Sunday, 21 July 2013

Colonel William Light - My Thoughts on the Man

Colonel William Light, Colonial Surveyor-General and generally all round good sort.

His father was old mad Frances Light, who did sterling service for the East India Co. securing Penang and its trade for Britain and, of course, stopping the French from getting a toe hold. It goes without saying that he went completely native while he did it and was generally rated as pretty much doolally, but chacun a son gout.

Light was, it seems, born in Penang and always claims that his mother was a Princess, the daughter of the Sultan. Well, believe that if you want, but from what I know of his father I rather suspect that she was of a much lower station, perhaps even in trade. Exactly which trade I would rather not say, but.... Well, there we are.

Even now, in his '50s Light cuts a dashing figure and in his earlier days, when he was rushing around Europe with Wellington, fighting at Waterloo and getting wounded at Corunna he must have been quite the ladies man.

He is, he tells us, of medium height, though the general opinion is "shortarse". His face is clean shaven excepting closely cut side whiskers, of which he is, it must be said, excessively vain and spends much time combing. He has salt and pepper curly hair, alert and handsome brown eyes, straight nose, small mouth, and shapely chin. Dear me - now I am sounding like I've been at sea too long, but he is - or at least has been in his youth - a good looking man.

Two minor points must be made. One is that once you realise that the man's mother was a Malayan native of some sort then it is hard to look at Light and not see something something slightly Asiatic about his features. Now I have known enough foreigners in my time who have been of great worth and believe my ideas to be sufficiently modern to be above judging a man because of his descent - unless, naturally, he is French - but I understand that Light's bearing the marks of the Orient about his features has been a burden to him in the past. As a Port Admiral I knew once said to me "If a man isn't all white he just isn't all right". And I know for a fact that Light, for all his talents, has had to push against that sort of nonsense all his life.

The second point is one no-one will even begin to talk about. The man's right leg is longer than his left. No-one ever mentions it and I would not to his face either, but it is true. There is a portrait of him in his younger days from his own hand (Editor's Note: Reproduced above) that quite clearly shows this oddity. I have heard tell that people say that this is simply a product of Light's amateur status as a painter, but no! the man is a trained draughtsman and an accomplished and published watercolourist. If he has drawn himself with one leg longer than the other then I think that is proof positive.

As far as his planning of the Capital is concerned I have no complaints regarding the surveying and planning of the land. He was efficient and effective, even with the hindrance of cotton headed staff like that man Kingston (Nota Bene: do find out his name)

However his plan for the city is not beyond criticism I fear.

When he first showed it to me I did say that I found it all a bit straight. The thing I love about London is the curved streets, the odd corners, the byways as well as the highways. Well Light's plan clearly has none of those, being all grids and boxes. I know Georgetown in the Sultanate of Kedah, which was laid out by his father, is similar in plan and I cannot help but feel a bit of competition with Daddy is evident (I nearly wrote envydent).

Everything in Light's plan revolves around four boxes - a big one south of the river and three smaller ones at an angle to each other north of the river. And within those boxes are more boxes, and squares and right angles and NOT A DAMNED CURVE ANYWHERE TO BE SEEN!

Even the eastern boundary of the city, which follows the CURVING line of a stream is not a CURVING road, but is laid out in right angles.

The road to the port is dead straight, as if he put one end of a ruler on the city and one end on the port and ran his pencil along it. In fact, I suspect that this is exactly what happened.

The road to Holdfast Bay would probably be the same except that he had to get it over two watercourses, so the road is dead straight between where the crossings are and so has two bends in it. Not curves, just bends.

There is a rumour that for Christmas 1836 Light's Housekeeper, Miss Gandy, gave him a new drawing set, consisting of a milled steel ruler and a set square and he felt obliged to use them when drawing up the city. In fact, some would have it that she stood at his shoulder making sure that he was using them. December 25th - receives a new ruler and set square. December 30th - begins drawing up plans for a city made up entirely of straight lines and right angles... well, I keep my own counsel.

I must also comment on his plan to have half the city on one side of the river and the other half on the other side on a hill. I don't think he's quite thought through how people are going to cross the river and get up the hill. There is a ford, but one ford is not going to carry all the traffic that can be expected as the city grows. A far from practical arrangement. I see bridges in the future and that means money (that we don't have).

The Colonel tells me that he intends to ensure that the main thoroughfare of the town will be wide enough to allow a bullock dray to perform a complete about face turn and go back the way it came. He tells me this as if it is a good thing, but I cannot help but ask why he expects the township to be infested with bullock drivers with no sense of direction. Or are bullock drivers, in Light's experience, notoriously indecisive? In either case I cannot see how a main street littered with turning bullock carts blocking the way is an advantage.

The man has been far from well of late and has started spitting blood, which he claims to be the result of poor dental hygiene, but the which I cannot help feel is the result of a consumption. Still, as long as this doesn't interfere with his work, I suppose I can put up with it if he can.

A word or two must be said about his private household arrangements.

When he arrived in the Colony - one of the first to arrive - he brought with him a young lady, a Maria Gandy, daughter of a Sea Captain in, I believe, Bedfordshire (though this last may be wrong) to act as his housekeeper.

There are those in the colony (my wife among them) who believe that the young lady does considerably more than darn Colonel Light's socks and I find her labelled as everything from his common law wife to his mistress.

Good God! The poor man is over 50 and unwell and the girl is just 23 or there abouts. I for one cannot believe that after a busy day of surveying and coughing blood poor Light races home with nothing but love on his mind. In his condition I am surprised if he stays awake long enough even to say hello.

And whilst it is true that he was a lady's man and a handsome devil in his day, I cannot believe that a pretty young girl of 23 summers would see an oldish man past his prime, and unwell to boot, as a great catch. Not when she could have her pick of just about any of the young eligible bachelors in the town.

But because they live in a simple cottage down by the river with nothing but a hung blanket between them at night some people have difficulty believing that Light is not getting either his short leg or his long leg over on a regular basis.

Certainly Charlie Howard has harrumphed about it on a number of occasions and has even gone to the extent of preaching sermons about the sanctity of marriage including one mighty sermon on Hebrews 13:4: Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge. where he worked himself up into a quite a lather for over an hour and probably needed a cup of tea and a good lie down afterwards. Sadly both the Colonel and Miss Gandy were absent from the service on that day, the Colonel being in the Barrossa surveying and Miss Gandy being home, probably darning his socks like she is paid to, but everyone else enjoyed themselves hugely. Still, it would not be the first time that a Churchman added one and one and arrived at seven on a moral question and it probably won't be the last.

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