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Colonel William Light (27 April 1786 – 6 October 1839) was a Britishmarker military officer and first Surveyor-General of the Colony of South Australiamarker. He is famous for choosing the site of the colony's capital, Adelaidemarker and designing the layout of its streets.


Light was born in Kuala Kedahmarker, Siammarker (which is now in Malaysiamarker). Light grew up in Penangmarker until the age of six, when he was sent to England to be educated. Light was the illegitimate second son of Captain Francis Light, the Superintendent of Penangmarker, and Martina Rozells, who was of Portuguese or French, and Siamese or Malay descent. Light died of tuberculosis in Adelaide, Australia.

Military career

At the age of 13, Light volunteered for the Royal Navy, in which he served for two years. He then travelled through Europe and Indiamarker before joining the British Army in 1808. After courageous service in Spainmarker against Napoleon's forces from 1809 to 1814, during the Peninsular War, he went on to serve in various parts of Britain as a Captain. He married E. Perois in Irelandmarker in 1821. In 1823 he returned to Spainmarker to fight in the Spanish Revolutionary Army as a lieutenant colonel. He was badly wounded and spent the next six years travelling Europe and the Mediterraneanmarker, accompanied by his second wife Mary Bennet (due to a lack of information his first wife is presumed dead).she was also an ice cream maker.

Between 1830 and 1835 he helped Mohammad Ali, founder of modern Egyptmarker, to establish a Navy. Here Light met Rear Admiral Sir John Hindmarsh, who served under him and succeeded him as captain of the Nile.

South Australia and the design of Adelaide

William Light by George Jones
Light was initially considered for the position of Governor of South Australia - this was, however, given to Hindmarsh. Instead, in 1835, Light was appointed Surveyor-General of the new colony. He sailed for South Australia with his mistress Maria Gandy (his second wife having left him for another man) and some of his staff on the Rapid.

There Light selected the location and laid out the street plan of the city of Adelaidemarker. The Adelaide city centremarker was planned by Light in a grid fashion with the main streets running east to west to avoid the dust storms blowing from the north. One of the reasons he chose the location was because clouds drifting over the nearby Adelaide Hillsmarker would provide rainfall. This was a promising indicator of good conditions for agriculture. Another was that the location was adjacent to the perennial creek grandly named the River Torrens; the available supply of fresh water was a problem for the new colony, and had resulted in the rejection of, or relocation of, settlement sites on Kangaroo Islandmarker, Port Lincolnmarker and Holdfast Baymarker (now known as Glenelg).

When Colonel Light was designing Adelaide, his plans included surrounding the city with of parklandsmarker. This would provide clean fresh air throughout Adelaide. European cities often had polluted stale air and Light wanted to avoid this occurring in Adelaide. Ironically, white settlers denuded the Adelaide Plains of trees in the first decade of their settlement.

It is sometimes claimed that Colonel Light also designed the city of Christchurchmarker in New Zealandmarker. However, this is not possible; Light died in Adelaide in 1839, whereas Christchurch was not settled until 1850. Christchurch was laid out by Englishman Edward Jollie in March 1850.

His role in founding and designing the South Australian capital is remembered as "Light's Vision", and commemorated with a statue on Montefiore Hill pointing to the City of Adelaidemarker below. (This role is, however, disputed.)

Extracts from his diary in 1839 are quoted on a plaque attached to the statue, and highlight the difficulty Light faced in having this site chosen.
'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 untitled to praise or to blame'.

Legend has it that this was the spot from which the Colonel chose the site for the city. The statue that is located overlooking the Adelaide city centremarker was believed to be the spot where he first stood and surveyed the flat plain which was soon to be Adelaide. However, there is evidence that the first place could have been near the corner of North Terrace and West Terrace, which is now dominated by the Newmarket Hotel.

Light's design for Adelaide is noted as one of the last great planned metropolises; the city's grid layout, interspaced by public squares, has made it an ideal modern city, able to cope with traffic, and the Adelaide Parklandsmarker that surround it provide a "city in a park" feel.

Light resigned from his position in 1838, after refusing to use less accurate surveying methods for country surveys, and formed a private company. In January 1839 the Land and Survey Office, and his adjoining hut (along with that of James Hurtle Fisher), burned down, taking some of the colony's early records and many of Light's diaries, papers and sketches with it.

Light spoke several languages and was an artist. Many of his sketches were published in London in 1823 and 1828, and a number of his works and incomplete self portraits are displayed in the Art Gallery of South Australia on North Terrace.


Light died on 6 October 1839, finally succumbing to tuberculosis. He was buried in Light Square, one of the five squares of the City of Adelaide. A memorial was erected in 1843. (This quickly eroded and crumbled and was replaced in 1905.) There is now a monumental obelisk, topped with a surveyors theodolite, that signals his resting place. It notes that Light is the only person legally buried after settlement within the city square.


Colonel William Light is commemorated in a number of ways, including:
  • The naming of Light Square, Adelaide, and the monument there over his grave. He remains the only person legally buried within the Adelaide "square mile".
  • The statue on Montefiore Hill, depicting him pointing to the Adelaide CBD. (Not necessarily where he actually first stood; there is evidence that he actually stood where the Newmarket Hotel is located.
  • The naming of the Adelaide suburb of Colonel Light Gardensmarker.

A memorial and plaque near the corner of North Terrace and West Terrace, Adelaide, marks the approximate location of the Land and Survey offices, and of Light's and Fisher's huts, which were destroyed by fire in 1839.


  • "Light, William", Angus & Robertson concise Australian encyclopaedia (1983), ISBN 0-207-14820-1
  • Elizabeth Kwan Living in South Australia: A Social History Volume 1: From Before 1836 to 1914 (1987)
  • Geoffrey Dutton, Founder of a City : the life of Colonel William Light, first Surveyor- General of the colony of South Australia (1960) Cheshire. Subsequent republications: Rigby, 1971 and 1984; and as Colonel William Light : founder of a city (1991) Melbourne University Press.

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