State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


John Barnes
‘More beautiful than Port Phillip’:
The La Trobe Family in Van Diemen's Land

My visit to V. D. Land has quite freshened my spirit & my love for the fine scenery & natural sciences.
La Trobe to R. C. Gunn, 8 March 1847


All Of C. J. La Trobe's experience as a colonial administrator was in Port Phillip (later Victoria), except for a period of just over three months (13 October 1846 – 25 January 1847) when he was Administrator of Van Diemen's Land, following the dismissal of the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot. La Trobe heard the news of his unexpected appointment while in Sydney on a visit to the newly appointed Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles FitzRoy. On his return to Melbourne on 6 October, La Trobe was able to read the despatch from W. E. Gladstone offering him an appointment that ‘may possibly be not merely irksome and unwelcome but productive of considerable personal inconvenience to you’.1 (Such was the time taken to prepare documents and then send them by ship that Gladstone had already been replaced in office by Earl Grey for several months before the despatch reached Melbourne.) La Trobe did not know that he had been one of four men already considered as replacements for Eardley-Wilmot.2 Sir William Denison had been chosen (because of ‘his knowledge and experience in the conduct of public works’) before La Trobe even knew of his own appointment. He was judged to be suitable to take over the administration in the interim, and was given the particular task of inquiring into the operation of the convict probation system, a matter of great concern to the Colonial Office which had led to the dismissal of the Lieutenant-Governor. Gladstone told Eardley-Wilmot that he was being recalled because of ‘the very defective manner’ in which he had met ‘the special exigencies’ of the colonies, by which Gladstone meant the probation system for convicts. In his authoritative work, The Convict Probation System in Van Diemen's Land 1839–1854, Ian Brand writes that Eardley-Wilmot ‘could not see that the probation system was collapsing around him’.3
La Trobe was probably chosen because of the reputation that he had gained with his reports in 1837–38 on the state of education in the West Indies following the abolition of slavery. FitzRoy told Gladstone: ‘I do not believe that you could have selected a person more worthy of your confidence or one better adapted to perform the difficult task which you have assigned him.’ Ian Brand, who reprints La Trobe's report on the probation system in his book, judges it to be ‘probably the most important document concerning the probation gangs’.4
La Trobe's stay in Van Diemen's Land is yet to be fully documented. Brand gives an excellent account of La Trobe's role in relation to the probation system; and a recent article in La Trobeana brings to light some new details of La Trobe's activities.5 The following brief biographical note, which is not intended to be comprehensive, considers what the experience of being in Van Diemen's Land meant to La Trobe and his family.


On 9 October 1846, just three days after he returned from Sydney and read the despatch from Gladstone waiting for him, La Trobe set off for Van Diemen's Land with wife (Sophie), two daughters (Eleanora, aged four years and six months, and Cecile, three years and three months), infant son (Charles, not yet ten months old) and two female servants. Disembarking at Launceston two days later, the party travelled by road to Hobart, arriving at midday on Tuesday, 13 October. Three hours later His Honour was translated into His Excellency when he took the oath of office at Government House. Only a week after he had heard of the new appointment, La Trobe was ready to begin work on the challenging task that Gladstone had given him.
As Administrator of Van Diemen's Land La Trobe was not empowered to initiate new policies. His instruction was ‘to avoid any measure and indeed any debate respecting the financial, and political questions controverted in the colony’.6 La Trobe did act decisively — and sometimes almost precipitately, according to Brand — in dismissing staff and making new appointments, and generally cleaning up the administration. On taking office, Denison found that under La Trobe there had been ‘a most searching and unsparing clearance of all that was bad in the convict department’, which had brought ‘a great deal of odium’ upon La Trobe and the Comptroller-General, Dr Hampton.7 La Trobe's major responsibility, however, was to give an accurate and full description of what was happening in the probation system, such as had not been given in ‘the transient and meagre communications’ (as Gladstone put it) of the hapless Eardley-Wilmot.
As well as seeking reports from officials, La Trobe went on visits of inspection to convict stations, sometimes accompanied by Dr Hampton. Also assisting him in gathering information were his friend Dr John Meyers, a surgeon in the Probation Department, and George Courtenay, Superintendent of the Deloraine Probation Station.8 From the glimpses of the Administrator on his inspections to be found in two letters written by Courtenay to La Trobe in 1860, when they were both settled back ‘Home’, and La Trobe's own letters to R. C. Gunn, it is clear that he positively enjoyed this part of his task. La Trobe was a keen traveller and was always refreshed by riding in the bush; as he once put it in a letter, ‘Sometimes I think I am a little jaded — but a rough ride and a scramble in the scrub bring me round most wonderfully’.9
After inspecting the convict stations in the Hobart area, La Trobe went north to

Samuel Prout Hill, artist. Old Government House [Hobart]. [ca. 1850]. Watercolour. Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania.

Launceston and then across to Falmouth on the east coast. The trip to Falmouth on 9 November 1846, when his friend Gunn was one of the party, was one of La Trobe's happiest memories. As he wrote to Gunn on 19 January 1864:
I never go over the acts of our journey to Falmouth (as I do sometimes travel again over old scenes to keep the memory green step by step) without a feeling that my side is sore from laughing. We were certainly in good spirits.10
Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808–1881), who had been private secretary to the earlier Governor (‘good Sir John Franklin’, as La Trobe was wont to call his friend), was an enthusiastic botanist to whom, along with William Archer, Joseph Hooker's Flora Tasmaniae (1859) was dedicated. La Trobe, who thought Gunn ‘an excellent naturalist’, had exchanged plants with him before coming to Van Diemen's Land. Their friendship deepened while La Trobe was Administrator, despite some awkwardness when Gunn was upset by the transfer to Launceston of his brother William, who had been Superintendent of Prisoners' Barracks in Hobart. La Trobe's remark that he thought he could persuade
Gunn to see the situation from his point of view ‘were we trotting side by side’, suggests the feeling of intimacy that had grown up between them while travelling.11 Afterwards, when Gunn was apologetic that he might not always have been properly respectful to the representative of royalty, La Trobe, describing himself as having been ‘the lighthearted harum scarum individual trotting by your side’, told him: ‘I owe you thanks that your character & humour was such as to encourage me to unbutton & unlace without restraint, whenever my humour prompted’.12 Over the years Gunn sent produce from his garden near Launceston to the La Trobes at Jolimont, and the two men corresponded on such matters as the possibility that the bunyip actually existed. Gunn (who was admitted to the Royal Society in London in 1854) was a leading figure in the Tasmanian Royal Society, of which La Trobe became, as he sadly noted, ‘an unworthy & I am sorry to say a barren member’.13
The friendship with Courtenay was not as close or as important to La Trobe, but it was no less warm. When responding to questions from La Trobe years later, Courtenay had vivid and amusing, if fragmentary, memories. One example evokes their easy relationship:
I think we went to the Schoutens before we went to Waterloo Point. I have a vivid recollection of my climb up the rocks, and of finding that His Excellency had consumed all the beer while I was bathing.
I have omitted to say that after we left the Schoutens and before we went to Waterloo Point to the house of Mr Noyes the Magistrate and that you went up in the evening to see Mr Meredith because he had some pretty daughters.14
The settler was George Meredith, who had four daughters. Louisa Anne Meredith, his talented daughter-in-law, who had already published her first book, would probably have been of more interest to La Trobe than the ‘pretty daughters’, but she was not there. (On the basis of Courtenay's joking remark Manning Clark bizarrely characterised La Trobe as a man ‘inclined to decide whether to visit a house by the number of pretty girls he would meet.’15
Courtenay was La Trobe's companion when on a Saturday afternoon in January 1847 he ‘scrambled’ to the top of Mount Wellington ‘& after a very hard tussel [sic] in the dense forest in descending got back safe and sound about 9PM’.16 Such excursions in the vicinity of Hobart were all that La Trobe allowed himself by way of enjoying one of his favourite recreations. Trips to the convict stations did enable him to see country along the east coast, but such was his sense of duty that he refrained from taking a holiday to go with Gunn on an inland trip to Lake St Clair, which would have been a highlight of his stay. Whenever opportunity presented itself, he got out his box of watercolours and quickly recorded what caught his attention. He had little opportunity to sketch until he was leaving; then, accompanied by his family, he ‘made an amusing excursion from Hobart Town, Port Arthur, Eagle Hawk Neck, Maria Island, etc. etc., the only check being on account of my little Nelly who broke her collar bone in a tumble down the skylight of the “Mary”’.17

C.J. La Trobe, artist. Mt. Wellington. [1847]. Watercolour painting. H92.360/34. LaTrobe Picture Collection.


Sophie La Trobe did not share her husband's enthusiasm for exploring the countryside. She was no Jane Franklin whose love of exploration led her to climb Mount Wellington and to make a much-talked-about overland trip from Port Phillip to Sydney. She did, however, share her husband's enjoyment of the landscape because it reminded her of Switzerland. As she told her daughter Agnes, who had been sent back to Switzerland to be educated: ‘In general we think this country a great deal more beautiful than Port Phillip, for we see here a great many hills & you know I had never seen any since I left Switzerland & it reminded me of my own native land.’18 La Trobe told his daughter:
I have been frequently absent from mamma, tho' not for any very long periods — and have seen a good deal of this interesting land, and its coasts which are very picturesque, from the huge perpendicular volcanic rocks which line them. This is a very different land from Port Phillip, and mamma has been delighted to see the mountains. Close over the town where I write, rises a very noble mountain mass, to about twice the height of Chaumont on the lake of Neuchatel (4000 feet) with a precipice near the summit –and the whole scenery about Hobart Town is very striking from the proximity of high land & water.
In this letter he goes on to tell her about the south part of the island ‘formed of small peninsulas divided by small necks of land only a few hundred yards across’. That leads him

C.J. La Trobe, artist. The Blow Hole, Eagle Hawk neck. 17 February 1847. Sepia wash and pencil drawing. H92.360.37. La Trobe Picture Collection.

to tell her of the arrangements to guard prisoners he had seen when visiting Port Arthur:
One of the most remarkable is Tasman's Peninsula at the SE extremity, a mountainous peninsula, separated from Forrester's [sic] Peninsula by a small neck of low sand. In Tasmans Peninsula about 2000 of the worst convicts are kept in & out of chains, and to prevent their escape, which they are always trying to effect, a guard of soldiers is placed on the neck, & what is more strange lanterns, which are lighted at night and thirteen big savage dogs tied fast from interval to interval quite across from sea to sea, so that nothing can possibly pass between or near them, without an alarm being given.19
La Trobe had been impressed by the way the authorities had exploited the natural features of the landscape and, surprisingly, seems to have thought that this detail would interest his ten-year-old daughter. Perhaps this part of the letter (much of which is devoted to pious exhortation to the little girl) reflects his absorption in his official duties –‘sometimes I have a mind a little overweighted by official business’, he tells her.
Virginia Hammond has suggested that the way La Trobe looked at the landscapes was affected by the ‘unpleasant’ circumstances of Van Diemen's Land, and that he ‘regretted not being sufficiently easy in his mind to have responded to its landscapes’.20 That amounts to reading the sensibility and humanitarian attitudes of a later age into the sketches. La Trobe did his duty in improving the system that he was asked to investigate, and there is nothing to suggest that he was personally disturbed by what he found. As in Port Phillip, it was
‘official business’ that weighed him down in Van Diemen's Land, not any sense of being oppressed by the penal environment. Painting, one of La Trobe's greatest pleasures, was something that he seldom found the time to enjoy during his years as a colonial administrator. Like other members of his family, notably his uncle Benjamin and his cousin John H. B. Latrobe in America, he had a natural talent, but unlike them he had not developed it far. He seems to have begun painting during his twenties in Switzerland, with the sublimity of mountain landscapes his favoured theme. His landscapes are unpeopled, but he did respond to architecture as well as to the natural scenery. Generally, in the Van Diemen's Land sketches the buildings are merely pencilled in. One exception is the view of Mount Wellington reproduced here, over which he took more trouble than usual, producing an effect that evokes the Switzerland of happy memory rather than the rawness of local reality. His sketch of the Greek-style museum which symbolised Lady Franklin's attempt to promote culture in the colony suggests meanings that he would not have intended: the building, which is merely outlined, seems almost insubstantial, with no relationship to the solid landscape in which it sits. The sepia watercolours, which often bear marks of having been rapidly executed and are seldom finished, were, for La Trobe, aids to memory, reminders of where he had been and what he had seen. The folio in which he kept the Tasmanian watercolours was appropriately labelled ‘Rough Sketches’.


For the whole La Trobe family, the stay in Van Diemen's Land seems to have been a pleasant one. La Trobe worked hard, but his recollections of his travels leave no doubt of his enjoyment. Sophie had the responsibility of a household that included three small children. As Superintendent of Port Phillip La Trobe was poorly paid and was in debt for almost the whole time; it was hardly surprising that the La Trobes lived quietly, disappointing those settlers who expected lavish hospitality. There may have been more official entertainments in Hobart, but it is unlikely that their lives were very different from what they had been.21 The Van Diemen's Land appointment (which he might initially have hoped would become permanent) meant some financial gain, and he did not have to provide accommodation, as he did in Melbourne. La Trobe told his daughter Agnes in the letter quoted above:
I think upon the whole mamma likes the change, tho' she has all the discomforts of a large, bustling half-formed establishment, and although Cecile & Nelly talk a great deal about Jolimont and their return to it, I think they enjoy the nice garden[,] the gay view of the Bay & shipping, and the fine large spacious verandahs very much. They are fond of going to hear the Military band play in the public gardens also, and in walking about and making acquaintance with other little girls.
The then Government House in Hobart, located in what is now Franklin Square, was a brick, wood and stucco building consisting of 14 rooms on two storeys. It would have suited the growing family better than the modest prefabricated building at Jolimont, which the native-born La Trobe children regarded as ‘home’. La Trobe had learnt ten days after his arrival in

C.J. La Trobe, artist. Eagle Hawk neck. 16 Feb. 47. The dog sentinels. Sepia wash and pencil drawing. H92.360/52. Presumably an unfinished work. The dogs are barely suggested in the foreground. La Trobe Picture Collection.

C.J. La Trobe, artist. Lady Franklin's Museum. [1846–1847]. Pencil drawing. H92.360/47. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Hobart that Denison had been appointed, so the ‘establishment’ remained ‘half-formed’. Nevertheless, as Joan and Wallace Kirsop demonstrate, the family amassed a considerable amount of impedimenta during its stay.
La Trobe's report was not finished when it was time to make way for the new Lt.-Governor, and he did not submit it until the end of May 1847. It was a less extensive undertaking than that on the West Indies but it exemplifies the same strengths: thoroughly documented, carefully reasoned, and written in firm, unemotional prose. The reader is led to an uncompromising conclusion, stated with an almost Johnsonian weight:
Be the “Probation” System founded on sound or unsound principles, a Colony so remote, is not the proper theatre for its being reduced to practice. […] But further I need not conceal my conviction, that any system that would accumulate vice without a sure and corresponding power to restrain and reform, must be termed a vicious one, and that the Probation system, so called, has been a fatal experiment as far as it has proceeded, and the sooner it is put an end to the better, for the credit of the Nation and of humanity. (p. 129)
It was well received and, as Ian Brand suggests, may have strengthened the case for his appointment as Lt.-Governor of Victoria when Separation finally happened.
On 24 February 1847 La Trobe resumed his responsibilities as Superintendent of Port Phillip. His appointment to Van Diemen's Land had been greeted with enthusiasm by the editor of the Port Phillip Gazette who thought him an ‘incubus’ upon the prosperity of the colony, and regarded ‘the (even temporary) removal of His Honor’ as an occasion for rejoicing'. The same paper marked his return with an editorial hardly less hostile.22 Well might he say to his friend Gunn: ‘I find things pretty much as I left them’. However, he could also say: ‘My visit to Van Diemen's Land has quite freshened my spirit & my love for the fine scenery and natural science’.23 La Trobe performed his official duties conscientiously, but even at the best of times seems to have been under strain. In his personal letters, especially those to Gunn, there is often a sense that he would have preferred a different life. Writing to his friend in 1853, while waiting to be relieved of his post, he remarked:
I have always a pleasure in seeing your handwriting for it is connected in my memory with some very pleasant times & matters of interest, far more congenial to my natural disposition than many that are now occupying me from morning to night.24
Unexpectedly, the task of investigating the probation system, with all its unpleasant aspects, led to one of the happiest and most fulfilling periods during what La Trobe regarded as his ‘long exile’.


Quoted in Ian Brand, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen's Land 1839–1854, Hobart, Blubber Head Press, 1990, p. 63.


Brand, p. 65.


Brand, p. 38.


Brand, p. 98.


Marita Hargraves, ‘C. J. La Trobe's Season in Van Diemen's Land’, La Trobeana, vol. 6, No. 2, July 2007.


Brand, p. 63.


Sir William Denison to Henry Denison, 28 January 1847, in Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life [1870], ed. By Richard Davis and Stepan Petrow, Hobart, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 2004, p. 29.


The Meyers family had been friendly with the La Trobes in Port Phillip, and in Hobart stayed for a time in Government House.


La Trobe to Gunn, 10 December 1850; Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, ed. L.J. Blake, Melbourne, Government of Victoria, 1973, p. 40.


Blake, p. 58.


La Trobe to Gunn, 23 January 1847. The phrase quoted is noted as ‘indecipherable’ in Blake, p. 20. Original is at A249, Mitchell Library.


La Trobe to Gunn, 13 August 1853. Blake, p. 42.


La Trobe to Gunn, 3 December 1852. A 249, Mitchell Library. An interesting biographical note on Gunn by W. Baulich is to be found in T. E. Burns and J. R. Skemp, eds, Van Diemen's Land Correspondents, Launceston, Queen Victoria museum, 1961. Burns and Skemp are the authors of the entry on Gunn in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1.


George H. Courtenay to La Trobe, 9 March 1860. H15623, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, SLV.


C. M. H. Clark, A History of Australia, vol. 3, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1973, p. 118.


La Trobe to Gunn, 23 January 1847. Blake, p. 20.


La Trobe to Gunn, 8 March 1847. Blake, p. 22.


Sophie La Trobe to Agnes La Trobe, 7 December 1846. I owe this quotation to Marguerite Hancock, ‘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, p. 150.


La Trobe to Agnes, 3 January 1847; MS 13354, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, SLV.


Virginia Hammond, Notes on the Paintings, Charles Joseph La Trobe: Landscapes and Sketches, Melbourne, State Library of Victoria/Tarcoola Press, 1999, p. 192.


Marita Hargraves has unearthed a report of a garden party given by La Trobe on Regatta Day, 1 December 1846.


Port Phillip Gazette, 5 October 1846; 27 February 1847.


La Trobe to Gunn, 8 March 1847. Blake, p. 22.


La Trobe to Gunn, 6 April, 1853, A249, Mitchell Library.