What to look for in a Mayor?

Morris Light
Morris Light


The Life and Legacy of Morris Light (1859- 1929)

Day Shift -16/09/2008 – 02:10 PM
Presenter: John Clarke
Producer: Jeanette McMahon
Interviewee: Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, Newcastle University

Newcastle University Archivist Gionni Di Gravio discusses the life and legacy of Alderman Morris Light. Morris Light (1859 – 1929), served as Mayor of Newcastle during the period from 1924-25 and had initiated the creation of historic Town Hall building. In February 2007 rare plans of the Town Hall were deposited in the University’s Cultural Collections in the Auchmuty Library. On the eve of our own Council elections, he is an inspiring figure to all budding future Lord Mayors and an example of what to look for in an individual aspiring to such a position of civic duty.

Broadcast Notes:

How did the University Archives come to hold the papers of Alderman Morris Light?

We hold the personal papers of the Auchmuty Library’s first and greatest benefactor Miss Reta Light (1898 – 1989), who upon her death in September 1989 left the Library $1.5 million. The Light Memorial Trust was formed to administer the endowment. According to her will, the money was to be used to purchase books, periodicals, microfilms and musical scores. From 1991 to 1999 the Trust financed over half a million dollars worth of acquisitions including a fine collection of Australian poetry , rare first editions of works by James Joyce and Thomas Hardy and impressive editions of Le Corbusier and titles related to the history of theatre. As part of her papers we also acquired those of her father, Morris Light (1859-1929).

The Town Hall

A set of rare plans of the Town Hall were donated in February 2007. Morris Light served as Mayor until December 10th 1925, and besides setting in motion the construction of the city hall, his achievements also included the electrification of the tram service, the creation of a children’s park at Centennial Park, an art gallery and museum.

He considered his greatest achievement the construction of the City hall and Civic Theatre complex, although he never lived to see his dream finally completed.

From our enquiries, these appear to be the only original plans of this building from the period that are known to exist. All extant plans are photocopies, probably due to the nature of the acidic paper upon which these originals were printed which becomes very brittle over time and therefore difficult to preserve.

The plans of this building also hold great sentimental importance for us, as we hold the records of Morris Light (1859 – 1929), who was Mayor during the period from 1924-25 that initiated the creation of this building.We also hold his Diary book where his inspiration for the Town Hall came after a visit to Durban in South Africa. In the vein of Emperor Hadrian he saw Durban’s Town Hall and other impressive public works, and decided that the City of Newcastle deserved better.

The following plans were received (All Photography thanks to Associate Professor Allan Chawner):

1. Title: City of Newcastle New Town Hall.
Scale 1/8” = 1’00”
Approx Sheet Size: 76cm x 66.3cm
Detail: Front Elevation
Date: 8.[10]. 1925
Designed by H.E.W. (Henry E. White)
Drawn by E.F.H
Traced by E.F.H
Checked by W.C.R.
Approved by G.N.K
Condition: Water damage and brittle tears along right hand end, lower right hand corner broken off.

2. Title: [City of Newcastle New Town Hall.]
[Scale 1/8” = 1’00”]
Approx Sheet Size: 61cm x 65.5cm
Detail: Side Elevation
Date: n.d.
Designed by H.E.W. (Henry E. White)
Drawn by E.F.H
Traced by E.F.H
Checked by E.W.M.
Approved by G.N.K
Condition: Water Damage along right hand side, some brittle tears.

3. Title: [City of Newcastle New Town Hall]
[Scale 1/8” = 1’00”]
Approx Sheet Size: 62.3cm x 31.3cm
Detail: Section A-A
Date: n.d.
Designed by H.E.W. (Henry E. White)
Drawn by G.C & W.C.R.
Traced by G.C & W.C.R.
Checked by W.C.R.
Approved by G.N.K
Condition: Water damage lower right hand corner.

4. Title: City of Newcastle New Town Hall.
Scale 1/8” = 1’00”
Approx Sheet Size: 61cm x 65.6cm
Detail: Section B-B, Tower Room “B”, Upper Part of Tower Room “A”, Bell Chamber and Tower Room “D”
Date: n.d.
Designed by H.E.W. (Henry E. White)
Drawn by G.C & W.C.R.
Traced by G.C
Checked by W.C.R.
Approved by G.N.K
Condition: Water damage lower right hand corner.

The Inspiration for the City of Newcastle Town Hall

Morris Light’s Travel Diary from 10th February 1923 – 1st May 1923 holds the clues to where he got his inspiration for the Town Hall building after visiting Durban in South Africa. The Diary was later recycled as Newsclipping Book, containing clippings from 24th December 1924 – August 1929. University of Newcastle Archives Rare Books & Special Collections Unit. Shelf Location A7143.

Here is his report in 1923 to his fellow Aldermen and Mayor:

Report to His Worship the Mayor and Aldermen
Report to ‘His Worship the Mayor and Aldermen’ 1923

The following clipping is also of relevance describing the newly elected Mayor Light as a light that shine down across the city, as the Town Hall building itself was modeled on the Pharos Lighthouse of Ancient Alexandria, one of the seven ancient wonders of the World. How fitting that Newcastle received its own wonder.

Morris Light newclippings 1925
Morris Light new clippings c.1925

The Life of Morris Light

Morris Light

Morris Light

Morris Light was born in Kovno, Western Russia in 1859, but left there in 1879 escaping the persecution of the Jews that was gaining momentum during the period. During the period from 1879 to 1884, he moved to Scotland and operated a draper’s business in Glasgow. He later emigrated to New South Wales, Australia in 1884 landing in Sydney with 200 pounds sterling in his pockets. From Sydney he travelled to Mittagong, then Moss Vale before coming to Newcastle in 1886.

In Newcastle, he settled in Carrington and operated a business selling household wares in a horse drawn cart. In 1887 he married Sarah Jacobs, a 32 year-old English woman, and the couple had four children, Hilda (1888), Bertram (1889), Myra (1892) and Reta, who was born on the 15th March 1898. During the opening years of the new century Morris Light opened his first furniture store in Cowper Street, and then moved to Hunter Street West where it became known as the ‘House of Lights’. The enterprise expanded with a new emporium which was later built and a second store opened at Vincent Street Cessnock. His son, Bertram, was groomed to take over the management of the business which became M. Light & Son Ltd.

M. Light & Son

M. Light & Son

Morris Light was proud to acknowledge his successful achievement of the introduction of consumer credit to Newcastle, which offered finance to customers under his own interest free terms. The success of the system was reinforced by the claim that they had never found occasion to repossess any of their goods. His commitment and service to his local community was also a feature of his cumulative 35 years of public life as alderman for the Carrington and Newcastle Councils. He served two terms as Mayor of Carrington in 1902 and 1903, being credited as being a catalyst for the early electrical illumination of Carrington Streets.

On the evening of December 10th 1924, while a band outside the Council chambers played “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, Morris Light was elected Mayor of Newcastle, an event that was not without controversy. For the outgoing Mayor, Alderman R.G. Kilgour, refused to invest the new Mayor with the robes of office. Apparently upset at not being able to secure a seventh year as Mayor, he resigned as a protest against what he termed the “deceit and intrigue” of his colleagues. Morris Light served as Mayor until December 10th 1925. His achievements included the electrification of the tram service, he was also an advocate of the electrification of the Newcastle to Sydney rail link, the creation of a children’s park at Centennial Park, and he set in motion the construction of the city hall, offices, art gallery and museum.

He considered his greatest achievement the construction of a self-funded City hall and Civic Theatre complex, a task which involved a battle between Council and the illustrious coal baron Mr John Brown. Mayor Light wanted the coal baron to reliquish possession of the old Black Diamond Hotel site as a ‘gift’ to the people of Newcastle so as “to have a Town Hall befitting the prestige of the city”. The coal baron didn’t agree, and suggested they site the Town Hall at the congested eastern end of the City, as well as affirming that he would resist every move to resume the site proposed by Mayor Light.

Funeral of Morris Light

Funeral of Morris Light

As history would have it, Morris Light died of Pneumonia at 7.10 am on the 26th July 1929, aged 74 years. His funeral at Sandgate cemetery was attended by 300 people and involved a joint Jewish and Masonic ceremony. He never lived to see his dream of the City Hall and Civic Theatre finally completed.

Opening of the New Town Hall

Bertram Light at the opening of the new Town Hall

Bertram Light at the opening of the new Town Hall

At the opening of the new Town Hall Alderman Wheeler gave credit to his predecessor for the new building, the lights outside bear a commemorative plaque to honour Morris Light’s contribution. These buildings stand as treasures to the city of Newcastle and highlight the magnificent achievement that people of vision can have on a place.

Gionni Di Gravio
September 11, 2008

2 thoughts on “What to look for in a Mayor?

  1. Pingback: Newcastle Town Hall and Civic Theatre Honoured | Coal River Working Party

  2. Pingback: Newcastle Civic Precinct and Ancient Architecture | UoN Cultural Collections

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