From a self portrait of William Light, South Australia's first surveyor general, about 1815.
Image courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia



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.


for colony's governorship but wins fight over site for Adelaide city

William Light born the illegitimate son of illegitimate Francis Light: Penang's planner

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.

Light travels Europe with second wife; works with Hindmarsh on navy mission in Egypt

William Light married again in 1824 to Mary Bennet, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Richmond. They travelled widely in Europe. In 1827, Light cruised the Mediterranean in his yacht. At Alexandria, he befriended Mohammed Ali, founder of modern Egypt. In 1834, Light commanded the steamer Nile from England to join the Egyptian navy. The Nile was taken over by John Hindmarsh, who returned to England in 1835 to be selected ahead of Light as South Australia's first governor.


Light brings team and mistress Maria Gandy out on 'Rapid'; picks site ahead of Hindmarsh

In 1836, William Light was appointed surveyor-general for the colonising of South Australia. The first governor John Hindmarsh had recommended Light, who had been passed over for the governor's position. Commanded by Light, the bargue Rapid took part of his survey team (and his mistress Maria Gandy) to South Australia where he arrived ahead of his deputy surveyor George Kingston and Hindmarsh. He had selected the site for Adelaide as capital city before they arrived.

Hindmarsh wants Port Adelaide as city site; vote by land owners favours Light's choice

Governor John Hindmarsh wanted the capital city on a coastal site such as Port Lincoln and then Port Adelaide. But William Light had ruled out Port Adelaide and other sites. Hindmarsh’s choice of Port Adelaide was overruled by supporters of resident commissioner James Hurtle Fisher. Hindmarsh ordered a meeting of land buyers in February 1837 to decide the issue. Light's site of Adelaide received 218 votes (including 115 from John Morphett) against 137 for Hindmarsh’s. 


quits when slower trigonometric method rejected; dies in poverty 

Light decides on city shape, with squares and parklands to complete map by February 1837

As surveyor general, William Light was expected, within two months, to examine 1500 miles (2414 km) of coastline, select “the best situation” for the first settlement, survey the town site, divide 150 square miles (388 km²) of country into sections, and make reservations for secondary towns. Light’s understaffed (and unqualified) team camped on the corner of North and West terraces and started surveying the Adelaide site. By February 7, 1837, Light had finished his map of the city.

Light's survey moves out to Gawler, Barossa Valley; uses world-first trigonometry method

Without any transport, Light's survey party walked to Port Adelaide, Adelaide Hills, Encounter Bay, Gawler and the Barossa Valley in 1837. Light’s accurate, but slower, trigonometric (triangulation) techniques went against the colonization commissioners’ preferred running survey. Deputy surveyor George Kingston asked permission to go back to England to get more equipment and staff, and to urge the recall of governor John Hindmarsh who still opposed Light's site for Adelaide.

Light and team resign, form own firm, when commissioners want quicker survey method

About 150,000 acres had been surveyed by William Light’s team by June 1838 when George Kingston returned from England to tell that the colonial commissioners’ had rejected therequest for more resources. Light was told to abandon trigonometrical work in favour of running surveys. Light resigned with all but two of his staff. He became principal in Light, Finniss & Co. with Boyle Travers Finniss, Henry Nixon, William Jacob and Robert Thomas, who drew the first map of Adelaide city.


Nursed by Maria Gandy, Light dies impoverished and invalid in 1839, hurt, shunned by critics

William Light died of turbercolosis in 1839, aged 53. In that year, Light lost much of his diaries, papers and sketches when his hut burned down. Light moved into his incomplete house, Theberton, living as an improverished invalid, and nursed by his mistress and house keeper Maria Gandy. He had wanted to return to England to vindicate himself against critics. The Anglican colonial chaplain the Rev Charles Howard refused to visit the dying Light because of his relationship with Gandy.



GEORGE KINGSTON'S CLAIM TO FINDING ADELAIDE CITY SITE, grid divide, North Adelaide, among disputes over Light's legacy

Governor Gawler and colonial gentry join thousands at funeral, burial in Light Square

William Light was buried in what became Light Square on October 10, 1839. A crowd of more than 3000, including many of Light's enemies, watched the ceremony at the square. The funeral procession included colonial chaplain Charles Howard, other clergymen, Light’s colleagues, employees and friends, Light’s servants, government officers, magistrates, the sheriff, Legislative Council, colonial judge, the governor and “gentlemen, all in deep mourning” who marched “two by two”’.


Kingston's claim to selecting city site does not detract from Light's overall splendid vision

An controversy lingers over whether William Light’s deputy surveyor George Strickland Kingston located the actual site of Adelaide and surveyed most of it. Kingston claimed to have pointed out the specific elevated site for Adelaide to Light. But Light made the overall decision to place Adelaide in its general location even before Kingston arrived. Kingston's lack of surveying skills makes it unlikely he could have brought the precision to city site plan that has brought it international acclaim.

Subdividing of original town acres affects character of Light's streets grid layout

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.

North Adelaide suburb poses complicating factor for Adelaide as capital city of the state

William Light’s plan for Adelaide had a long-lasting effect on its identity as a capital city when he gave it a suburb called North Adelaide. Light’s decision to create a south (city square mile) and north Adelaide – both enclosed by parklands – followed from his plan straddling the Torrens creeks valley. But the role of the city council in charge of the state capital’s symbolic centre has been complicated by the role of – and often control of the council by – residents of the North Adelaide suburbs.



NATIONAL HERITAGE HONOUR FOR CITY LAYOUT, PARKLAND; William Light's skill as a painter and diarist at gallery and library

Australian heritage listing and international influence recognise city layout and parklands

Colonel William Light’s Adelaide city layout and parklands received Australia's highest heritage honour when it was included in the National Heritage List in 2008. The Adelaide parklands and city layout model has been used widely by other towns in Australia and overseas. It is recognised by town planners and historians as a major influence on the international garden city planning movement, one of the most important Western urban planning initiatives in history.

Alliance of city council and state government matching foresight of Light's city plan

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.

Watercolours, sketches by the polymath Light given by Mayo family to the State Library

Painting was among William Light’s talents, beyond being a musician and linguist. He kept a journal throughout his life and he sketched and did watercolours of places visited around the Mediterranean. Light’s mistress in Adelaide, Maria Gandy, was left Light's papers and many sketches. She later married Dr George Mayo and had four children. Great great grandsons John and Oliver Mayo gave sketches and watercolours of Light's journey down the Nile to the State Library. 

Thebarton monument to Colonel William Light's shunned and forgotten mistress Maria Gandy

A monument to Maria Gandy was unveiled in 2011 – the bicentenary of her birth – on the corner of Maria and Albert streets, Thebarton, by street residents and Thebarton Historical Society. It recognises Gandy as mother, carer, settler and pioneer. Gandy was little known and quickly forgotten in Adelaide’s history. As the working-class mistress of Colonel William Light, daring to live in sin with a married man, she was ostracised as his “housekeeper” by Adelaide’s pious pioneer gentry, even among the bark shelters, flies and dust of settlement. Just two society women are recorded as having visited Maria Gandy at Theberton Cottage where she lived with Colonel Light: “Mrs Woodforde” and “Mrs Boyle Travers Finniss”.


City council honours Light at every meeting; Colonel Light Gardens among memorials

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.

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