Surveyor-General, Colonel William LIght, founder of Adelaide
by Alison Oborn

“I leave it to prosperity to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame” – Col. William Light


Most of Adelaide would have heard the name of Colonel William Light, some of us have walked past or sat around his monument in Light Square.  We are probably also aware that this gentleman was the Surveyor-General and Founder of Adelaide. But, how many of us truly know or have taken the time to look more closely at this remarkable man, his life or even the tragedy his life became once in South Australia?  Many are also unaware of his links to Thebarton Cottage.

Whilst doing some research for the long lost Thebarton Cottage, I naturally had to look into why it was so important that we should have tried to keep it.  We all know it was our founder’s home for a short time and the abode where he died, but my idea was to bring some of his background to the article too.  What started as a small article grew and I found myself absorbed in Colonel William Light’s life.  Before I knew it days were lost, just in the reading and following his adventures.  What seemed like many coffee jars later I decided that this could not be done in one article alone as this dashing and gallant soldier obviously deserved an article dedicated solely to him.  It will not be a long article, but hopefully one that will express how special this man was and peak your interest to find out more about him yourself.

Colonel William Light would obviously not be classified ‘lost history’, but I think for the average person, the details of his life have been left behind as has the tragic ending that was his last 3 years spent in here in South Australia.
But first, let us go back to the quote from Colonel Light mentioned at the beginning of this article. These were words spoken prior to his death in Oct 1839. They were words that not only expressed his disillusionment but also his heartbreak on the turn his life had taken since setting foot on the shores of this new colony of South Australia.

Charged with the job of mapping and surveying the area now known as Adelaide, Colonel William Light was our Surveyor-General and it is to him that we should be grateful to for the City we live in and enjoy.  Had he not stood his ground and fought hard for his choice of site to be upheld when others were against it, then our Colony would probably not have survived and prospered as it did.  Described by his colleagues and friends as a visionary, artist, man of action and devout believer in his own purposes, he came to the colony with confidence and enthusiasm only to end up broken hearted and in debt by the time he died 3 short years later.  Col. Light was certainly one of our first tragic stories to do with our founding history.  He is also a man to be greatly admired!

Colonel William Light the Man

Colonel William Light was definitely one of the worlds ‘larger than life’ heroes.  He was an illegitimate child born in 1786 to an East Indian free-trader and what was rumoured to be a Malayan Princess.  Due to this union Light’s father gained Penang for the Empire and became ruling governor over it, whilst much pleasing the authorities back in England.

At the age of 6, Light was sent to England by his father for education and there he stayed with family friends by the name of Doughty in a grand place called Theberton Hall in Suffolk.  No doubt the name would sound familiar by now and so it should as it is also the name that Col. Light gave his final abode, although the spelling was changed approximately 1840 after Col. Lights death (Possibly through a spelling mistake that was never corrected).  The Hall had obviously made an impression on his life and it reminded of happy childhood days.

It was whilst in England and at the age of 14 that he joined the Royal Navy and served on The Clyde.  for 2 to 3 years before buying a commission in the 4th Dragoons and so changing to the army.  It was in this position that he was to see service in the Peninsular War against Napoleons Army and very quickly gained recognition and respect due to his bravery.  He had already been detained by Napoleons’ troops but had escaped before joining the war.

Sir Charles Napier tells one story of how Wellington had been disadvantaged as he could not ascertain how many French troops he was up against due to a bad visual position.  It was Colonel Wiliam Light that jumped onto his horse and galloped out towards the enemy troops in the woods.  As the first shot rang out, Col. Light fell backwards, laying on his horse and pretending to have been mortally wounded whilst still maintaining his blistering speed.  Thinking their target was beyond help, the French ceased shooting and the enemy troops watched as what they thought was a fatally injured rider pass by, giving Light more than enough time to count the troops.  Once clear he sat back up, picked up his reins once more and galloped back to give Wellington the information that was needed.

Napier’s recollections of Col. Light’s bravery

He quickly went on to become the confidant of not only the Duke of Wellington but also the Prince Regent and by 1811 had been appointed intelligence officer.  He managed to fight in over 40 campaigns without injury until his 45th where he was shot in the thigh.

Being a talented artist, Colonel William Light also went on to mix with other literary and artistic leaders of France and Continental countries.  In fact after marrying his second wife in 1824 (his first presumably having died), who was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond, he purchased a 43 ton yacht, the Gulnare and sailed the Mediterranean painting and sketching for books.  Sadly his marriage failed and in 1830 Mary Light (nee Bennett) left for another man.

He even helped to establish an Egyptian Navy and sailed on The Nile which is where he became acquainted with Capt. John Hindmarsh who was serving on the same ship.

The Beginning of the End

Meanwhile back in England a plan for a new and free colony was being put together for South Australia. A new Governor would naturally be needed for this new proposed Province.  Sir Charles Napier who had fought alongside Colonel William Light immediately thought to put forward his good friends name for the new Governorship position after having turned it down himself.  However, this is where it all started to go wrong for Col. Light.  Even before leaving for the shores of South Australia politics raised its ugly head and Sir Charles Napier unwittingly made a mistake which cost Col. Light the position.

It was at this time that Napier came to meet Capt. John Hindmarsh through a letter of introduction from Colonel William Light.  Napier made the grave mistake of telling Hindmarsh of his plans to recommend Colonel William Light for the Governorship position. Capt. Hindmarsh spared no time at all in quickly recommending himself for the position to the Board of Commissioners instead.  Being as most of the board were Naval Officers, as was Hindmarsh himself, and by using yet again the letter of introduction from Col. Light he managed to secure the role of Governor to the new Colony.  Many would say this was a blessing, as if we had not had Col. Light as surveyor and his wise decision on where Adelaide was to be set out, then the colony would possibly have been doomed to failure and a different history would be told.  Whether it was through guilt at having stolen the position from Col. Light we will never know, but it was Capt. Hindmarsh that put forward Col. Light’s name as Surveyor-General, a position which Light accepted and shortly after, in 1836, set sail for South Australia aboard the Rapid.

Even as Surveyor General, things did not go well for Light and he was persecuted and opposed at every turn, often by his now superior, Governor Hindmarsh.  Colonel William Light had to fight all the way for his choice of Adelaide’s position, chosen for the fertile soils and good water supply.  He was understaffed and under-equipped and to start with had to survey with a wheelbarrow as at this time there were no horses in existence in colony.  He was condemned for it all taking too long despite the harsh setbacks he had to face. He stood up for what he knew to be right and in return failed to be appreciated in his times.  In fact his final years in South Australia soon turned his happy gallant nature and broke his spirit.

The final straw to his stress levels no doubt came when his first hut, which sat on the corner of West Terrace and North Terrace, caught alight and was quickly engulfed in flames.  He lost a great part of his life in the form of his journals and paintings as well as plans etc. Historians today curse that fire and can only imagine the things his journal would have told not only about his life but our own history.

With this constant harassment and politics, Col. Light retired as did most of the surveying party, instead setting up a private surveying firm called Light and Finniss.  During this time he did agree to survey what we now know as the Lyndoch Valley and in particular one place which would eventually become known as the town of Gawler.

For those of you that have passed through Gawler, you may have noticed a reserve by the name of Dead Man’s Pass.  What you may not have realised is how this Pass got its name.  Again our famous Colonel William Light was instrumental in the naming of this reserve.  It was in fact the spot chosen to set up camp when they were surveying in the surrounding area of Gawler.  During this time Col. Light discovered a decaying body in the hollow of an old gum tree which had been covered to stop wild dogs from getting to it.  He had decided to go in search of this body after a tip off from some passing travellers who said that they had come across an exhausted man who they had tried to revive but without success and eventually perished.  They told how they had no digging utensils at the time so had placed him in a tree for protection instead. On finding and removing the body for inspection, it was obvious that the man had been Caucasian with a bloodied shirt and trouser pockets turned inside out.  Colonel William Light had the clothing removed and sent back to Adelaide for inspection before interring the decomposing body.  Even in this action, Light once more came under fire as the newspapers were up in arms at the fact that he had only sent back the clothing and not the body for an inquest on how the man had died.  It also shows our morbid fascination with death that we should name the Pass after a corpse found there rather than name it after one of our most famous Founders of Adelaide and Gawler.
Napier's recollections of Col. Light's bravery

Col. Light's Monument in Light Square - circa 1906

Col. Light’s Monument in Light Square – circa 1906

The End of a Legend

“Thus you see that on the whole I have made rather a sorry adventure to South Australia. Add to this my health entirely broken–I have now no strength and wasting fast.”  ~ Col. Light

Sadly, after setting out the plans for Gawler, Col. Light did not live to see those plans come to be as on the 6th Oct 1839 he passed away. He had been sick for some time and that last survey trip to Gawler had been a struggle for him as he had been suffering the effects of T.B. which was compounded by asthma.  No doubt the stress he had faced during his brief 3 years in South Australia and his heartbreak at having lost a great part of his life’s work in the fire would probably have complicated his symptoms and brought a speedier end. Even on his deathbed he found himself criticised, this time from the governors evangelistic wife who thought it a disgrace that the person who should be closest to Light and who nursed him to the end was Colonel William Light’s mistress, Maria Gandy who had travelled to Australia with him and was his closest friend to the end.  In fact Maria was so devoted to him that she too died of TB only 7 years later, no doubt contracted from her time spent nursing Col. Light.

Originally buried in West Terrace cemetery, his remains were eventually moved to Light Square to be placed under a monument, a new version which stands there today.

This has been just a brief look at the life of this remarkable man. The depths of this likeable man, his talents, his bravery and loyalty to his friends have only been touched upon here as there is so much more to tell.  I hope though I have opened your eyes a little to this gallant officer that I have become quite passionate about.

Finally, remember this…  if somebody ever asks you where Colonel William Light’s monument is… reply…

“If you seek his monument, look about you!”
~ Epitaph from Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb.



Part 2 of this article is about the loss of another part of our history,.. Thebarton Cottage.

During Light’s time living in a hut on the corner of North Terrace and West Terrace, he had already planned his new home on a picturesque spot along the Torrens River and the building was underway. It was not soon enough as the accidental fire destroyed the hut and most of his journals and paintings along with it. It meant moving into his new home much sooner than he had intended.

It was here that he finally retired after resigning as Surveyor-General due to constant harassment but instead found solace in his garden.  He even proved that vegetables grown in Mediterranean countries could also do well here in South Australia.  It was in this cottage on 6th Oct 1839 that Col. Light passed away only 3 years after reaching the new Colony.  Complications from T.B., Asthma and stress were the cause of his death at what would now be considered a fairly young age of 53.

On passing away, Col. Light left all that he had to his best friend Maria Gandy and this included his Thebarton Cottage.  Maria Gandy had come out to Australia with Col. Light and had lived with him as housekeeper and mistress.  She was also a loyal and devoted friend who nursed him to the end even though it attracted criticism on Light by the then Governors Evangelistic wife thinking it disgraceful that a lady should be under the same roof of a man out of wedlock.

A year after Light’s death Maria married Dr Mayo who had come out to Australia in 1839.  At first they lived in the cottage as man and wife but Maria was to die sadly only 7 years later from T.B. most likely contracted from Col. Light when she was tending to him.

It next passed to Dr Hone and after his passing, his son remained in the cottage for nearly 30 years and once stated that ‘despite the lack of modern conveniences, he lived in it because he revered and loved the cottage.  He had continued to try and preserve it as best he could as he realised how important the history was to the State.

Sadly though like many historical places past and present, it slowly became a victim of progress and the next two owners were not so interested in its historical value.  The next owners were Cocking & Co. who purchased it around 1910 for $600 and for a time it was used for the firms foreman.

In 1913 a letter was sent to an Alderman Riley from a schoolteacher who was concerned that the cottage should be viewed by the local council as historically important.  Alderman Riley took the teacher’s (Mr J Donnell) suggestion to the council meeting and it was agreed that an offer would be made to Cocking & Co to pay whatever their lowest price would be.  Maybe it was just that Cocking & Co didn’t want to sell or maybe they just saw an opportunity to turn a profit, but they asked for £1500, nearly 3 times as much as they had paid for the cottage.  Naturally the council laughed at this and passed up on the purchase price and so neglect of the cottage continued.

By 1917 it was being leased out to another business that was running it as a stable.  It was at this point that the media began to take an interest and on the 20th Oct 1917 The Mail ran a story on the neglect of such an iconic part of South Australian history and asked the question of the government on what it was doing to protect such an important building.

They stated “Horse collars and other harnesses adorn the walls of the very room which the Colonel spent his dying hours” they followed with “What will South Australia do to preserve this sacred landmark and keep inviolate the little temple of fame?”

They finished with “The old windmill is gone, the fences are taken down and some of the outbuildings have been either altered or demolished… it amounts to desecration considering its historic and antiquated value”.
In response Alderman Riley tried yet again to get the government to purchase it but to no avail.  Eventually it was sold on once more to a private company called Messrs Colton, Palmer and Preston and time had all but run out for the Thebarton Cottage.

Thebarton Cottage 1926 shortly before it was demolished

Thebarton Cottage 1926 shortly before it was demolished

In 1926 the decision was finally made by the owners to demolish the house once and for all to make way for progress… and in this case their factory.  In the same year a short time later nothing remained of the Thebarton Cottage.

“The house did not warrant preservation” stated Preston when asked about their actions.  I am sure most of us today would disagree with such sentiments much as I suspect future generations will probably disagree on our destruction of history today.

In 1927 it was decided by the Council and the owners to place a plaque where the cottage once stood and it can still be seen today on the wall of one of the buildings.  It simply states:

“Near this spot stood the Thebarton Cottage, the old home of Colonel William Light, the first Surveyor General of the State and Founder of Adelaide.
Erected by order of the Council June 1927
C.E.Wyett, Town Clerk”

©Article written by Alison Oborn, 2013
For Lost History of South Australia and Adelaide’s Haunted Horizons

State Library of South Australia
National Library of Australia – Trove
Gawler by Derek Whitelock
Adelaide by Derek Whitelock
William Light ~ George Finkel

More source details can be given on request

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