State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 58 Spring 1996

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The Charles Joseph La Trobe Archive

An Overview

The La Trobe Library is the repository for the major collection of original private papers relating to the life and work of Charles Joseph La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District from 1839 to 1851, and Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria from 1851 to 1854.
La Trobe was born on 30 March 1801, in London, the son of Christian Ignatius and Hannah La Trobe.1 The La Trobe family was of Huguenot origin, having fled from Montauban in France to various parts of Europe at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), a decree which outlawed religious freedom for Protestants.
Charles Joseph was educated in England and in Switzerland. He was descended from a long line of cultured and educated forebears, including clergy of the Moravian Church, and notable musicians. Following a typical education and religious upbringing in the Moravian faith, and having decided not to enter the church himself, he went to Neuchâtel in Switzerland where, in 1824, he became tutor to the young Comte de Pourtalés, with whom he travelled widely in Europe and North America.2
In their American travels, the two young men visited the principal cities of North America and sailed down the Mississippi to New Orleans, before touring the prairies in the company of the author Washington Irving. La Trobe was a talented sportsman, travelling on horseback for much of the time. A member of the prestigious Alpine Club in London, he was a usually solitary mountaineer. His climbing skills while wandering in the Alps are evident in his writings. However, he was not just a dilettante, since he had a deep love and knowledge of the fine arts, music, literature, art and architecture, and he himself was the author of four published works. These were: The Alpenstock or Sketches of Swiss scenery & manners (1829); The pedestrian; a summer's ramble in the Tyrol (1832); The rambler in North America (1835); and The rambler in Mexico (1836).
In 1835, La Trobe returned from the United States to Switzerland where he married Sophie de Montmollin of Neuchâtel, the daughter of an aristocratic family.3 After successfully carrying out in 1837 a commission for the British Government to report on the state of education among the West Indians, Charles Joseph was offered the posting to Port Phillip, first as a Protector of the Aborigines, and subsequently, before he actually took up the post, as Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.
In this role, he was subordinate to the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps. Gipps, the soldier, and La Trobe, the scholar, were immediately compatible and La Trobe enjoyed the Governor's full confidence in him. This was despite the fact that La Trobe had none of the training and experience which usually qualified a man for such a responsible administrative role. The typical colonial governor had a naval or military background. Charles Joseph's was different: his family connections were in Europe rather than in Britain; he was from a strong evangelical religious circle, and his inclinations were of a generally cultured and moral nature. His personal qualities had begun to emerge in his books and journals,
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and these were later demonstrated in the way in which he handled his responsibilities in Port Phillip. Melbourne was a very new city when he arrived in 1839, and the population amounted to no more than 3,000.4 Collins Street was the only thoroughfare worthy of the name, Elizabeth Street followed a frequently-flooded creek bed, and Flinders Street was little better than a swamp. The water supply for Melbourne was inadequate and polluted, there was no town council to take care of local affairs, all revenue was allocated by the New South Wales Government, and there were few buildings of note.
Yet, in the 15 years of his administration, Victoria achieved separation from New South Wales; gold was discovered, thus creating the wherewithal for prodigious growth and wealth; the Melbourne Town Council was established (1842); land sales took place; the Yan Yean Reservoir was built; and the population rose to 236,7765; Melbourne began to look like a city and, in 1852, was considered the most expensive city in the world in which to reside. Under La Trobe's administration, land was set aside in 1851 for the Melbourne Public Library, destined to become one of the great libraries of the world; the University of Melbourne was founded in 1853; and the first railway in Australia was completed to Sandridge in 1854. Land was also allocated for the Botanic Gardens; the police force and Supreme Court were in operation; and the Melbourne Hospital established. Melbourne was a city of remarkable architecture, featuring such fine buildings as the Customs House in Flinders Street, the first grand Exhibition Building in William Street modelled on the Crystal Palace in London, the original Melbourne Town Hall, and numerous substantial hotels.
Charles Joseph La Trobe was acting Governor of Van Diemen's Land for a period of four months in 1846, following the discrediting of Sir John Eardley-Wilmot. He wrote a masterly report to Gladstone, the Colonial Secretary, his brief having been “to inquire minutely into the state of affairs in Van Diemen's Land and to report thereon to the Home Government”.6 He was to check on abuses and failures of the Convicts Probation System and, in particular, he was to investigate cases of homosexuality among the convicts. He carried out these tasks in a courageous fashion and his report was considered a model of its type, bringing credit to the author.
Despite all his achievements in building a new metropolis and maintaining its government in a firm and practical way, La Trobe was increasingly unpopular with the Melbourne City Council, the press, and townspeople and gold miners alike. At various times, they disagreed with his methods and disliked his moral fortitude. His health suffered due to stress and he resigned in 1852. He was, however, not relieved until 1854 when he left for England on the Pacific route, a disappointed man, cast aside as of no further use.
In a draft statement of his past services to the British Crown which he prepared for the Colonial Office but never sent, his disappointment in the lack of recognition, particularly in a financial sense, is obvious:
Ten to one, the only fate which awaits us is that of the hedger's glove; employed as long as circumstances or convenience suits, to protect the hand against the too close contact with the too thorny asperities of distant Colonial rule, only, when worn out, or the call for such employment may have passed away, to be thrown aside to moulder on the bank.7
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After years of delay, La Trobe's service was recognized in the form of a reasonable pension, and he was awarded the distinction of Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1858.8
In 1934, a large consignment of La Trobe correspondence was given to the then Public Library, now the State Library of Victoria, by the Swiss Baronne de Blonay to commemorate the life of her ancestor, and to mark the centenary of the foundation of Port Phillip. The Baronne was Charles Joseph La Trobe's grand-daughter, Elizabeth, daughter of Agnes, Countess de Salis-Soglio, the third of La Trobe's daughters.9 This collection, most useful for any understanding of La Trobe's administration, was valuable, though incomplete.
In 1989, the La Trobe Library was offered, by the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch of London, material which is complementary to the collection donated to the Library in 1934. In 1990, I was able to visit Quaritch to examine the material on offer, and I was immediately convinced that, by every means possible, the State Library of Victoria should acquire it. After protracted negotiations and long months of fund-raising, the Library purchased this collection in 1992 for its Australian Manuscripts Collection and Picture Collection. Among the major donations from charitable trusts and generous individuals was the sum of $10,000 from the Friends of the State Library of Victoria, the result of a special appeal to the membership to facilitate the acquisition.
The material, known as the La Trobe Archive, is of impeccable provenance, coming as it did from the Baronne de Blonay's grandson, La Trobe's direct descendant. It comprises nine distinct components:
1
An oil sketch portrait of La Trobe by Sir Francis Grant, P.R.A.
2
Three folders of sketches by La Trobe: Tasmania; Tahiti; Home
3
The Alpenstock by C.J. La Trobe, 1829
4
The pedestrian by C.J. La Trobe, 1832
5
Manuscript journal of a German tour, 1822
6
Manuscript journal of a journey in the Tyrol, 1829–1830
7
Two manuscript journals of La Trobe's mission to the West Indies, 1837–1838
8
Manuscript notebook kept by La Trobe in Australia, 1851–1854
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Notebooks of La Trobe's grandfather, copied by him in Baltimore in 1833
1
The oil sketch portrait, 44.5 x 22 cm, of Charles Joseph La Trobe by Sir Francis Grant, P.R.A.
This is a small design for the full-scale portrait so well-known in Melbourne. The work, finished in 1855, featured for many years in La Trobe's Cottage at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and it now graces the Governor's Office in the Old Treasury Building, Melbourne. A full-size copy of this work was made by Grant in 1856 and donated to the La Trobe Picture Collection in 1954 by Mrs La Trobe Bateman.10 It hung for many years in the foyer of the La Trobe Library building. Grant was the most fashionable portrait painter of his day and was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1866. His sketch portrait of La Trobe is lively and rather more spontaneous than the completed work.
10

Charles Joseph La Trobe, Mt. Wellington [Tasmania]. Not dated but 1847? (H92.360/34, LTF Box La Trobe, f.16. La Trobe Picture Collection. State Library of Victoria).

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2
Three folders of sketches by La Trobe
Comprising 154 works, mostly in sepia wash, two or three to the page, mounted on card and labelled in ink with La Trobe's hand, they document La Trobe, artist and observer, and ever the traveller. Wherever he was, he sketched and painted the views before him, rather as the modern traveller today uses a camera. During his more than 90 expeditions on horseback throughout Victoria, La Trobe documented the Victorian landscape at a period very soon after European settlement had begun. Previously, he had sketched, in words and drawings, the awesome features of the Swiss Alps and the Tyrol.
The first of these folders comprises 56 sketches executed in Tasmania when La Trobe acted as Governor in 1846 after Sir John Eardley-Wilmot's abrupt dismissal. La Trobe provides contemporary “snap-shot” sketches of the topography and buildings of the parts of Tasmania he visited: the Derwent; Mount Wellington; Eagle Hawk Neck; the Freycinet Peninsula; Port Arthur — the Commandant's House and the Church; Maria Island; Lady Franklin's Museum; and New Norfolk, to name a few.
The second folder records in 58 sketches his homeward journey in 1854, on board the paddle-steamer, the Golden Age,11 when his term of office as Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria was over. The Golden Age, a wooden ship of 2,864 tons, owned by the New York and Australian Steam Navigation Company, was at the time of La Trobe's departure, a superior type of vessel, equipped with the latest in comfort to carry passengers on the Pacific run. La Trobe joined the vessel in Melbourne on 5 May 1854, departing from Sydney via Tahiti for Panama which was reached on 18 June.12 En route, he recorded views of Phillip Island, Norfolk Island, and features of the Tahitian landscape and Papeete, many from on board the Golden Age, as well as coastal profiles on the approach to Panama itself. This folder also contains three sketches carried out by La Trobe during the course of his mission to the West Indies in 1837.
Folder 3, titled “Home 1856”, comprises 40 sketches all executed in Kent during the first years of his retirement. There are numerous works documenting architectural features of Ightham Mote, now the property of the National Trust, which La Trobe leased for a short period in 1856. He found this house and garden and the surrounding farm buildings full of interest, and these sketches are among his best. The folder also includes views of Berling Church and Ryarsh Church near Ightham Mote, dating from 1857.
La Trobe was an accomplished amateur artist. While all these sketches reveal the artist's Romantic sensibility, they are also evidence of La Trobe, the amateur scientist, who discovered much of interest in geological formations and the natural sciences.
3 & 4
Copies of two of La Trobe's four published works
The Alpenstock; or, Sketches of Swiss scenery and manners (London, Seeley and Burnside, 1829) describes his solitary rambles in the Swiss Alps. The pedestrian: a summer's ramble in the Tyrol (London, Seeley and Burnside, 1832), bears an inscription in La Trobe's hand to “Madame la Comtesse de Salis-Soglio,
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a token of remembrance from her obliged and faithful friend, Chs. Josh. La Trobe. Paris. March 19, 1832”. It was into the de Salis-Soglio family that La Trobe's third daughter, Agnes, was to marry in later years.
5
Manuscript journal of a German tour, 1822
This is the earliest recorded work by La Trobe, written when he was 21 and on a visit to Germany with his father, Christian Ignatius La Trobe and three friends. The journal of 109 pages documents with boyish enthusiasm the tour itself to Calais, Dunkirk, Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Cologne and Koblenz where La Trobe was intrigued by church architecture, music and the landscape.
6
Manuscript journal of a journey in the Tyrol, 1829–1830
La Trobe's published work, The pedestrian, encompasses part of this manuscript diary of 130 pages which documents in rather laborious detail his travels in the Tyrol. It does, however, contain a number of enlightening comments on La Trobe's character and attitude to life. Two additional short manuscripts accompany the lengthier journal. They are: ten pages of a diary for the first month of the journey; and 14 pages, which record the period in the winter of 1830/31 immediately following the events described in The pedestrian. La Trobe mentions in passing his friendship with the de Montmollin family of Neuchâtel, and describes his tour of Scotland and Ireland with the Comte de Pourtalès. The highlight of this tour was their breakfast with Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford which La Trobe depicts in some detail.
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Two manuscript journals of La Trobe's mission to the West Indies, 1837–1838
These two journals were kept by La Trobe during his assignment for the British Government in the West Indies where his brief was to assess the education system and to report on the use of funds assigned for this purpose. La Trobe's visit came shortly after the emancipation of 668,000 slaves in the British West Indies when the administration was in a state of turmoil, attempting to deal with the resultant dual problems of economic decline and the education of former slaves. La Trobe's private unpublished diary is important because of the new information it gives on the subject of education at that time in the West Indies, and the light it shines on La Trobe's personal development. La Trobe had a punishing schedule to adhere to in his inspection of numerous schools and churches, and his meetings with planters and clergy of all denominations.
These two notebooks formed the basis for La Trobe's report on his mission to the British Parliament in 1838.13 The Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, was so impressed by La Trobe's report and the thoroughness of his work that he soon — within months — appointed him as Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.
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Manuscript notebook kept by La Trobe in Australia, 1851–1854
This notebook is a commonplace book, or a type of scrapbook. It comprises 126 pages of notes, and philosophical phrases and thoughts written on scraps of paper and pasted onto blank pages. All are in La Trobe's hand and cover a myriad of
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subjects relating to life in the colony, including politics, the press, gold, Van Diemen's Land, the Aborigines, and geological and geographical snippets of information, such as that for Black Thursday (6 February 1851) when bush-fires swept across Victoria.
Some of the notes, at times rather cryptic, shed light on the sensitive and unworldly nature of the writer who felt himself ill-equipped for his important role at a crucial time in Victoria's history.
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Notebooks of La Trobe's grandfather, copied by Charles Joseph La Trobe in Baltimore in 1833
Comprising 132 pages, these journals contain information about La Trobe's grandfather, copied from the papers of his uncle, Benjamin Henry La Trobe, while Charles Joseph was touring America with the young Comte de Pourtalès.
The La Trobe Archive logically fits with other archival material relating to Charles Joseph in the La Trobe Library. It is not known why these papers and sketches were not sent to Victoria with the first consignment of documents in 1934, but it is probable that they were simply overlooked at that time. Unlike those earlier papers, these do not focus on the persona of Victoria's first Lieutenant-Governor. Rather, they illuminate the character of the man and touch on all the events of importance in his development as an administrator who was unsure of his ability, but aware of what was the moral, the right, way to act.
The La Trobe Archive is an integral part of the record of the life and work of Charles Joseph La Trobe and it is fitting that it is now housed with the remainder of his private papers in the collection bearing his name.
Dianne Reilly
La Trobe Librarian

1

“Les deux hymens Neuchâtelois du premier gouverneur de l'état de Victoria”, Patrie Neuchateloise, vol.4, Neuchâtel, Messeiller, 1955, pp. 129–168.

2

Gross, Alan. Charles Joseph La Trobe. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1956,p.6.

3

Ibid,p.7.

4

Victoria, the first century. Compiled by the Historical Sub-Committee of the Centenary Celebrations Council. Melbourne, Robertson & Mullens, 1934, p. 102.

5

Australians: historical statistics. Sydney, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, 1987, p.26.

6

Ritchie, Joan. “Charles Joseph La Trobe in Van Diemen's Land, 1846”. Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and proceedings, 23(1),21–24, 1976.

7

MS 13003. C.J. La Trobe papers. Box 76; Safe 3;MC 8, Dr4.

8

Great Britain. Colonial Office. CO448, 1A, 1858.

9

La Trobe family tree and genealogical tables, courtesy of Mrs Pamela La Trobe, Adelaide.

10

H30870, La Trobe Picture Collection provenance file.

11

Nicholson, Ian Hawkins. Log of logs. Yaroomba, Queensland, The Author, 1993, p.207.

12

Lawson, Will. Pacific steamers. Glasgow, Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1927, pp.29–32.

13

Great Britain. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1837–8, vol.48 Accounts & Papers, nos 113, 520; 1839, vol.34, no.35.