State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 71 Autumn 2003


Charles Joseph La Trobe
Letters from the Colony

1. To John Murray II, 15/29 December 1840

Melbourne Port Phillip, My dear Mr. Murray,
It is but half an hour since Mr. Austin gave me a call & handed to me an exceedingly kind note from you. I have felt your kindness the more as my conscience (some men do bring consciences with them to New South Wales!) tells me that I deserve but little remembrance at your hand. And what is worse still, when I reach home I find Mrs La Trobe employed in scanning the literary treasures with which you have covered our table & undertaking to make me blush by telling me openly, that I do not merit to possess such kind and considerate friends as yourself. That I grant, & also that I have in the worry & bustle of public duty during the last 18 months neglected many an opportunity of communication with my personal friends in Europe. I hope however that I am not too old to mend. And now having eaten ‘humble pie’ let me thank you in my wife's name as well as my own for your gifts, & gratification which the sight of so much fresh reading gives us in our exile. You, my dear Sir, have I believe never been transported 1600 miles from civilization & cannot imagine what it is to be cast so far beyond the reach of the thousand daily means of improvement & enjoyment which they possess who breath[e] the air of Europe: you therefore cannot know the pleasure we experience when we feel that tho’ so far removed, there is still a chain connecting us with the ‘old countries’ which vibrates occasionally & proves to us that we are at least upon the surface of the same planet with our kind & kindred. I have called our present position Exile, and so it is to all intents and purposes. We may be contented with it but still we look forward steadily towards its termination some bright day. I hope that you have never done us the despite to count us as emigrants. No, no, I do not exactly say that I would rather be hung in England than die in Australia; but still I deprecate the latter event if so please God. Some people certainly emigrate to these outlandish countries with all their wits about them; a great many leave theirs at home & perhaps are just as well off here without them, for any use that they can make of the finer portion, in that scramble general for fortune which is going on here. A wight whose body & mind are both cased in stout corduroy finds here a far more congenial element, than he who is garbed in more polite but more perishable

Sir George Reid (1841-1913) artist. Portrait of John Murray III. Black-and-white print of oil painting. Frontispiece to George Paston, At John Murray's, 1932..

This illustration is unavailable for copyright reasons.

William Brockedon (1787-1854) artist. Portrait of John Murray II, 1837. Colour pencil and chalk. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

materials exteriorly, & endowed with more cultivated & sensitive tastes & tendencies interiorly & I do not doubt that this will be a great country some future day & a fit residence & retreat for — who shall I say — Lord Normanby himself, but that will not be in my time. — The mechanic & the labouring man & men of a better class who have much to gain & little to lose & who are young enough to battle the watch with the hope of being able to stand up again & go forward after having been knocked down once or twice — let them come out in shoals, we are very glad to see them — & the country will suit them. The more that come the sooner it will become fit for those of higher classes. It is truly a singular position to be transported into. Society is of course as you may suppose in its infancy — the arts & sciences are unborn — nature herself seems to be only in her swaddling clothes — the natives for their part look like a race of beings that was never intended to be swaddled at all — & you are almost surprised at discovering that he or she is not marsupial like the majority of the other wild animals upon the same uncouth continent. The main interest here in everything consists in the oddity; & odd enough everything is if that be your taste, but there is but little variety, & one soon tires in looking at any monstrosity. Meanwhile English & I should say British perseverance & industry are effecting their usual marvels & in spite of many disadvantages the Colony of Port Phillip is advancing physically with extraordinary rapidity — this may be gathered from the public prints maugre their lies & their fustian. My position thus far has been a singular one & not without its difficulties, but I have scrambled forward with as good courage as I could muster — not troubling myself much about difficulties that might be in advance but just grappling with that of today, sometimes removing it according to rule & square, & sometimes jumping over it. My people are rapidly increasing in number. A goodnatured, busy, speculative impatient set, giving me 3 cheers one day, & abusing me like a pickpocket another; with equally poor reasons for their praise or their blame. Recent intelligence from home seems to point to the probability of the Colony being separate from N South Wales before long. And now my dear Sir what must I tell you of notre interieur. Mrs La Trobe has not been overstrong since her arrival in these regions of the globe, tho’ enjoying good general health. I am not quite sure that standing with the head downward (as you know we are all obliged to do here) suits the female constitution. One gets wonderfully used to it however after the first months trial! My little girl still forms my whole stock of jewellery & a very amusing little soul she is, a little poetic & selfwilled nevertheless: however I am a good disciplinarian & have no doubt but I shall make an overly sensible woman of her in time. We live in tolerable tranquillity despite the preeminence — in a pretty cottage about a mile out of Melbourne, which is really becoming a town. Of course I am at my office certain hours in every day, but enjoy my home so much the more when I come back to it. There is a sprinkling of exceedingly pleasant people in the Colony but they become so scattered that we only see them occasionally — so that putting a weekly dinner party (gentlemen) on is out of the question. We could not be more
quiet than we are. I had the common sense to start at once with the determination, that whatever my supposed position & liabilties might be, as long as H. M. Govt. neither gave me a house nor the means to keep an open one, I would not pretend to do so to please the little world around. A man with a fortune may spend it & ruin himself to please people if he thinks proper — but having no fortune I could not even do that. Consequently I drew my line at once — parties arriving in the Colony with letters from any dear friends I welcome with all my heart & show them the attention in my power; while to gentlemen who arrive with lithographed letters of recommendation from the Colonial Office pronouncing their eulogy in set phrase & form I show the door. Que faire! I want to get back in due time to see you again in Albemarle Street & to see something that dates further back than the year 1834. What you wrote to me of Fellowes doings in Asia Minor quite made my heart ache. When shall I discover an ancient city! or see one. Many thanks for the information you give us of Mrs Murray & your amiable Signoritas. Pray call Mrs La Trobe & myself to their remembrance & tell them that our good wishes for their health & happiness are not the less sincere because they are sent from such a distance. To my friend John I will send my second offering this my first being sent to his Sire. I wish to know from himself what he is about. What is Mr Lockhart doing? To Brockedon I write — he must have been under a strange conjunction of the heavenly signs Mercury being the dominant power:- there he is, just as usual planning & patenting & painting, a thousand irons in the fire! modelling, moulding, medalling — marrying! Long life to him. I close my scrawl on 29th Dec. just in time to wish you & yours a Happy New Year which I do most heartily. God alone knows what he has in store for us. All your kind gifts are much to our taste — & the Nos of the Quarterly very welcome to us, as we keep our principles warm in the perusal & see what is going on in the world. I quarrel however with some unfortunate Stitcher of Mr Clownes establishment who in No CXXVII has given me, no sheet Q & 2 sheet R, leaving me quite in doubt what I ought to say or believe on that most important subject the ‘Household Question'! I dare not begin upon Politics, but I ask a thousand times after the arrival of European Intelligence. How will all this end? — And now, my dear Mr Murray, believe that on this side of the world, people have warm hearts as well as in your own, & that we are not tempted to forget those who like yourself have always treated us with kindness & great indulgence. Your worthy friend Sir John Franklin now & then writes me a friendly line, & is quite well. Lady F. is off to Adelaide. Ross, off to the South Pole. We have not seen him.
I am
Ever, my dear Sir
Your faithful fd. & servt

C. J. La Trobe

2. To John Murray III, 24 March 1849

Melbourne — Port Phillip
My dear Sir,
It is very long since I wrote to you — and if I attempt to explain or to apologize ‘tis ten to one that I shall not succeed in doing so now. So pray imagine my penitence & trust my promise of amendment without my venturing to express either. I received a very friendly & welcome letter from you some months since by the hands of two Mssrs. Beauchamp — to whom for your sake & their uncle's (for somehow or other I have a feeling of personal regard for all good painters however personally unknown) — if not for their own, I was glad to show such countenance & give such advice as lay in my power. They took a fancy however at once to go into the ‘Bush’ — smitten no doubt with the seducing descriptions given of pastoral life in those lying volumes which we begin life with: and I have not heard of them since. However I have no doubt but that they will turn up some day — with a modicum of that Colonial Experience which is so requisite to ballast a man in adventuring himself on the sea of speculation in Australia. I will not fail to give them good advice, as far as I can, if they ask for it. — And now let me congratulate you — & I do it with all my heart — on your marriage. I pray God that it may be happy in every sense of the term. Our American friends say, that to marry, is to put your hand into a bag in which there are eleven rattlesnakes and one eel. I do not care who gets the rattlesnakes, — but I know for my part I got the eel — & I do not doubt but you were equally fortunate, but you must be honest with me & tell me! In the meantime Mrs La Trobe expects me to bring her to your remembrance — and that of your amiable sisters — and to write in the hope that we may some day meet. I have nearly completed my ten year sExile, and can hardly venture to guess what may be the next turn in my varied career. One thing I know that I have not made my fortune — That is an art which as far as I can learn was never understood by any of my race or name — N'importe! I must not forget to thank you for your packet of books — a Quarterly is always a treat. Your Col. & Home Library I have taken from the first & hope that it tells as well for your pocket as it does in all other respects. For the last four years I have been in the doll drums — waiting continually for the results of the proposed separation of Port Phillip from N. S. Wales — and not venturing to make any arrangts in the chance of my staying longer in the Colony. That has prevented my seeing much in the literary way which I should otherwise have procured. And now God bless you — Let me hear from you or associates if I remain in Exile — if I do not & come home, I shall be sure to give you a call at your den. Many kind regards to Brockedon. What conundrum is he labouring at now?
Yours vry truly

3. To John Murray III, 16 January 1852

C. J. La Trobe
Melbourne Victoria
My dear Murray
Your kind lines of 6 May 1851 have been very long on the road, as I only received them yesterday — and have not yet been fortunate enough to see Mr Pearl the bearer: but shall be very glad to do him any service in my power. I am very glad to see your handwriting once again, & learn that you are well & happy in your family. Mrs La Trobe joins me in thanking you for your kind remembrance of her & her little ones. I have a larger number than you, according to your statement, but after all am moderately furnished compared to some at home or abroad. Of the four (three girls & a little boy) the eldest which was our only one when we came to Australia was sent home for education to her maternal relations in Switzerland already seven years ago:- the others give us noise & pleasure & trouble enough, to guide & educate with the aid of an excellent Swiss governess. My children's fortune, like that of my father's children before them, must be ‘God's blessing & a sound education’ — for after twelve years service in the Colony I am no richer than I was on my landing — nor am I likely to become now in the midst of this extraordinary shower of gold which is causing me so much embarrmt. & trouble — for while it is filling the pockets of Tom Jack & Harry to repletion — it is washing out the little that may be found in the pockets of officials & professionals who cannot join in the scramble. If my neighbours, in N. S. Wales, with all their own experience find it difficult to realize the facts occurring here, & the far worse & more serious influence which the astonishing yield of our gold fields in Victoria, are producing on the community (& such is the case) you good stay at home people may find it still more difficult. Our colonial newspapers have such a bad character — that ten to one their statements will be doubted, & perhaps with justice, but the fact remains that the whole of my Colony more or less seems to be larded with gold & that it is removed with little outlay & trouble comparatively, at the rate of at the present time of a ton & a half per week. Single parties in many instances have secured 30, 40, & even 60, lbs weight in that interval. I have just on my table a memorandum of a party of five — who have been at work for the space of 6 weeks at Mt. Alexander -and whose gold has been sent down by our Government escort & delivered to them this day the value at 5 £ per oz being no less than £ 9700. Nine thousand and seven hundred. I write it lest you might fancy I had put an ‘aught’ to[o] much. Many have made some thousands in a shorter interval. By the time this reaches home there will be plenty of Victorian gold in the market as every ship now takes home large sums. I calculate the quantity raised since September to be not far short of a million & a half. Meanwhile the whole community is turned topsyturvey. Sober
industry is at a standstill. We are draining the neighbouring colonies S. Australia & V. D. Land of their mixed population — and are becoming the receptacle of all the bad, as well as many of the good, at the same time my hands are almost paralysed, in seeking to take those steps which ought to be taken to ensure good order in a population under such strong excitement. No pecuniary sacrifice & no degree of exertion will secure the services of competent subordinate officers, and instead of my police being trebled as it ought to be it is in fact nearly disbanded, — and every branch of the service is embarrassed to an extent which it is difficult to describe. You may imagine that I have had a great deal upon my mind & hands with a young & in some degree a make-shift government only formed the other day — and a new-born Legislative Council — assembled in its first session, big with importance, and possession of power & stern resolve to root up — & change & ameliorate — & in fact to remodel the universe — to manage. In fact there was quite enough for me to do had gold never been discovered — and for about a week towards the close of the year I own I felt a little jaded. Nevertheless day goes after day — however laden with difficulty — & time will I suppose see us through the present crisis. — The Home Govt. must however act unhesitatingly & firmly under the extraordinary circumstances in which we are placed & give the Govt. full & ample support if great disorders are not to ensue, when the rush of adventurers from a distance takes place — we have already a good sprinkling of Californian with talk of bowie knives, revolvers & vigilance committees &c &c! Pray excuse this hasty scrawl — I am like you in that respect, & find less & less time for private corresponde. but have in no wise lost my taste for friendly intercourse with friends & acquaint, of old times: I hope to be relieved here in due time, having earned my right to a holiday after so many years exile & shall rejoice to see you & yours. Pray present Mrs La Trobe's kind regards as well as my own to Mrs Murray. Many thanks for the books. I see you still take the lead in [illegible] department of publication. I rejoice at it. You say nothing of yr. sisters. Poor Brockedon. I sympathise sincerely in his irreparable loss. I remember his fine, clever looking boy — & handsome girl.
God bless you
yrs truly
C. J. La Trobe
P. S.
Of my old chum Washington Irving I hear nothing but what he is pleased to tell to all the world by his frequent publications, — viz. that he is as busy-brained & busy-fingered as ever. His Life of Goldsmith amused me exceedingly. He could not have taken a subject more congenial to his tastes & feelings. Twenty years have gone by since we travelled together — and probably if we now met, we
might be constrained to avow, between ourselves, that we were both a leeetle the worse for wear.
For myself I am quite ready to own, that altho’ I may not have fallen off in activity, yet the wear & tear of so many years spent in a hot & exciting climate, if not the cares of state & strain upon the mind while playing the part of petty Potentate, — & many moving accidents by flood & field — may have produced their effects, and sowed wrinkles which no amount of clear-starching & ironing will obliterate: and I imagine that he has not been so long engaged in deciphering worm-eaten records, & vile manuscripts, without contracting some irradicable furrows in what was, in my time, a very even & sunshiny forehead. When you write to him recal[l] me to his recollection & tell him that should I ever go home, & be able to take the U. S. in the way, it will go hard with me, but I beat up the snug preserves & close covers of the banks of the Hudson River — Sleepy Hollow included, and see if I can not break in upon his doze with a snatch of one of our old songs.
Yrs C. J. L.

William Strutt. Opening of the First Legislative Council of Victoria, 13 November 1851. Lithograph. Copy in La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, Neuchâtel Archive. MS 13354, Box 2/12. Location of original unknown.


4. To John Murray III, 17 May 1853

My dear Murray
So, you have been abusing, & misrepresenting, & maligning, & calumniating, & lecturing Victoria & its government in the Quarterly, bad luck to you! It will matter very little in the end, as I suppose sooner or later the truth will come out — and facts speak for themselves. All I can now say is, that neither the Colony nor its government deserve the treatment it gets, either from its own worthless & radical press, — from its jealous neighbours who echo & believe every thing bad of the Colony which has aborted their labour, & has shot so far ahead in physical prosperity, — or from the home press, just at present, which despite undoubted facts presented by the official reports & returns, proving that these things cannot be & are not so — goes on in the same strain. I would only enclose to you the within — and ask if it be credible that a country which goes on quietly realizing such a revenue from its various branches, can be a scene of wide spread confusion — or whether the government, which young & inexperienced & unformed & unsupported as it may have been at the time of the gold discovery, — has stuck to its task, & found means to expand, so as to meet the emergency & never suspend for an instant any of its important functions does not deserve commendation in this rather than detraction & abuse. Some Sydney tyke has primed your reviewer I suspect.
I am looking out anxiously for some relief — for I feel that neither hands nor head can stand such a strain long — & that even iron may break if it will not bend. I have had not only, from circumstances to manage the helm but to give a timely pull occasionally to many of the ropes. It will give me great pleasure to squeeze your hand in due time if so please God — in the meantime I am living a solitary life without wife or children. They all at this date, are I trust not far from the termination of their voyage home. You may hear one way or another I presume whether I am likely to receive an answer to this in the Colony or not.
God bless you & yours.
Yours vy truly
C. J. La Trobe
Many kind regards to Brockedon when you see him — What is he at now? Trying to squeeze consolidate, & spin sunbeams into silk or something of that kind, probably. Idle he never will be to the last day of his life.

5. To John Murray III, 25 July 1853

My dear Murray
By the time this reaches you you may have heard that I have a prospect of revisiting Europe & old friends. I am thankful, — that is all I may say now. It has struck me that I should find it both advantageous & agreeable, to be in a position to associate, when occasion offers, with clever men, however stupid I may feel myself; and my object in writing to you now, is to say, that if, according to your judgement & appreciation of my principles on the one hand & necessities on the other, you would turn the matter over in yr. mind and propose me as a member of the Athenaeum — or the Travellers, or any other club which you judge may answer my purpose and give me a chance of admission before I become as bald as a bat, deaf as a nail, or as poor as Job's turkey (I believe that the rules of some keep a man suspended & in doubt for a period beyond all endurance till even a black ball becomes a relief because decisive & unmistakeable.) I shall be much obliged to you — & I give you carte blanche. — I hope that you will feel no hesitation in acting sponsor — if you want more, you will find no difficulty. It is true that I have been near 14 years at the antipodes and not far from Botany Bay. I am in that respect a long sentenced man, — but I am not the less I trust a good man & true — whose shield however battered will be carried out of the field without taint.
I await some intelligce of my successor before I move — of course. However hard I may have worked — he may depend upon it that he will have plenty to do. ‘Times aint now as they used to was’ as the Americans say, — and there are principles & agencies abroad which require that a man should ever sleep with his eyes open, especially when he has to control them asses — as somebody printed it — However I leave him no ignoble task, & wish him an equal share of God's good providence to help him through, with that which I have been favoured with — I fancy that by this time you may have made acquaintce with my excellent elder Brother & it is a pleasure for me to think so. He is worth two of me. My kind regards to Brockedon — I may write again by the Chusan.
Yrs. trly C. J. La Trobe


The originals of these letters are in the John Murray Archives, London. Grateful acknowledgement is due to Virginia Murray and her staff for making available photocopies, which have been transcribed by John Barnes.
La Trobe's handwriting is often difficult to read, but every attempt has been made to reproduce accurately his abbreviations and (sometimes) unorthodox spelling and unsystematic punctuation, but crossings-out and additions during the writing of the letters have not been noted.


Samuel Smiles printed an abridged and slightly emended version of this letter in his A Publisher and His Friend, London, John Murray, 1891. That version has been reproduced in L.J. Blake's edition of Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, Melbourne, Government of Victoria, 1975.
John Murray (1778-1843) was a leading London publisher, whose authors included such notables as Byron, Scott, and Austen. On his son John's becoming friendly with La Trobe, he invited him into the family circle at Albemarle Street and encouraged the young author. In writing the letter La Trobe would have been mindful of Murray's keen sense of humour and his strong Toryism.
Lord Normanby had been Secretary for War and the Colonies and was now Home Secretary in Lord Melbourne's government. His son may be said to have fulfilled La Trobe's prophecy by becoming Governor of Victoria (1879-84), after holding governorships in Queensland and New Zealand.
Sir Charles Fellowes (1799-1860) was a traveller and archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Xanthus and Tlos in 1838.
The ‘Household Question’ was the result of Queen Victoria's refusal to replace her Whig ladies of the bedchamber when the Whig government of Lord Melbourne was defeated in 1839.
John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), son-in-law and biographer of Sir Walter Scott, edited Murray's Quarterly Review from 1825 to 1853. He was probably the reviewer who in 1835 praised La Trobe's The Rambler in North America in the journal.
Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), famous for his arctic exploration, was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land between 1837 and 1843.
Sir James Ross (1800-1862) commanded a geographical expedition to the Antarctic 1839-43.


John Murray (1808-1892) became head of the publishing house in 1843, on the death of his father. He and his close friend, painter William Brockedon (1787-1854), had met La Trobe in 1835. In this letter, and also in Letter 4 La Trobe mentions Brockedon's scientific interests which led to his patenting a number of inventions.


Brockedon's son, who had shown great promise in his chosen career of engineer, had died in
November 1849.
‘…many moving accidents by flood and field…’ Othello, Act I, Sc. 3, l. 135.
La Trobe was never to meet Washington Irving again.


La Trobe's letter was prompted by the appearance in the Quarterly Review, September 1852, of a review-article on the Australian gold discoveries, in which his attitudes and actions were criticised. The enclosure sent with this letter for Murray's consideration is not now in the archive.


La Trobe was elected to the Athenaeum Club in 1855 under Rule II, which empowered the Committee to elect annually nine ‘eminent persons'. Among the ‘clever men’ who belonged to the club were Lord Glenelg, Sir Charles Fellowes, Sir Paul Strzelecki, John Ruskin, W.M. Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Sir Francis Grant (who painted La Trobe's portrait), and John Gould, as well as his friends Murray and Brockedon. Washington Irving had been a member when living in England.


The La Trobe Journal gratefully acknowledges permission from the following to reproduce texts and images in this issue:
Carlotta Blake, great-granddaughter of Charles Joseph La Trobe (unpublished writings by C.J. La Trobe)
Archives de l'Etat, Neuchâtel (photographs from Fonds Petitpierre)
Fulneck School Archives, Pudsey, Yorkshire (Lamb's Hill, c. 1750)
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma (North American diary of C.J. La Trobe)
John Murray Archives, London (letters of C.J. La Trobe)
National Portrait Gallery, London (portraits by William Brockedon)
Unitätsarchiv, Herrnhut (photograph of Revd Peter La Trobe)
For their assistance in the preparation of the Charles Joseph La Trobe Number, grateful thanks are due to the following individuals:
Josephine Barnes, Sabrina Boucher, Sandra Burt, Sarah Erwin (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa), Wallace Kirsop, Mary Lewis, Jack Moshakis, Virginia Murray (John Murray Archives, London), Lorraine Parsons (Moravian Archives, London), Veronica Peek, Paul Peucker (Unitätsarchiv, Herrnhut) Dianne Reilly, Max Richards, Ronald Southern (author of ‘Going Home: The Moravian Settlement at Fulneck, 1750-1760’, PhD Thesis, La Trobe University, 1997), Maurice de Tribolet (Archives de L'Etat, Neuchâtel).