State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 15 April 1975

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The La Trobe-Amiet Letters 1853–1934

A collection of personal letters from C. J. La Trobe and his family in England to the Amiet family in Victoria is, perhaps, historically insignificant, but they do add yet another human touch to the evidence we already have on the family life of the La Trobes when he was Superintendent and, subsequently, Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria. For this reason, most of the letters have already been deposited in the La Trobe Library and the remainder will eventually join them there.
Rose Augustine Amiet was the only child of Mrs. La Trobe's friend and housekeeper, Charlotte Pellet, from Neuchatel in Switzerland. She had been named after Mrs. La Trobe's mother, Augustine de Montmollin, and her sister Rose who was the child's godmother and, later, became La Trobe's second wife. In 1840, Charlotte and her daughter Rose, aged three, journeyed from Neuchatel to London. From there they sailed early in 1841 as cabin passengers in the Neptune on the long voyage out to Australia to join the La Trobes. Arriving in Melbourne on 23 March, they lived at Jolimont Cottage until 1854.
The letters show that La Trobe always regarded Charlotte Pellet and Rose as part of his family.1 Shortly before he left Victoria for England, he gave Rose Pellet in marriage to Frederic Amiet, one of the most successful vignerons in the Colony, whom La Trobe had persuaded to come to Geelong from Neuchatel in 1846. Georgiana McCrae tells in her journal how they drank Amiet wines at a dinner to celebrate Separation. At Amiet's wedding the bride wore black, for news of Mrs. La Trobe's death in Switzerland had only recently reached the Colony.
As so often happens with early records, many of these La Trobe letters were rescued from a rubbish bundle at the old homestead near Inverleigh in the Western District by my aunt, the late Mrs. Leslie Amiet. Others were traced to other members of the family who were often reluctant to part with them for personal reasons. I also obtained copies of four letters from La Trobe to Mr. Campbell of Gannawarra Station on the Gunbower Creek.
The Amiet letters broaden our picture of the La Trobe's family life at Jolimont. La Trobe wrote of his cottage of four rooms which ‘turned out to be the nucleus of the dwelling in which I and my family resided during my whole prolonged term of service of fourteen long years’.2
Agnes de Salis, La Trobe's eldest daughter, wrote to Rose Amiet of the verandahs put on after she left the Colony in 1845 to be educated in Switzerland.3
From the letters we can more easily picture the musical evenings at Jolimont which La Trobe preferred to more social gatherings. La Trobe had a fine bass voice.4 Agnes de Salis mentioned in a letter to Charlotte McCallum, Rose Amiet's only daughter, that, when Mrs. La Trobe and the rest of the children left the Colony in 1853, there was a rosewood grand piano at Jolimont. Nobody knew what became of it but ‘we are sure that our Father never would have had a piano that was not a Broadwood.’5 La Trobe, himself, came from a talented, musical family and was something of a connoisseur.
Agnes de Salis remembered Rose Amiet's arrival at Jolimont when they were both in their fourth year. She wrote years later:
‘I can still remember your arrival. You came with your mother when I was already in bed, and the next morning I was in a great hurry to see you, and your mother opened the door of your room, and you were standing halfdressed on a stool. I think we must have been about four or five then.’6
Rose was her first playmate as Eleanor, the second La Trobe child, was not born until a year later. It was she who wrote remembering their games with Rose, wandering the garden and paddock at Jolimont, and how much trouble they were to their governess, Mademoiselle Beguin.7
Cecilie La Trobe, born 1843, wrote disgustedly of the way the rats had eaten up her doll on the voyage back to England.8 It was she who seemed to remember Australia, itself,
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with some nostalgia. ‘When it is so very cold, I often wish to feel the burning sun and hot winds of my native land,’9 she wrote, and ‘How I should like a hot X'mas, again … I never have got to like the snow and frost.’10 Yet it was she who could understand the excitement of her elders when snow fell at Jolimont for the first and only time.
‘I remember how delighted we were with the first snow we ever saw, a little sprinkling at Jolimont when dear Charlotte rushed into Mamma's room to announce it; it must indeed be a pleasant sight for those born in the old world.’11
When La Trobe first returned to England his family was scattered and two of his children were at school in Switzerland. He hoped to build a home so that he could bring the family together.12 He married his sister-in-law and they had two children, Margaret and Isabelle — one dark, the other fair.13 In England they kept in touch with many Australian friends. Mademoiselle Beguin stayed with them14 and the Lonsdales.15 La Trobe had planned to write about Victoria but by 1864 he was quite blind.16
During the next ten years he remained cheerful and as active as possible. His youngest daughter died in 1874 and, in the same year, his eldest daughter married Peter de Salis. Bishop Perry who had presided at the wedding of her friend, Rose Amiet, twenty years before, officiated. La Trobe presented each poor parishioner in Littlington with a joint of meat to celebrate the occasion but, as Agnes wrote, he seemed ‘much older and more feeble than before’.17 Just fourteen months later, he died.
None of the Amiet letters is profoundly historical but each of them adds something to the human dimension of La Trobe and his family. They conclude with a letter to Mabel Ritchie, Rose Amiet's grand-daughter, from Eleanor La Trobe in 1934, Melbourne's centenary year, thus spanning four generations. In a country where few families have preserved their links with the past, it is of interest that these letters have survived.
Joan M. Ritchie

1

Charles Joseph La Trobe to Charlotte Pellet, 29 April 1954.

2

La Trobe Correspondence H7553 (La Trobe Library).

3

Agnes de Salis to Rose Amiet, 2 July 1909.

4

George Cavenagh to George Belcher, 13 December 1901. (La Trobe Library.)

5

Agnes de Salis to Charlotte McCallum, 17 August 1912.

6

Agnes de Salis to Rose Amiet, 2 July 1909.

7

Eleanor La Trobe to Charlotte McCallum, 6 March 1910.

8

Cecilie La Trobe to Rose Amiet, 23 December 1853. Attachment 6 January 1854.

9

Cecilie La Trobe to Rose Amiet, 6 February 1860.

10

Cecilie La Trobe to Rose Amiet, 18 December 1864.

11

Ibid.

12

La Trobe to Charlotte Pellet, 3 April 1855.

13

Agnes La Trobe to Rose Amiet, 18 December 1864.

14

La Trobe to Charlotte Pellet, December 1869.

15

Agnes La Trobe to Rose Amiet, 18 December 1864.

16

Agnes La Trobe to Charlotte Pellet for C. J. La Trobe, December 1864.

17

Agnes de Salis to Rose Amiet, 24 October 1874.