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Colonel William Light
Title : Colonel William Light Colonel William Light
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Creator : Jones, George, artist
Source : The Nautilus library ; 6
Place Of Creation : London
Publisher : P. Allan
Date of creation : ca. 1815
Format : Artwork
Contributor : State Library of South Australia
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Colonel William Light

Born: 27 April 1786 [Kuala Kedah, Malaya]

Died: 6 October 1839 [Thebarton, Adelaide, South Australia]

Soldier, surveyor

William Light was born in Malaya in 1786. his father an English sailor and trader and his mother is thought to have been part Malay and part Portuguese. Light was sent to England at the age of six for his schooling. He enlisted in the British Navy in 1799 and served for two years.

Light travelled extensively in Europe and India and then in 1808 he purchased a commission in the 4th Dragoons of the British Army, fighting with merit in the Peninsular War. He left the army in 1821 and throughout the next decade lived primarily on the continent where his experiences included serving in the Spanish revolutionary army, sailing his boat the Gulnare throughout the Mediterranean and honing his artistic skills. He had two books of sketches published; Sicilian Scenery (1823) and Views of Pompeii (1828).

He was put forward as a candidate for the governorship of South Australia, but was eventually appointed Surveyor-General of South Australia in 1836. He was charged with the task of inspecting the colony's coastline and selecting sites for the capital city and other settlements. However he was given little time to complete this task; the first settlers arriving just a few months after Light and his surveying party.

Some scholars now believe that it was Light's deputy, George Strickland Kingston, who identified the site for Adelaide and drew up the city plan. There was some opposition to the choice of location for Adelaide (the colony's first governor John Hindmarsh was a vocal opponent, preferring Encounter Bay or Port Lincoln) but Light and Kingston persevered.

In December 1837 Light realised that the amount of work he faced to survey the country sections of South Australia was enormous. He applied to the Colonization Commissioners for assistance and was instructed to conduct a temporary 'running survey' rather than a full trigonometric survey. Light, and most of his staff, resigned in protest. Light went on to establish a private surveying firm. He had been plagued with respiratory problems for much of his life and died of tuberculosis on 6 October 1839. His body was buried in Light Square, Adelaide. His one time deputy, George Strickland Kingston, designed a memorial for his grave in Light Square (it eventually fell into disrepair and had to be replaced) and 450 mourners were said to have been at his funeral.

Key achievements

February 1836: Appointed Surveyor-General of South Australia

October 1836: Light and his deputy, George Strickland Kingston, examined possible sites for the capital of the colony

31 December 1836: Light confirmed choice of site for Adelaide

January-March 1837: Surveyed the city of Adelaide

Did you know?

The statue which commemorates Light stands on Montefiore Hill, and was designed by Burnies Rhind in 1906. It was originally unveiled in Victoria Square, but in 1938 was moved to this more elevated position from which Adelaide's cityscape can be viewed. 

Mary Thomas, daughter of early pioneers and printing press operators, Robert and Mary Thomas, witnessed the funeral of Light in 1839. In her diary (PRG 1160/6, p.1);

Oct. 10(?), 1839. This day poor Colonel Light was buried. We went to see the funeral. My brother Robert, having been one of his partners, was a chief mourner, and my father [Robert Thomas] joined the procession. We all went in mourning for him.

See more extracts from the diary above in PDF.

Related names :

Light, William 1786-1839

Coverage year : 1815
Period : Pre-1836
Place : South Australia
Further reading :

Dutton, Geoffrey. Founder of a city : the life of Colonel William Light, first Surveyor-General of the colony of South Australia : founder of Adelaide, 1786-1839, Melbourne : Cheshire, 1960

Johnson, Donald Leslie and Donald Langmead. The Adelaide city plan : fiction and fact, Adelaide : Wakefield Press, 1986

Johnson, Donald Leslie. 'The Kingston/Light plan of Adelaide and founding the city', Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 32, 2004, pp. 5-18

Light, William. A brief journal of the proceedings of William Light. With a few remarks on some of the objections that have been made to them, Adelaide, [S. Aust.] : Public Library of South Australia, 1962

Mayo, MP. The life and letters of Col. William Light, Adelaide : F.W. Preece & Sons, 1937

Internet links :

Did you know...?: Montefiore Hill

Australian Dictionary of Biography Online: Search for William Light

Flinders Ranges Research: Colonel William Light

Treasures of the State Library Light, William

SA Memory, Foundation of South Australia 1800-1851 The Diary of Mary Thomas

SA Memory, Foundation of South Australia 1800-1851 Letter written to George Jones

SA Memory, Foundation of South Australia 1800-1851 Mr Beares tents, Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island

SA Memory, Foundation of South Australia 1800-1851 Map of Light's Plan of the city of Adelaide in South Australia



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