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Light's Plan of Adelaide

Corinne Ball's picture


Did Colonel William Light actually select and survey the site for the City of Adelaide, or was it, in fact, a respected ‘interloper’? Migration Museum volunteer Dave Rickard discusses the debate behind one of our most significant historical objects

This story has simmered behind the scenes for many years.  It is of interest to us as it is associated with one of the most important objects in the Migration Museum’s collection.  The item is a large watercolour plan of Adelaide, drawn to Light’s instructions at the end of the survey by 16-year-old draughtsman, Robert Thomas.  The plan was long held by the Department of Lands, until it went to the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the state’s Historical Relics Collection.  There it remained until 1986, when it was transferred to what was then the History Trust of SA.  Today, the Migration Museum, as a Division of History SA, manages the Historical Relics Collection and thus has the plan in its care.

A planned city

The plan is quite large, in fact just over two square metres and displays the city’s square mile, together with the nearby area of North Adelaide.  Its finer detail shows each individually numbered allotment on the familiar grid pattern used by Light, with squares and surrounding parklands.  Prospective buyers could use the surveyed allotments to pick out the particular parcel of land they wanted.  The River Torrens is prominent, shown winding its way between the northern and southern sections.  Sometime during the nineteenth century, coats of yellow varnish had been applied to the plan, however, more recently the coating was removed during conservation by Artlab restoring it to its original state.

It is interesting, however, that every so often, credit for the selection of this site and the surveying of the City of Adelaide itself has been enthusiastically debated; Surveyor General, Colonel William Light and his deputy, George Strickland Kingston being the two contenders.  Even more intriguing is the conflict between the parties themselves.

On balance though, archival evidence suggests that Light has the much sounder case.  Kingston, who was appointed Deputy Surveyor General to the new colony, arrived in Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island, nearly a month after Light.  So, Light was left short-handed at Holdfast Bay at a crucial time, with colonists landing and looking to take up their allotments of land.

Colonel Light is displeased

Light had already sailed up the gulf in the Rapid and chosen the spot between the hills and the sea near Holdfast Bay for settlement.  But almost two years later, he wrote of Kingston, who took credit for discovering and placing the town in its present position, “Mr Kingston was sent by me in this direction to find out a fresh water river which I felt sure must exist in these plains and to make a report of the country to me on my return from Port Lincoln”.  Light went further in recording his displeasure with Kingston, saying “It was not Mr Kingston’s judgement that brought us here, for if he had his will he would not have disembarked at Holdfast Bay, and it was only my positive orders that made him land the men and stores at Glenelg”.

Unauthorised copies

In reference to the drawing of the plan itself, Light reported to the Colonisation Commissioners in London in 1838, “It has been hinted to me that Mr Kingston took to himself the credits of the site and plan of this town – if he did it is false he had nothing to do with it but marking off town acres and in doing this he blundered – when I had constructed the plan, and the surveys performed by myself, Mr Kingston asked me to allow him to make one copy.  I gave him leave – he set his apprentice to work to copy several which he sold at 12 Guineas each as his own surveying and drawing”.

In ‘A brief journal of the proceedings of William Light’, published at his own expense in May 1839, Light wrote that ‘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 … I leave it to posterity … to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame’.

There is a facsimile of the plan currently on display in the Migration Museum. The original (HT2001.166) is displayed only for short periods in order to protect it from the damaging effects of light.

(M.P. Mayo, The Life and Letters of Colonel William Light, F.W. Preece & Sons, Adelaide, 1937)

(State Library of South Australia, PRG 1/3-4)


And Light was correct - posterity has indeed found that his choice for the location of Adelaide was correct. Despite the shortage of water - a problem shared by Melbourne, Sydney and Perth - Adelaide is well located.  It sits on a beautiful fertile plain, fringed by the Mt Lofty Ranges to the east and a wonderful sea vista to the west.  A lovely mediterranean climate that encourages the production of some of the best wines in the world right on our city's doorstep...Who would want to live anywhere else?

Corinne Ball's picture

You're so right Elizabeth, he made a very fortuitous choice :-)

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