles Doughty of Theberton in Suffolk, educated him. Light joined the Navy in the last years of the century but left after two years and some time later purchased a junior commission in the 4th Dragoons. He served with distinction on the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. A good linguist and artist, he was employed on the Duke of Wellington's staff on mapping and reconnaissance duties.

Following the Napoleonic Wars, Light served in various parts of Great Britain, and retired from the Army in 1821 as a major. He later served in the Spanish revolutionary army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1824 he married the wealthy Mary Bennet and together they travelled in Europe and cruised the Mediterranean in their yacht Gulnare. They also spent time in Egypt where Light helped to recruit personnel for the Egyptian Navy, and later brought the paddle steamer Nile from England to join the Navy. It was at this time that he met John Hindmarsh, later to become Governor of South Australia. Light's Mediterranean sketches, most of which are beautiful watercolours, were produced in this period.

In January 1836 Light was appointed Surveyor General of South Australia, and sailed from England in the Rapid in May 1836. After first surveying Encounter Bay and rejecting this as an unsatisfactory harbour, as he later rejected Port Lincoln, he examined St Vincent's Gulf and found the entrance to the Port River. Impressed with the fertile plains and the likelihood that the Mt Lofty ranges would attract rain, he selected the site for the new settlement.

The Colonisation Commissioners had given Light quite unreasonable instructions to examine in detail some 1500 miles of coastline, select the best site, and survey the town site and the country sections, all with inadequate staff, equipment and no transport other than hand carts. In 1839 he published his account of his surveys A brief journal of the proceedings of William Light . In the Preface he wrote:

The reasons that led me to fix Adelaide where it is I do not expect to be generally understood or calmly judged of at present. My enemies, however, by disputing their validity in every particular, have done me the good service of fixing the whole of the responsibility upon me. I am perfectly willing to bear it; and I leave it to posterity, and not to them, to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame.

Light's pencil sketch of the Fleurieu Peninsula, which dates from around 1836, shows Sturt's River and the Port River (Inlet) and the general land contours inland as far as the River Murray.

William Light died at his home at Thebarton on the River Torrens on 6 October 1839, and was buried in Light Square, Adelaide.


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