State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


Joan and Wallace Kirsop
Vice-Regal Reading in Van Diemen's Land

When Charles Joseph La Trobe ended his brief period (13 October 1846 – 25 January 1847) as Administrator of Van Diemen's Land and was about to return to Melbourne with his wife and family, he arranged to sell by auction on 4 February 1847 at the Exchange Rooms, Collins Street, Hobart, ‘The whole of the Household Furniture, &c. &c., which having been recently purchased, will be found in excellent order.’ The offering was quite unexciting as befitted the mere material supports of existence in a strange and soon to be abandoned place:
It consists principally of
A variety of every description of bed-room
furniture, of the very best description
A variety of china, glass, and earthenware
Ditto kitchen utensils
Hunting saddle, bridle and martingale
Together with the usual variety of sundries necessary in a gentleman's temporary residence
A first rate Milch Cow.1
An afterthought, added to later advertisements, is the only suggestion of the life of the mind:
A semi-grand piano, by Collard, a first-rate instrument.2
If there were any books, they were removed by the owners. A similar remark can be made about the sale, in situ at Government House on 7 and 8 October 1846, of the more extensive furniture and effects of Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot, the dismissed Lieutenant-Governor, whom La Trobe was replacing till Sir William Denison arrived from Britain.3 Dealing with ‘impedimenta’4 was one of the constant hazards faced by peripatetic colonial officials, who could console themselves, despite all, with their intellectual and artistic interests.
In La Trobe's case there is certainly other evidence of what occupied him outside his heavy and depressing administrative duties. His surviving letters to Ronald Campbell Gunn show a return to longstanding curiosity about natural history and geology.5 In December 1846 and in the couple of weeks after Denison's assumption of office there were opportunities to sketch both in and around Hobart and further afield.6 In spite of Sophie La Trobe's poor health and preoccupation with family responsibilities, she too had the chance to appreciate Tasmanian scenery.7
Fortunately, there is another source on which to draw. The La Trobes, like the Wilmots before them and the Denisons after them, were customers of the bookselling and
circulating-library concern that Major J. W. H. Walch took over from Samuel Augustus Tegg at the beginning of 1846. Although there are many gaps in the firm's business records, now deposited in the University of Tasmania Library Archives,8 a day book recording credit transactions between 1 July 1846 and 7 May 1847 and the manuscript register of borrowing from the Derwent Circulating Library during the half-dozen years the Walches were responsible for it provide remarkable insights into Hobart cultural life at the time.9
Unlike Wilmot and his son Chester, the La Trobes and the Denisons do not appear in the day-book. If they bought books, stationery and other goods from the shop in the relevant period, they paid cash or used intermediaries. On the other hand, Charles Joseph La Trobe, Sophie La Trobe and Sir William and Lady Denison are all recorded in the register of the circulating library as well as the Wilmots. On 11 November 1846 the Administrator took out Catherine Gore's Mrs Armytage; or, Female Domination (London, H. Colburn, 1836, 3 volumes). On 28 December his wife borrowed the same author's The Ambassador's Wife (London, R. Bentley, 1842, 3 volumes). They may well not have attended in person. Printed lists like A Catalogue of Books contained in J. W. H. Walch's (late S. A. Tegg's) Derwent Circulating Library, Wellington Bridge (Hobart Town, printed by William Gore Elliston, 1846)10 were prepared for the convenience of people sending their servants to fetch books. Whether the named borrower or some other family member was the intended reader is always open to conjecture. Similarly, we have to remember that borrowing is not reading. None the less, the register habitually distinguishes between husbands and wives, sons and daughters in a way that is perfectly consistent with what we know about a widespread taste for the reading of novels. The well-documented experience of the La Trobes' Hobart contemporary George Boyes is enough to inspire scepticism about notions that fiction was essentially reserved for women.11
Why did the La Trobes show interest in a prolific ‘lady novelist’ whom it is now almost de rigueur to decry and who excited a good deal of derision from contemporaries like Dickens and Thackeray?12 The answer can be found only if one has access to the readers' reactions and comments. Similarly, it is hard to do more than note the irony of Sir Eardley Wilmot selecting amongst the four three-deckers he borrowed in January 1846 Julia Rattray Waddington's Misrepresentation Or Scenes in Real Life (London, Saunders & Otley, 1838) and Julia S. H. Pardoe's Speculation (London, Saunders & Otley, 1834). That the soon-to-be-disgraced Lieutenant-Governor took Eugène Sue's The Wandering Jew (London, Chapman & Hall, 1844, 3 volumes) in March simply underlines the fact that regular customers waited their turn with recent acquisitions. By the time the Denisons decided to patronize the library in 1850 and 1851, their choices were almost inevitably from older stock, with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as the nearest approach to novelty. Renewal is the essence of a commercial library, and, because the Walches were unable or unwilling to pursue it rigorously, this part of their enterprise was about to end. Perhaps the Denisons, with G. P. R. James, Frances Trollope and Captain Marryatt, were indulging in a nostalgia
like that the La Trobes may have felt for the world of Mrs Gore. Whatever the explanation, historians can do no more at this stage than record a brief incursion into a sphere quite removed from high seriousness.

Hamel & Co., lithographers. [C.J. La Trobe] [1860]. Chalk lithograph. H30625. La Trobe Picture Collection.

The La Trobe Journal No. 71: Corrections to ‘Letters from the Colony’

In the Charles Joseph La Trobe Number of The La Trobe Journal (No. 71) five letters from La Trobe — one to John Murray II and four to John Murray III — were published under the heading ‘Letters from the Colony’. They had been transcribed from photocopies of the originals in the John Murray Archives, which were then still at 50 Albemarle Street, London. The following slips in transcription have since been noted:
Letter 1 15/29 December 1840
Page 130 line 14 ‘1600 miles’ should be ‘16000 miles’
Page 132 line 15 from bottom ‘the Colony’ should be ‘this Colony’
Page 132 line 6 from bottom ‘the preeminence’ should read ‘our preeminence’
Letter II 24 March 1849
Page 134 line 15 from bottom ‘to write’ should be ‘to unite’
Page 134 line 14 from bottom ‘year sExile’ should be ‘years Exile’
[A technical problem during the printing led to La Trobe's signature appearing at the top of page 135 instead of the bottom of page 134.]
Letter IV 17 May 1853
Page 138 line 4 from end of first paragraph ‘has stuck’ should be ‘has still stuck’


Colonial Times and Tasmanian, 29 January 1847, p. 2.


The Courier, 3 February 1847, p. 3.


Colonial Times and Tasmanian, 6 October 1846, p. 2.


Letter from C. J. La Trobe to R. C. Gunn, 29 January 1847 in L. J. Blake, ed., Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, Melbourne, Government of Victoria, 1975, p. 21.


See Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe, passim.


See Charles Joseph La Trobe: Landscapes and Sketches, Melbourne, State Library of Victoria in association with Tarcoola Press and National Trust of Australia (Victoria), 1999, pp. 191–227.


See the letter to her daughter Agnes in December 1846 quoted by Marguerite Hancock, ‘News from Jolimont: the Letters of Charles Joseph and Sophie La Trobe to their Daughter Agnes, 1845–1854’, Victorian Historical Journal, 73, 2002, pp. 143–154, esp. p. 150. See also Marguerite Hancock, Colonial Consorts: the Wives of Victoria's Governors 1839–1900, Carlton South, The Miegunyah Press of Melbourne University Press, 2001, pp. 26–27 (where the discussion of Government House furniture does not take account of the La Trobe and Eardley-Wilmot sales cited above).


For permission to work intensively on the material in 1980 we are indebted to the late Richard Walch.


A monograph is in preparation, and some results have already been published: Wallace Kirsop, Books for Colonial Readers: the Nineteenth-Century Australian Experience, Melbourne, BSANZ, 1995, ch. 4: ‘Bookselling in Hobart Town in the 1840s’, pp. 59–76, 93–96; W. Kirsop, ‘Books and Readers in Colonial Tasmania’ in Michael Roe, ed., The Flow of Culture: Tasmanian Studies, Canberra, Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1987, pp. 102–121; W. Kirsop, ‘The Walches as Sellers of Music and their Customers in the 1840s’, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 25, 2001, nos 3–4, pp. 7–13. A paper on ‘The Visual Culture of Walch's Customers in 1846–1847’ was presented at the conference on ‘The Colonial Eye’ in Hobart in February 1999 and may have appeared on the Web.


An imperfect copy is held in the State Library of Tasmania at T.C./P/018/WAL.


See The Diaries and Letters of G. T. W. B. Boyes, ed. Peter Chapman, volume 1: 1820–1832, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1985.


See Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen Forties, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1954, passim.