THE POLYMATH WILLIAM LIGHT SUITED THE OUTSIDER ELEMENT in the founding of South Australia.That outsider element came from the middle-class Dissenter and nonconformist Protestants who were intent on escaping the curbs on their freedom and ambition by the British establishment.
Light wasn’t the Protestant model of respectability. Having separated from two wives, he scandalised Adelaide’s prurient streak by living with his mistress Maria Gandy. Light’s illegitimate father Francis Light had never married William’s Eurasian mother. Francis Light was superintendent of Penang, where he designed the city of George Town.
From this exotic background, William went to England at the age of six to be educated at Theberton and then, at 14, on to an adventurous life in the British navy and army and then taking the chance to travel Europe widely. He later helped the start of a modernised Egypt.
Ironically, Light could have been the first South Australian governor but he was undercut for the position by John Hindmarsh, another naval captain previously under Light's command. Hindmarsh recommended Light as South Australia’s surveyor general but then started a dispute that divided the colonists over the site chosen by Light for Adelaide.
The fortunate thing for South Australia is that it happened to gain the skills, even genius, of Light the polymath: planner, surveyor, soldier, ship’s commander, painter, linguist, musician. It is also fortunate to have someone as resolute as Light to stand up to Hindmarsh and other critics of his choice of Adelaide’s site.
Boyle Travers Finnis, Light’s friend and colleague and later first South Australia premier, said: “If Colonel Light had not stood firm … the first colonists would have been ruined, the capital of the company would have perished, and public feeling would have ruined the Commissioners”.
Light's vision becomes increasingly vindicated in the 21st Century.
BORN IN 1786, ILLEGITIMATE SON OF CAPTAIN FRANCIS LIGHT AND EURASIAN MOTHER
William Light was born in 1786 in Kuala Kedah, Malaya, as the illegitimate second son of Captain Francis Light (also born illegitimate) and Martinha Rozells, a Eurasian princess of Kedah. Francis Light was the first East India Company superintendent of Penang and he planned its capital George Town. William Light left Penang at the age six for England to be educated by his father's friend, Charles Doughty, at Theberton in Suffolk. In 1799, aged 14 and able to speak four languages, he volunteered for the navy and became a midshipman two years later. He was goalled in France in 1803 but escaped next year from Verdun. Back in England in 1808, Light bought a cornetcy in the 4th Dragoons, was promoted lieutenant in 1809 on the way to Spain and served with distinction in the Peninsular War. As a linguist. Light was frequently sent to apply his tact in conferring with blood-thirsty guerrilla bands.
A VICTIM OF DECISIONS OF COLONISATION COMMISSIONERS IN LONDON
LIGHT'S VISION FOR ADELAIDE VINDICATED IN THE LONG RUN
The Adelaide city grid plan by William Light, with properties divided into town acres, had some adverse consequences. Many private streets and laneways were created in the 1840s and 1850s by subdividing the original town acres of Light’s city plan into small allotments for tiny dwellings. Poorly built houses for the “working classes” in these private streets contributed to the slums that the city corporation was unable to legally control before the Health Act.
MEMORIALS TO LIGHT'S MANY TALENTS
Light’s design for Adelaide has waited more than 170 years for the state to catch up with its foresight. The state government’s close alliance with the council (overcoming decades of estrangement), making the most of the city’s natural and built attractions as a state capital, has at last harnessed the potential of Light’s vision in the 21st Century. Even the small streets and laneways, a byproduct of Light's city grid layout, are being used to enhance the vibrancy of the CBD.
Adelaide City Council decided in 2017 to acknowledge Colonel William Light’s “vision for Adelaide” at the start of every meeting. Other memorials to Light include the monument over his grave in Light Square. He remains the only person legally buried within the Adelaide square mile. The statue now on Montefiore Hill, often called “Light’s Vision”, was originally unveiled in 1906 in Victoria Square. It was moved to Montefiore Hill in 1938.