State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 71 Autumn 2003


William Brockedon (1787-1854) artist. Portrait of Charles Joseph La Trobe, 1835. Coloured chalk on paper. National Portrait Gallery, London.

This illustration is unavailable for copyright reasons.

Dianne Reilly
Charles Joseph La Trobe
An Appreciation

Members of the La Trobe family have distinguished themselves over the years in many walks of life and in many parts of the world. This year marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Joseph La Trobe, one of the most talented of a remarkable family. It is only fitting that he should now, at long last, begin to be appreciated for his contribution to the development of Victoria.
Charles Joseph was a great-great-grandson of Jean Latrobe, ‘the refugee’ from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and he was in the line of James and Benjamin La Trobe. He was the third son and fifth child of Christian Ignatius La Trobe, the prominent Moravian clergyman and musician, and his wife, Hannah Benigna Syms of Ballinderry in Ireland, the daughter of a Moravian pastor.
Charles Joseph was born on 20 March 1801 at Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, Holborn,1 not far from the Aldwych, and ‘within the sound of Bow Bells',2 almost in the centre of the City of London. His baptism took place nearby on 29 March of that year at the Fetter Lane Chapel of the United Brethren. The original houses in Kirby Street have long since given way to modern office buildings, and it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like when Christian Ignatius made his family home there. However, Fetter Lane, which runs from Fleet Street to Holborn, not quite 400 metres long, and located in one of the most historic parts of London, not far from the grand edifice of St. Paul's, can still evoke its romantic past, despite the fact that it was severely bombed in 1941. It was so named because it was the commercial centre for ‘fetters’, those tradesmen who made vests for the Knights Templars, members of a religious order who, until their suppression in 1312, protected pilgrims to the Holy Land. Fetter Lane teems with the ghosts of former residents, including the poet John Dryden, the composer John Dowland, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the author of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine. The Chapel of the United Brethren or Moravians was in this tiny thoroughfare; it was there that Charles Joseph's grandfather, Benjamin La Trobe, preached and John and Charles Wesley worshipped for a time before establishing their own Christian denomination. Little is known of the family life in which Charles Joseph was brought up, other than that his father, Christian Ignatius, was often away from home on account of his evangelical work as Secretary of the Unity of the Brethren for the Moravian Church. His children had a typical education and religious upbringing in the Moravian faith, and it was this strong religious conviction based on brotherly love which governed every action and shaped the character of Charles Joseph for the rest of his life.
He became a pupil at the Fulneck Moravian School in Yorkshire in 1807, when he was six years of age.3 His own father had begun school there in 1760 when he was just two.4 Fulneck School had a reputation for offering a fine education based on Moravian principles. Unfortunately, Charles Joseph left no diaries or letters about his experiences at school, but it is clear that from a very young age, his total upbringing was handed over to the Church. This was typical Moravian practice at the time, members of the church being confident that a well-organised boarding school life would shape their children both educationally and spiritually. In many ways, the Moravian education system was ahead of its time. Each child was treated as an individual to be educated to the extent of his or her own capabilities. Scholars were classified, firstly by age, and secondly, according to their level of ability. Supervision at all times, during class and recreation, was viewed as the best way
in early familiarising the pupils with the serious truth that nothing can be attained in this life without labour and perseverance, and thus habituating them to diligence and regularity in all their pursuits.5
Classes at the time that Charles Joseph attended the school were seldom larger than 12 pupils and lasted no longer than one hour ‘so as not to weary scholars by fixing their attention too long on the same object'.6 Every activity was governed by the timetable, with the result that students soon learned the benefits of order in their lives. No doubt, the care taken in the sympathetic nurturing of each child had much to do with the exceptional education results achieved:
Care is also taken, that the classes, in which the languages, mathematics etc are taught, are held in the early part of the day, when the memory and faculties are in the best order for study; the easier branches of learning being reserved for the afternoon.7
Discipline was of the gentlest nature, following the practice in the church as a whole, and consisting ‘of brotherly Admonition, Reproof and Correction'.8
La Trobe obviously flourished in such a system, as did his brothers and his talented father and uncles before him. This is shown by the wide range of his interests in adult life, and in his reflective personality. Like his uncle, the great American architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ‘he was well served by the Moravian education system which provided him with a broad modern academic base upon which to build his … studies and career'.9 The standard curriculum at Fulneck included classical and modern languages, history, drawing and science in the form of botany and physics. Children were also required to develop their physical strength and fitness, and cricket was a favourite sport.
About the same time that Charles Joseph was at school, John Dawes Worgan was a fellow student. He wrote about life at the school and conveyed what was probably a typical opinion — one that Charles Joseph would no doubt have shared:
Within its confines some of the happiest of my days were passed. There was a predominant spirit of piety which produced a spirit of harmony and content. I turn with the most tender regret from the place where I received my education for two years;
where I was treated with uniform kindness; — where my understanding and my heart were alike the objects of attention, and perhaps were equally improved.10
Charles Joseph's second cousin, Samuel Hazard La Trobe, kept a diary of his own daily routine at Fulneck some 40 years later. This reflects the sort of regime and the general ambience of the school experienced earlier by his older cousin. The weekly routine of the boys who lived, worked and relaxed in the Single Brethren's quarters, embraced all the necessary subjects: English grammar, Latin, French, arithmetic, geography, drawing and singing. A great deal of homework and learning by rote was the norm and, as was the case for the young Samuel, so was gentle correction for such misdemeanours as talking in class and impertinence. The Debating Society was a focus for the whole school, and Samuel recounted that:
I went to it as I wished to hear the debate of this evening as I was greatly interested in the subject which was about slavery and it was proved that it was a good thing that slavery is abolished.11
As one who enjoyed a Moravian education himself, and who is himself a distant cousin of Charles Joseph, the Revd Basil MacLeavy, before his retirement a Moravian clergyman in Jamaica, has noted:
It is clear that life at Fulneck in the early nineteenth century was much gentler, and perhaps more humane, than in the big public schools with their fights and floggings.12
The sons of Christian Ignatius La Trobe — Peter, John Antes, Charles Joseph and Frederic Benjamin — were all educated at the Moravian School in Fulneck, and at the Fairfield Boys’ Boarding School, another Moravian Settlement, in the Manchester suburb of Droylsden, no doubt with the intention of preparing them for the ministry. However, of the four, only Peter followed his father into the Moravian Church, taking over in 1836 on the death of Christian Ignatius as Secretary of the Unity of the Brethren.13 John Antes La Trobe became an Anglican clergyman and, eventually, was Canon of Carlisle Cathedral,14 while Benjamin Frederic, a doctor in the West Indies, succumbed to yellow fever during an epidemic at Hopeton in 1841 and is buried in Jamaica.15
As has so often been the case for young people throughout the ages, Charles Joseph La Trobe had reached the end of his schooling with no clear idea of the future direction of his life. He taught for a time at the Fairfield Boys’ Boarding School.16 When he was 23, La Trobe went to Neuchâtel Switzerland, as tutor to the French-Swiss family of Comte Frédéric de Pourtalès, a position he acquired most likely through his father's influential contacts. His spirits were at a low ebb and he referred to a ‘number of severe trials'17 he had lately undergone, but he was never precise about the reasons. One definite cause for this depression was the death of his dear mother earlier in 1824.18
While he was employed in Switzerland, La Trobe was diverted by the outdoor life. He became a pioneer alpinist and was noted for his skill as a mountaineer. He
climbed peaks and traversed mountain passes completely alone, without the services of guides. He wrote about his adventures in his first book, The Alpenstock, for an audience in England who would never be more than armchair travellers at home. His book was a popular success, but La Trobe was not satisfied. He dreaded the thought of wasting his whole life on what he saw as superficiality in his ‘rambling’ pursuits, and he enrolled at Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he did not take up residency at the University and he was soon rambling again in the Tyrol and parts of Italy and Switzerland. As in The Alpenstock, he recorded the course of his travels in his notebook,19 which he later revised for his second book The Pedestrian.20
To complement his writing, La Trobe sketched the views he saw. Described some years later by his friend, the American writer Washington Irving, as the ‘sketcher of no mean pretensions',21 La Trobe was to use his artistic talent throughout his life to document the places he visited and the scenery about him. La Trobe used his sketchbook in the same way that a traveller employs a camera today — to compile a record of people and places visited and sights seen, for his own future reference. The development of La Trobe as an artist who could rapidly record a landscape or a building for official purposes, as well as for his own pleasure, is evident in the hundreds of sketches extant today. In 1999 the State Library of Victoria published a large folio of 437 of his landscapes and sketches, which show what a talented artist he was.22

Unknown artist. Charles Joseph La Trobe. Frontispiece to The Rambler in Oklahoma.

He was next employed in 1832 and 1833 by the Comte and Comtesse de Pourtalès to escort their son, Albert, his former student, on a prolonged tour of North America and Mexico. Again, he sketched the views he saw. The two books which resulted from this journey — The Rambler in North America (1835)23 and The Rambler in Mexico (1836)24 -
are notable travelogues in the literature of these two countries.
La Trobe, after two years in the ‘New World’, returned to England where he bemoaned the fact that ‘I have no profession — for what Washington Irving calls ‘poor devil author’ can hardly be accounted one'.25 In 1835, although he was at this time ‘in the total absence of fortune',26 he once again returned to Switzerland. There, he successfully courted and married Sophie de Montmollin, the eighth of the thirteen children of one of Neuchâtel's most aristocratic families.27
Two superb portraits of La Trobe are known to have been executed at about the time of his marriage. The earlier image, a pastel drawing in the National Gallery collection in London, was the work of the popular society artist of the 1820s and 1830s, William Brockedon. It shows a good-looking young man of 34, lively, healthy and full of expectation for what life was about to offer him. La Trobe looked the typical Regency dandy, with carefully tousled hair and an air of confidence that he was any man's peer. In this portrait, the sensitivity and refinement of the man are certainly in evidence, but the direct gaze and firm yet gentle features give the impression of positivity and assertiveness that would equip any future diplomat well. The second portrait, an oil painting owned by La Trobe's late grandson, Charles La Trobe, is by an accomplished but unnamed artist. Until the 1950s, it is known to have hung in the London family home, but regrettably, it is now missing. This work is a full-length portrait of a tall, slim La Trobe who adopted a calculated negligence or relaxation before the painter. He was rather Byronic in appearance, and once again, exuded an air of self-possession, resolution and vigour. The effect of these two portraits on the observer is that the subject was one with a great deal of promise and ability, who would be equal to any challenge, and who could be relied upon to achieve in all his undertakings. The second painting could almost be a companion piece to the portrait of Sophie at this time by the Swiss-German painter, Dietler.

Johan Friedrich Dietler (1787-1854) artist. Sophie de Montmollin, 1834. Watercolour. Photograph courtesy of Archives de l'Etat, Neuchâtel.

In February 1837, as I have described in my article, ‘The Creation of a Civil Servant: La Trobe in the West Indies’, La Trobe was offered a posting to carry out a

Freres Bruder, photographers. C.J. La Trobe, 1868. Taken in Neuchâtel. H37128. La Trobe Picture Collection.

government assignment in the West Indies. He wrote three excellent reports to the British Parliament, the final one being presented just when Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary, had decided to establish a new administrative position at Port Phillip in the south east of Australia. They were so well received28 that he was almost immediately offered the position of Superintendent.29
Charles Joseph and Sophie La Trobe, accompanied by their two-year-old daughter, Agnes, and two servants, set sail for Australia in March 1839. After a voyage of 123 days, their ship reached Sydney, where they remained for two months so that the new Superintendent could be tutored in methods of conducting government business by his superior officer, the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps. The La Trobes finally reached Port Phillip on 30 September 1839. Melbourne, as the settlement was to become, was in a rudimentary stage of its evolution into one of the world's finest cities. At this time, the city had a population of fewer than 2000 people, there was no local government and no services, and certainly no culture. In the 15 years La Trobe spent in Australia, all the elements necessary for comfort and civilisation were introduced and developed by this visionary administrator. He reported conscientiously to the British Governor in Sydney, and he constructively made recommendations to the Colonial Office in London about the development of this remote colony. In 1851, he was appointed first Lieutenant-Governor of the newly separated and named colony of Victoria. He was a talented, honourable and visionary administrator of an often troublesome but nevertheless valuable outpost of the British Empire. He left Melbourne in 1854 with a population of 76,560 as the then most affluent city in the world. The population for the whole colony of Victoria in that year amounted to 236,776.30
Sophie had gone home the year before in poor health to seek medical attention in Switzerland where she died on 30 January 1854.31 Her husband in Melbourne was to read of her death in a newspaper,32 family correspondence having taken longer to reach the Australian colonies. La Trobe then, on his return to Europe, was facing the reality of life as a widower and as the sole parent of a very young family, three of whom — Eleanora, Cecile and Charles — had been born in Melbourne. In a state of deep bereavement, he had to set about establishing a family home for them and seeing to their education.
La Trobe did not remain a widower for very long. He needed a partner, primarily to undertake the upbringing of his children, and as was so typical of the era, he turned to the woman who had had so much to do with the successful raising of his eldest child, Agnes, who had been sent home to school in 1845. This was his sister-in-law, Rose Isabelle de Meuron, the youngest of Sophie's siblings, who herself had been a widow for the last 12 years. Charles Joseph La Trobe and Rose de Meuron were married in Neuchâtel on 3 October 1855.33 Of his second marriage, two children were born: Margaret Rose, known as ‘Daisy’, in September 1856 at Addington in England, and Isabelle Castellane, in 1859 at the Château de Greng, one of the Pourtalès houses in Switzerland.
At the time of La Trobe's second marriage, it was illegal in England for a man
to marry his deceased wife's sister. This was one of the many ‘Prohibited Degrees of Marriage and Incest’ under British law which prevented marriages between those connected through affinity, that is, by marriage but not by blood, including both relations-in-law and step-relations. Prior to the Marriage Act 1949, legal precedent had established that the Table of Kindred and Affinity, which formed part of the Book of Common Prayer, was the prescriptive list for illegal unions between the sexes.34
La Trobe had returned to England a relatively young man at the age of 53, obviously still physically and mentally able, but was never again offered a position with the Colonial Office. There were a number of reasons, the totality of which may have convinced the Colonial Office against him. La Trobe was not generally a popular man while in office in Victoria. He saw his position in Melbourne as one of a ruling class, he himself at its head, and this attitude, combined with a natural aloofness or inbuilt shyness, gave him an aura of unsociability and lack of sympathy or warmth which did not endear him to many of the local population. While the Colonial Office considered his administration generally successful, his management of the turmoil of the goldfields from 1852 and his goldfields policies were not a success, and did not promote his good reputation.
Added to what were perceived as his personal shortcomings, was his second marriage, illegal and frowned upon as an act of incest by those in power. La Trobe was, therefore, in an invidious position as regards future employment, and there is no evidence that he formally applied to the Colonial Office for a new posting. He would, no doubt, have realised the hopelessness of any such application, and may have taken the award of the C.B. (Companion of the Bath) in 1858 as a sign that his official career was over, resigning himself to enforced early retirement.
Financial matters, however, were important to him but, luckily, he was able to sub-divide his Australian property and, gradually, to sell off the parcels of land. It was just as well, since it was more than 10 years before the House of Commons saw fit, after much haggling, to approve payment to him of a small pension.
La Trobe had had to lobby the Colonial Office and his various contacts in Treasury circles for 10 years to bring his particular request for a pension to the notice of the decision makers. After prolonged debate in Parliament, it was agreed that he had ‘undoubtedly performed the functions of a lieutenant-governor, and being a meritorious servant, it was only right that he should be included in the Bill'.35 He was, at last, granted a partial pension since he had ‘discharged his duties with great judgment and was well entitled to the consideration of the house'.36 La Trobe's eyesight had by now deteriorated seriously, but his tenaciousness in striving for his due reward never deserted him.
Since La Trobe's pension was modest, he and his family lived in a number of leased houses in England, and spent months at a time visiting their many relatives in Switzerland. One of the most notable houses in which the La Trobes stayed was Ightham Mote, in Kent. Charles Joseph, the inveterate sketcher, composed skilful architectural drawings of the Mote itself, and of numerous surrounding churches, and beautifully
portrayed the rural scenery. Built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Ightham Mote is one of the very few remaining moated manor houses in England, now in the excellent care of the National Trust. La Trobe was a tenant of Prideaux John Selby whose family owned the house from 1591 to 1889.37 This very beautiful property was let to La Trobe from December 1855 to June 1856.
La Trobe's last place of residence was Clapham House, a fine Georgian house built of flint with brick quoins, owned by Lady Godfrey of Ireland, in the picturesque village of Litlington in Sussex. The village, set in the Valley of the Cuckmere about eight miles equidistant from Eastbourne and Lewes, on one of those small, slow-moving streams typical of the area, was an idyllic place for retirement. Clapham House, standing in spacious and beautifully kept gardens, ‘has a simple and sufficiently aristocratic dignity, and seems to know its place as the manor house of the village'.38 It is reputed to have been the home of Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress of George IV, who reportedly rode over frequently from Brighton to visit her there. A visitor in the mid-twentieth century noted:

Elliott & Fry, London, photographers. A late portrait of La Trobe, courtesy of Archives de I'Etat, Neuchâtel.

The La Trobes were regarded by the villagers as ‘Swiss’, who lived a good deal on ‘green stuff’ at Clapham House, keeping up an extensive ‘salad garden'. Obviously, to the local Anglo-Saxons, both foreign and eccentric.39
It was in this lovely and peaceful location that Charles Joseph La Trobe died on 4 December 1875.40 He was buried in the graveyard of the Parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel, where a white marble cross marks his grave. After his death, his wife retired to Neuchâtel where she had a picturesque chapel, the Chapelle de I'Ermitage, built to his memory. It looks out over the beautiful Lake Neuchâtel and the distant mountain peaks La Trobe knew so well. In 1978, to celebrate the centenary of the chapel, the Government of Victoria presented two stained-glass windows to grace the nave in honour of La Trobe and his work in Australia.
La Trobe had a vision for the colony he had been sent to govern which bore no relevance to the contemporary period and those who lived in Port Phillip at that
time. His long-term vision for Victoria was of a ‘not only Christian but a highly educated community well versed in the arts and sciences — a simple extension of his religious and cultural values'.41 Certainly not honoured nor greatly appreciated during his 15-year term in Port Phillip, and ill-rewarded by an ungrateful employer after his retirement, his memory — in the naming of streets, towns, an electorate, a library and a university for him — has perhaps been better celebrated in the state of Victoria, and the flourishing of countless cultural and education institutions in its capital, Melbourne, than that of most other vice-regal figures in Australia's history. As Alexander Sutherland wrote in 1888:
in proportion as these early times grow distant, in proportion as Victoria becomes more populous and gathers round her more and more of national feeling, in proportion as the value is recognised of institutions … laid on wise foundations in those early days, so there will appear in our annals in ever bolder relief, the simple, unostentatious, genial and gentlemanly figure of Charles Joseph La Trobe.42


Fonds Petitpierre, Archives de l'Etat, Neuchâtel.


Charles Joseph La Trobe, The Rambler in North America, 1832-33, 2 vols, London, Seeley and Burnside, 1835, vol. I, p. 7.


John Mason and Lucy Torode, ‘Three Generations of the La Trobe Family in the Moravian Church’, Moravian History Magazine, 1997, p. 18.


‘Schools and scholars’, Moravian History Magazine, 17, 2000, p. 10.


John Holmes, History of the Protestant Church of the United Brethren, 2 vols, London, T. Inkersley, 1825, vol. II, p. 74.




Ibid, p. 75.


Ibid, p. 334.


Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne and Charles E. Brownell, Latrobe's View of America, 1795-1820, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985, p. 4.


R.B.M. Hutton, Through Two Centuries; An Account of the Origin and Growth of Fulneck School, 1753-1953, Fulneck School Bicentenary Committee, 1953, p. 24.


Samuel Hazard La Trobe, ‘Remnant of a Schoolboy Diary’, in the private collection of Revd Basil MacLeavy, Leominster, United Kingdom.


Revd Basil MacLeavy to Dianne Reilly, 15 February 2000.


Robert Speake and Frank Roy Witty, A History of Droylsden, Stockport, Cloister Press, 1953, p. 149.




Breaking of the Dawn, 1904, p. 77.


Speake and Witty, op. cit.


Charles Joseph La Trobe, The Alpenstock; or, Sketches of Swiss Scenery and Manners, 1825-26, London, Seeley and Burnside, 1829, p. 1.


Public Record Office, London, Fetter Lane Society Records, Hannah Benigna La Trobe — Birth, Death, Burial, RG4/4392.


MS 13003, ‘Journal of a journey in the Tyrol, 1829-30'.


Charles Joseph La Trobe, The Pedestrian: A Summer's Ramble in the Tyrol and Some of the Adjacent Provinces, London, Seeley & Burnside, 1832.


Washington Irving, A Tour on the Prairies, London, John Murray, 1835, p. 5.


Dianne Reilly, Charles Joseph La Trobe: Landscapes and Sketches. Notes by Victoria Hammond, Melbourne, State Library of Victoria, 1999. See also Dianne Reilly, ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe ‘Sketcher of No Mean Pretensions’’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. LXXIII, no. 2.


The Rambler in North America, op. cit.


Charles Joseph La Trobe, The Rambler in Mexico, 1834, London, Seeley & Burnside, 1836.


La Trobe to Comtesse de Pourtalès, 8 August 1834. Archives de l'Etat de Neuchâtel, Fonds Petitpierre.




Bernard de Montmollin, Genealogical Chart of Montmollin Family.


Glenelg to Lieutenant-General Sir Lionel Smith, KCB, 15 January 1838, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, 1837-38, House of Commons, XLVIII, no. 114.


Alan Gross, Charles Joseph La Trobe, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1956, p. 9.


Wray Vramplew, ed., Australians: Historical Statistics, Sydney, Fairfax, Syme & Weld and Associates, 1987, pp. 26-29 passim.


Extrait du Registre des Actes de Decès de Neuchâtel, 1 Février 1854, Archives de l'Etat de Neuchâtel.


Morning Post, London, 8 February 1854, p. 8.


Argus, 7 January 1856, p. 5.


Sybil Wolfram, In-laws and Outlaws; Kinship and Marriage in England, London, Croom Helm, 1987.


Star, London, 23 June 1865.


Telegraph, London, 23 June 1865.


Nigel Nicolson, Ightham Mote, Kent, London, National Trust, 2000, pp. 38-41.


Keith Macartney to Kathleen Fitzpatrick, 6 February 1950. University of Melbourne Archives, Kathleen Fitzpatrick Papers, Box 8.




Public Record Office, London. Death Certificate, Charles Joseph La Trobe, 4 December 1875.


Australian Encyclopaedia, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1958, vol. V, p. 247.


Alexander Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, Melbourne, McCarron, Bird, 1888, vol. I, p. 356.