Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

Colonel Light's surveyor's level and portrait

Colonel William Light (1786-1839) was responsible for choosing the site and laying out the City of Adelaide in 1836 and has been called the "Founder of Adelaide".  The Society is fortunate to have a portrait by artist George A J Webb, Light's surveyor's dumpy level and relics salvaged from his cottage.

Col Light Adelaide Map 7th Aug 1837

Colonel William Light was gazetted Surveyor General of the new colony of South Australia on 4th February 1836. He was officially given the responsibility of selecting the site for the new capital, although Governor Hindmarsh favoured a site at Port Lincoln and this conflict was on going. Sailing from England in early May 1836 Light commanded the vessel Rapid for the voyage to South Australia. Light was a man of many talents and had served in both the Royal Navy and the British and Egyptian armies. He was an accomplished artist and sketched and painted the places he visited throughout his life including many landscapes of South Australia.

By late December 1836 Light had selected the present site for Adelaide in spite of criticisms that it was too far from the port - but the presence of a good water supply was a major factor.

Sadly, due to ongoing disagreements, Light "was deserted and betrayed by his employers and so called friends and was left to die neglected, unhonoured and impoverished " (Mayo, 1937).*

Copy of Colonel Light's map of Adelaide - 7 August 1837

Col Light Dumpy Level Detail

Colonel Light’s dumpy level - a rare personal artefact. A dumpy level is an instrument used to record ground surface levels from which contours can be drawn. This dumpy level is a Troughton and Sims Improved Level, 14", [dumpy level] housed in a wooden box, bearing a brass plaque marked Light, with accessories including, screw cap, plumb bob, a black glass filter, and an eyepiece. Wooden box is inscribed ‘Light’.

Light portrait

The portrait is by George Alfred John Webb (1861–1949) an English painter who painted many portraits of prominent citizens in Australia in the early 1900's. This image of Light was done well after Light's death and was purchased by Hon. John Lewis (President RGSASA* 1913-1920) who presented it to the Society. It is most probably a copy of the much earlier portrait of Light by George Jones R A (1786-1869) acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1871. Light had met Jones in the Peninsular war where Jones was active painting military subjects including portraits of officers.

*The name at the time

RGSSA Catalogue numbers- Portrait R47 (hanging on the southern wall of RGSSA Library).

Dumpy level R49 & 49A D (Located on a glass cabinet in the RGSSA Library)

William Light was born 27th April 1786 at Kuala Kedah in what is now Malaysia and spent his first six years on the island of Penang which was founded by his father Francis Light. In 1792 he was sent to England for his education where he stayed with friends of his father George and Anne Doughty. In September 1799 he joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer boy third class serving on HMS Clyde. While he was on board the ship sailed close to the coasts of France and Spain recording navigation marks and with the marine artist TJ Serres recording coastal features. It is thought that Light may have had his life long interest in landscape painting and sketching stimulated by seeing this artist at work.

Light left the navy after only two years with the rank of mid-shipman and from 1802-1808 little is known of his activities although in 1805 he is known to have visited India to attend his sister's wedding at Calcutta. In 1808 he joined the British army signing up with the 4th Light Dragoons and in 1809, aged 23, went with his unit to Portugal to fight in the Peninsular war. He fought in more than forty engagements being noted for his skill in accurately recording the strategic features of the terrain by sketching and painting. He left the cavalry in 1814 at the end of the war and in five years of service " had not been absent from duty for a single day and had won a reputation for zeal, courage and intelligence." He then joined the infantry where he stayed until 1821 when he sold his commission and left the army.

In 1824 he married the wealthy and beautiful Mary Bennet a daughter of the Duke of Richmond. There followed some years of travel including sailing around the Mediterranean in Light's yacht Gulnare and a trip up the Nile in 1830-31. Light recorded his travels in water colours and sketches, many of which are in the Mortlock Library and the collection of the Corporation of the City of Adelaide.

During his time in Egypt Light became friendly with Mohammed Ali the Pasha of Egypt who was building up his armed forces to counter the Turks. In 1831 Light agreed to recruit officers and men in England for the Pasha's navy and sailed for England in August of that year with that in mind. He had some success after the government agreed that British officers on half pay could join the Egyptian navy. He returned to Egypt in 1834 but did not stay long as he was suffering from ill health and his wife Mary had left him for another man.

In September 1834 Light was given command of the Nile "a paddle steamer with sails" built for the Egyptian navy. On board as a passenger was Captain John Hindmarsh RN who was to become the first governor of South Australia although Light had ben recommended for the post. In January 1836 Light accepted the position of surveyor general for the new colony and went on to choose the site for Adelaide and to design its distinctive and innovative layout.


Elder, David, Art of William Light, The Corporation of the City of Adelaide,1987

Mayo M.P., The Life and Letters of Col. William Light, Preece and Sons, Adelaide, 1937

While most of Light's possessions were destroyed when fire consumed his hut in the parklands on 22nd January 1839, some relics were salvaged in the 1920's from Light's cottage at Thebarton where he died 6 October 1839.

  •  Three bricks known as 'sloppy bricks' hand-made in wooden moulds.

  •  Shingle made of Tasmanian String-bark hardwood, part of the roof. 
  •  Piece of corrugated iron of type known as 'Gospel Oak'