State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007

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C. J. La Trobe
A Letter from ‘Jolimont en Murs’

The following letter (H5279) from C. J. La Trobe to his sister Charlotte was donated to the State Library on 11 June 1934 by his grand-daughter, Baronne de Blonay, whose mother, Agnes, was ‘the very engaging pretty little baby’ brought to Port Phillip in 1839. The letter is crossed, and difficult to decipher. John Barnes, with the assistance of Sandra Burt, has transcribed the text and provided a brief annotation. Grateful acknowledgement is due to Mrs Carlotta Blake for permission to publish this La Trobe item.

Back of letter from C.J. La Trobe to his sister Charlotte, 1840, with a ‘sketch of a ground plan of our cottage’. H5279. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

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My dearest Charlotte,
The departure of the Magnet comes upon me at a very busy time. The James after all has got away the first. We have two other vessels, the Alice Brooks & the Hindostan loading for England so that you may well expect to hear from us shortly again. I send you a blurred sketch of a ground plan of our cottage as promised — but promise you a better one when the land is mine & all finally arranged. By degrees you will get an idea of our position. Sophie will have told you all about herself & our little girl, who certainly all things considered and more especially that she is an only child, is growing up by God's mercy a very engaging pretty little baby. Small as our establisht. is I assure you that there is not a more comfortable, well regulated and more tasty one in this part of the world both without and within. I shall wait a few months to see how matters turn out with reference to my proposed purchase of land on which it lies before I make a few further arrangts. that may add to our comfort and respectability, but at present necessity obliges one to be as prudent as it is possible for a LaTrobe to be. I have sent you a file or two of newspapers, which may give you some idea of what is going on in a colony, of 3 years growth certainly, literature apart, the advance is astonishing. I am just at this time suffering from an attack of rheumatic pain in the limbs which I foolishly invited from unnecessary exposure to a heavy morning mist. Otherwise, in spite of the great sudden changes of temperature of our climate, I must praise its salubrity. We have in fact a charming summer now on towards autumn. If we could but meet for one or two or three days to exchange thoughts & words! I never felt the vanity & unsatisfactory nature of correspondence as at this distance — an hour's conversation with dear Peter or yourself is worth a dozen sheets! My mind is greatly disturbed about him & I hardly know what to wish. God bless him and give him that consolation which alone can make life bearable to him. Kiss the two dear children for us. All your kind details with regard to them are exceedingly interesting to us. I wish my brother could have effected a change of dwelling in London. Love to all friends MacPhersons, Seeleys, McDowells & the true & faithful in the Congregation. I wrote to Mrs Mallalieu by the James. Of John's probable change of place I regret to hear. If I am not able to write to him by this vessel, I will not fail to do so by one of the others. To Fredk I think I shall get off a letter. I should not wonder if F gets richer in the way of children than any other of us. Poor Kate she is then at last gone to her rest. Her child is living if I recollect right. Our news from England reaches (politically) to the middle of November. Is the queen really going to marry a Cobourg in spite of all my wishes to the contrary? Rumours are flying about here that Sir George is to be recalled, &, Sir William Molesworth! coming out in his place! That would indeed be out of the frying pan into the fire! I have very little intercourse with Sydney except in an official way. I have recently been absent a whole one week from home on a visit to the Geelong District — a beautiful part of my province. Had I means I think I could be of use to the good people among whom I am thrown, but I am so crippled & tied down that I can do little but keep the wheel just moving round. I have been enabled thus far to steer pretty clear of shoals & quicksands & have
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conciliated most parties not by bowing and scraping but by going straight forward & showing that I had neither prejudice nor self-interest to serve. As you will gather we live very retired neither receiving nor giving general invitations & keeping as much in the background as possible. By degrees we shall get a choice of society about us. As long as my salary & appoints. are what they are, I can never pretend to act the Governor & see company in Gov. style, so the more quiet I keep the better.
God bless you my dear Charlotte, believe me ever
Your most affec. brother and friend,

C.J. La Trobe
P.S. 6 March. I close this today
—a day of sorrow for your Poor Brother.

Annotation

This letter, written to his sister Charlotte, is the earliest of La Trobe's personal letters from Port Phillip that has been published, predating his well known letter to John Murray (see La Trobe Journal No. 71) by nine months. Accompanied by his wife, Sophie, and his baby daughter, Agnes, La Trobe had taken up the post of Superintendent on 3 October 1839.
The letter is different in tone and emphasis from that to Murray, reflecting the different relationship to the recipient. La Trobe's sister Charlotte (1793–1878), who never married, was the eldest of the family to which he belonged. An active member of the small Moravian congregation, she had nursed their widowed father in his last illness and kept in contact with all the family. The eldest son, Peter (1795–1863), who was a Moravian minister and had succeeded his father as Secretary of the Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel, had been widowed in 1839. The second son, John, who had been ordained in the Church of England, took up his appointment as the vicar of St Thomas's, Kendal, in 1840, remaining there for the next 25 years. The youngest son, Frederick [‘Fredk.’] (1803–1841), who was a doctor, was to die of yellow fever the following year in the West Indies.
On the back of the letter is the ‘blurred sketch of a ground plan of our cottage’, which is labelled, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘Jolimont en Murs’. (Charlotte knew that the her brother and Sophie had spent their honeymoon at ‘Jolimont’, a house beyond Lake Neuchâtel owned by the bride's family. Like so many migrants, the couple named their modest cottage after a place that held happy memories for them.) The small cottage, with a side verandah that was later converted into a ‘library’, was connected with ‘the necessary offices’ — a large kitchen (18 feet by 16 feet), laundry, and stables — by a bricked walkway. La Trobe identified the individual rooms and their measurements, but some of the detail-cannot now be read. On right-hand side of the entrance —a corridor 18 feet in length -was ‘sophie's room’ (the bed room, which was 18 feet by 15 feet), from which a tiny nursery and
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Edward La Trobe Bateman, artist. Front view of Jolimont. 1853. Pencil heightened with white on paper. H98.135/19. La Trobe Picture Collection.

dressing room opened off. The room, 14 feet by 12 feet, on the left-hand side of the corridor, appears to have been the drawing room, with a narrow dining room alongside. Two very small rooms (each 9 feet by 6 feet) behind the drawing room were perhaps for servants. In the grounds a yard with a maize mill at its centre, a driveway and shrubberies are marked, along with provision for an extensive kitchen garden. Not surprisingly, given La Trobe's botanical interest, existing trees are individually noted, and a newly created flower-bed is indicated as established on one side of the yard. To the recipient the sketch showed that the La Trobes were settling in.
On 19 October 1839 La Trobe had told his superior in Sydney, Sir George Gipps: ‘Upon my arrival here, I fixed upon a suitable spot in the Government paddock, next to that in which Capn L [Lonsdale] resides & took measures to put up my portable cottage & whatever offices were indispensably necessary’.1 He was technically a squatter, and he asked Gipps to approve his staying there for the time being. The Colonial Office had not provided a residence for the Superintendent, who was expected to cover ‘house-rent and every other charge’ out of his small salary of £800 a year. As Marguerite Hancock points out in Colonial Consorts, at this time Sir John Franklin, as Lt.-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, received £2,500 and a residence.2 La Trobe's post was regarded by the Colonial Office as considerably below that of a Lt.-Governor, but he had been quickly made aware of ‘the inflated idea of myself & my importance that the good Australian Felicians are pleased to entertain’.3 La
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Government House, Melbourne. [ca. 1915]. Postcard. H98.116/17. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Trobe's financial position dictated that he eschew all attempts at anything like the hospitality that the locals assumed the representative of the monarchy would offer. His inability to ‘act the Governor’ was to be a source of resentment on the part of the colonists, even after he became Lt.-Governor in 1851 with a larger salary. Of all the colonial governors in Victoria La Trobe was the poorest on arrival. In 1840 he was acutely aware of his lack of financial resources, and apprehensive about being able to provide an adequate home for his wife and child. As he told Gipps a few weeks before writing to Charlotte, ‘in the first year of my appointment I have been obliged to expocket from sheer necessity nearer thrice than twice my emolument’.4
La Trobe had not intended at first that the prefabricated cottage should remain where it was. However, the cost of erecting it was such — ‘from the exorbitant cost of labour (10/- to 14/- per diem) & materials’5 — that he was unwilling to move it unless he had to. The speculation in land led him to fear that when the land on which he had placed the cottage went up for auction the price would be too much for him, and that he would have difficulty in finding another suitable site. His original intention appears to have been to use the ‘portable cottage’, which he had brought with him, as temporary accommodation. However, as a result of the situation that he encountered on arrival, after only a couple of weeks he had ‘taken measures to dispose of my permanent House which I expect daily from England, even before it arrives, as, to keep it warehoused here is out of the question’.6 There is no
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[Governor La Trobe's cottage — facing north] [ca. 1913]. Gelatin silver photograph. H9782. La Trobe Picture Collection.

indication of how the ‘permanent House’ compared with the ‘portable cottage’, but the descriptive terms suggest that La Trobe had had to settle for what he thought of as the second best of two prefabricated buildings that he had arranged to bring to the colony.
The sequence of events which led to his obtaining the land in July 1840 at what was a bargain price because no-one bid against him, and the problems that it raised for him in relation to his superior, can be traced in the correspondence with Gipps. In the event, the purchase at the upset price of £20 of land (which could have gone for as much as £500) was the only windfall that La Trobe enjoyed during his employment in the colonies. He took pride in the fact that he had not sought to enrich himself while in office, and was irked to discover that after his departure Melburnians thought the subdivision and sale of the ‘Jolimont’ property (his only asset) had made him a rich man.7
The portable cottage, of which he writes so reassuringly to Charlotte, was enlarged in later years to accommodate the growing family, and remained the family home for the whole of La Trobe's stay at Port Phillip. Although the summers were not all as ‘charming’ as the first one that he experienced, La Trobe was able to create a garden, which transformed the surrounds of the building.8 As for the appearance of the building itself, that was significantly altered by addition of a broad latticed verandah running the length of the cottage. The cottage survived in its original location for well over a century; but if Melbournians noticed it at all, it was as a comparatively uninteresting relic of the increasingly mythologised
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‘pioneering days’. To a Victorian looking at an early twentieth-century postcard of the handsome Government House erected in the Botanical Gardens in 1915, the inset image of the humble ‘First Government House’ could only stir pride in progress. While the first governor's cottage nearby, hemmed in by a factory and other buildings, was falling into disrepair, the bricks of ‘Captain Cook's Cottage’ were brought from Yorkshire to be erected in pride of place in Treasury Gardens as part of the celebration of the founding of Victoria. On 3 July 1963 the Age reported that the National Trust would dismantle the ‘old, unsightly cottage’ which would otherwise be bulldozed to make way for a car park, and that it would be moved to King's Domain where it would be reconstructed at the southern entrance to Government House. It has since been moved to a less conspicuous position on the other side of Domain Drive.
Necessity compelled La Trobe to live modestly. He was, however, inclined to make a virtue of necessity, telling Gipps ‘it is my duty to set a good example & to show that it is possible to live moderately and contentedly even in the midst of a crowd of successful speculators who are making their thousands by the turn of every card’.9
La Trobe was more anxious about his finances than he acknowledges to Charlotte, and he only hints at what he had been learning during the first six months about the difficulties of being a colonial administrator. However, showing less reticence than he usually does, he leaves her in no doubt about the personal cost that her ‘most affec. brother and friend’ was feeling as a result of having come to the antipodes.

1

The letters cited from La Trobe to Gipps are from A. G. L. Shaw, ed., Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence 1839–1846, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1989.

2

Marguerite Hancock, Colonial Consorts: The Wives of Victoria's Governors 1839–1900, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2001, p. 13. The chapter on Sophie La Trobe in this book gives an excellent account of the domestic life at Jolimont. See also the same author's ‘News from Jolimont: The Letters of Charles Joseph and Sophie La Trobe to Their Daughter Agnes, 1845–1854’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 73, No. 2, September 2002, pp. 143–54.

3

La Trobe to Gipps, 12 February 1840.

4

Ibid.

5

La Trobe to Gipps, 19 October 1839.

6

Ibid.

7

La Trobe to D. C. McArthur, 3 February 1855; in L. J. Blake, ed., Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, Melbourne, Government of Victoria, 1975, pp. 48–49.

8

See Helen Botham, La Trobe's Jolimont: A Walk Round My Garden, Melbourne, C.J. La Trobe Society & Garden History Society, 2006. This attractive booklet gives a well documented history of the cottage and the grounds.

9

La Trobe to Gipps, 12 February 1840.