State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


John Barnes
La Trobe and the Melbourne Public Library

At the State Library of Victoria C.J. La Trobe has been commemorated in several ways: first, there was the creation of the La Trobe Library to house the Australian collection; then, the concept of a separate library being abandoned, the Australian collection was housed in the Domed Reading Room, which was renamed the La Trobe Reading Room; and last year a statue was erected on the side lawn in front of the building. The statue, based on the all-too-familiar portrait by Sir Francis Grant, represents La Trobe in his governor's uniform, thus emphasising his official role as a colonial administrator. It was in this role that he helped to facilitate the establishment of the Public Library, allocating the initial funding, reserving the land for a building and appointing the Trustees.1 La Trobe admired the work of Redmond Barry, who had the leadership role in the creation of the Public Library; and although his official connection with the colony had ended before a building had been erected, he maintained a personal interest in the Library for many years afterwards.
Prior to his departure La Trobe became the first — and for some years, the most substantial — donor of books to the institution. (The only other donor before the Library opened its doors on 11 February 1856 was a gentleman by the name of G. M. Gallot, about whom nothing seems to be known, who donated a copy of the London Times for 1800.) On 17 November 1853 Redmond Barry, formally thanked La Trobe for the ‘very valuable donation, the first made to the Institution’.2 On 4 May 1854, just two days before he sailed for home in the Golden Age, La Trobe — probably like most travellers wanting to lighten his baggage wherever possible — added a further six volumes to the original gift of 84 volumes. As the first books ordered from London did not arrive until November 1854, La Trobe's books could be regarded as constituting the original collection of what is now the State Library. They were, of course, books that he no longer wanted and not items specially chosen for the Library. Nevertheless, they tell us something of the intellectual interests of the man who held executive power during the infancy of the colony, when books were scarce.
La Trobe's 1854 gift is a miscellaneous collection of non-fiction prose works. There are works on religion (Gladstone's The State in its relation to the Church; Southey's The Book of the Church; Mrs Simon's The Ten Tribes of Israel historically identified with the Aborigines of the Western Hemisphere); science (Agassiz's Etudes sur les Glaciers; Charpentier's Essai sur les Glaciers; Daubeny's Active and Extinct Volcanoes; Ray Society's Reports on the progress of Zoology and Botany; Somerville's The Connection of the Physical Sciences); and at least one work that combines the two (Whewell's Physics, with reference to Natural Theology). Several volumes deal with politics (Halliburton's The Bubbles of Canada; Grote's The Politics of Switzerland; Biggs's Report to the House of Commons on New South Wales). A couple of volumes deal with Aborigines — Evidence before the House of Commons on the Aborigine
(1837) and Threlkeld's Key to the Aboriginal Languages (1850). Given his father's association with Wilberforce, one volume that La Trobe must have read with particular interest is Sir Thomas Fowell's African Slave Trade (1839). No poetry, plays or novels, or any works that might be described as having literary interest were included.
Over half the donation consisted of the set of bound Volumes 1 to 55 (1809–1836) of the Quarterly Review.3 The volumes are uniformly bound in plain green cloth, with title, volume no., and year on the spine in gold lettering. As in the other books that he donated, there is pasted on the inside front cover La Trobe's bookplate with the combined La Trobe-Montmollin coat of arms, and on the front endpaper a bookplate which reads: ‘Presented to the Melbourne Public Library on 17th day of November 1853 by His Excellency/Charles J. Latrobe/Governor of Victoria’. In some instances the issues are reprints, which indicate strong public demand for particular numbers. The first number of the periodical was issued in 1809, but the copy bound here is the sixth edition printed in 1827. The second issue of Vol. 55 — there were two per volume — being February 1836, it is most likely that the set was assembled later that year. La Trobe could hardly have afforded the purchase; in 1839, about to set out for Port Phillip, he acknowledged that ‘my position in life hitherto has been such as to leave me almost altogether a debtor to the favor & kindness of those around me….4 The most probable explanation for La Trobe's owning such a handsome collection is that the set was a gift from the publisher, with whose family he became friendly in 1835.
The Quarterly Review, published by the firm of John Murray from 1809 to 1967,5 was established by a group of Tories, among whom was Walter Scott, in opposition to the influential Whig Edinburgh Review. It quickly became a leading journal of opinion, wielding considerable political and literary influence.
La Trobe found the conservative political outlook of the Quarterly congenial. Writing to John Murray on 1 March 1837, just before leaving for the West Indies, to thank him for a present of books, La Trobe remarks: ‘I thank you particularly for the care you take to preserve my political morality in the gift of Peel's Speeches & perhaps I may say of the Quarterly Review I trust I am staunch’.6 He goes on to say that the copies of the Quarterly, along with the other works, will bear him company. It is possible that he is referring to the set that he donated to the Library in 1854. The other possibility is that the set was part of a gift that he received from Murray when setting off for Port Phillip.
There was good reason for La Trobe to feel gratitude to the Murrays for ‘the great and uniform kindness & indulgence’ that he had received.7 He was welcome in the Murray family circle, his closest relationship being with the younger John Murray, whose interest in travel he shared; but he was also regarded as a potential contributor to the Quarterly. In a favourable review (possibly written by the editor, J. G. Lockhart) in the Quarterly (vol. 54, September 1835) of his book, The Rambler in North America, La Trobe was described as ‘an author from whose future lucubrations we may hope to receive large supplies of amusement and instruction’.8

La Trobe's bookplate. Pasted in volume one of the set of the Quarterly Review which he presented to the library in 1854. Rare Book Collection *S 052 Q28R

David Cranz. Ancient and Modern History of the Moravian Brethren. Title page showing La Trobe's signature. Printed in London, 1780. Rare Book Collection. *S 284.6 C85A

During his time in Australia La Trobe read the Quarterly, on one occasion complaining to John Murray III, who had succeeded his father as head of the firm, that an article had misrepresented what was happening in Victoria.9 The copies of the periodical published during his stay in the colony were not among the items he gave to the Library. There is no obvious reason why he should have left the set of bound volumes behind, except perhaps a disinterested desire to help the new institution. It was almost certainly the only such set in Port Phillip when he arrived; and the same may have been true when he departed — and it was certainly a valuable acquisition by the Library.
Eleven years later La Trobe made a second and larger donation, which was more carefully considered.10 On 8 June 1865 he wrote to the Librarian Augustus Tulk, who was then in England, asking him ‘to take charge of a few volumes which I have from time to time
put aside with the idea that they might be acceptable to the Public Library under your charge — in the prosperity of which I take much interest’.11 For some years La Trobe was one of the ‘Committee of Gentlemen’ that in 1859 Barry suggested could advise H. C. E. Childers, a Library Trustee who was back in England, on purchases for the Library. In the course of a letter on 16 January 1860 Barry tells Childers that he has heard from the bookseller Guillaume that ‘Mr La Trobe paid him a visit lately & spent some time going over the books then ready to be sent out and that he approved of them highly.’12
In 1865, having made contact with Tulk, La Trobe sent a selection from his own library, remarking: ‘There is nothing, as you will see from the enclosed list, of great value — but some of the volumes may fill up a gap in yr library, or possess some interest’. There is no record whether Tulk took advantage of La Trobe's invitation ‘to withhold any you may think unworthy of being placed on the shelves’.13
This donation, covering much the same ground as the first, was less significant in relation to the Library, which now possessed about 30,000 books, with a growing list of donors. One aspect of this second donation is of particular interest in relation to La Trobe personally. He noted two inaccuracies in the Catalogue of the Public Library that Tulk had sent him. His father's name was wrongly given as ‘Christopher’ in the entry for his book, Journal of a Visit to South Africa;’ and La Trobe (whose own publications were already in the Library) was wrongly identified as the author of a volume of poetry, The Solace of Song, written by his brother, Revd John Antes La Trobe.14 La Trobe then mentions that he has included two more works by his brother, The Music of the Church and Sacred Lays and Lyrics, in the selection. Two other volumes that he included had a family significance: his grandfather's 1780 translation from the German of The Ancient and Modern History of the Moravian Brethren [Alte und neue Brüder-Historie] by David Cranz; and his father's 1794 translation from the German of History of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America [Gestchichteder Mission der evangelischen Brüder unterden Indianern in Nordamerika] by George Henry Loskiel.
By 1865 La Trobe's eyesight was deteriorating, and he must have been becoming aware that it was unlikely that he would write the projected volume about his Australian experience. In 1872 he accepted the inevitable and sent to the Public Library the letters that he had gathered from early settlers nearly 20 years earlier with a view to making a book. Eventually published in a volume edited by the then Librarian, T. F. Bride, in 1898, they remain a useful source for historians. As Shane Carmody points out (see below page 86), this last gift was the beginning of what is now the La Trobe Australian Manuscript Collection.
The Mitchell Library in Sydney was established to preserve the great collection of Australiana assembled by David Scott Mitchell. While La Trobe was an active supporter of the Public library, as this brief survey shows, the naming of the Australiana library in Melbourne after him does not signify that he was a major benefactor. It was probably
politically opportune a century after his governorship to represent the La Trobe Library as ‘commemorating the courage and enterprise of the Pioneers’ (as the foundation stone says). Giving it the name of a servant of the Empire, an Englishman who was not a settler and who was often at odds with the material-minded pioneers, does, however, suggest a different meaning to us today. What distinguished La Trobe was that he was, in the words of Rolf Boldrewood,‘a humane and highly cultured person’.15 It is less his performance as a governor than his personal commitment to moral and cultural values in a newly formed settler society that is commemorated by the naming of a library (and also a university) after him.

The Melbourne Scene

As visitors to the Dome exhibitions can see for themselves, over more than a century and a half the Library has recorded the changing face of Victoria. In his article on the way in which Melbourne has commemorated (and forgotten) John Batman, the current Director of Collections, whose own collecting policies will perhaps be the subject of discussion, even controversy, a hundred and fifty years hence, draws attention to the involvement of the Library in the shaping of the public narrative of local history since the coming of the Europeans. It is perhaps not always appreciated that the decisions made by libraries and museums about what should be preserved have a powerful influence on the way in which the history of a place is understood and represented.
Libraries purchase material — as was the case with the Batman Deed and the Batman Journal — but they also receive valuable gifts, such as the two S. T. Gill drawings recently donated by the descendants of David Ralph Drape. It is unlikely that anyone frequenting the Mitre Tavern these days would have the opportunity to purchase from an artist such works of historical interest as Drape obtained from Gill. The two drawings, now published for the first time, survived the hazard of bushfire to end up in the State Library where they will be enjoyed by generations.
By happy accident the Library in 1973 received from descendants of Curtis Candler his diary from July 1867 to March 1868, which includes the period of the visit of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, which is when Gill's drawings were made. This wonderfully gossipy work, which is being annotated by Paul de Serville, vividly evokes the Melbourne scene as it was observed by a keen-eyed student of men (and women) and manners (and of no manners at all) from the perspective of the Melbourne Club. The diary is, literally, a ‘double diary’, as Candler copied on the left-hand pages of his diary that of Captain Frederick Standish for the years 1847 to 1877. (Ned Kelly enthusiasts will not need to be told who Standish was!) The double diary is a rich record of Melbourne life: many of Candler's contemporaries would have ‘tut-tutted’ over it, but readers in the twenty-first century will be grateful that Candler was not inhibited by notions of decorum.
The fourth article in this section offers an historical perspective on the city and the values that characterise it. Paul Fox's claim that ‘you forever travel to overseas destinations while walking the city's pavements’ implicitly challenges readers to reflect on their own responses to the cityscape. In a general way, this article surveying the European element in the making of Melbourne, emphasizes that images and memories, of other places and other times, are always present in a particular place and particular time, influencing our notions of what we should build and how we should live.


H. C. E. Childers is credited with having suggested the project to La Trobe, but it is unlikely that he was the first to do so. Sandra Burt has drawn my attention to an entry in the diary of W.D. Mercer for 15 August 1850: ‘Call upon the Governor get a promise for a grant of land for a public library’. MS 13537. Childers arrived in Melbourne in October that year.


VPRS 4366, Unit 1. Public Record Office of Victoria.


The presentation set now held in Rare Books (RARES*052 Q28R) lacks volumes 49 and 50, and includes a duplicate of volume 32, which came into the Library from another source on 1 February 1897.


La Trobe to Murray III, 20 March 1839.


It has since been re-launched in April 2007.


La Trobe to John Murray, 1 March 1837.


La Trobe to John Murray III, 20 March 1837.


In a letter, 29 May 1835, sending his respects to Lockhart, La Trobe told Murray: ‘Should any subject of sufficient interest come within my grasp foreign or domestic, a few pages upon which might serve the purpose of the Quarterly, I should be most happy to make an essay […]’.


La Trobe to John Murray III, 17 May 1853, The La Trobe Journal, no. 71, p. 138.


For a complete list, see The Catalogue of Donations to the Public Library of Victoria from 1856 to 1872, Melbourne, Clarson, Massina &Co., 1873.


La Trobe to Tulk, 8 June 1865, MS 3626 Volume B, SLV


Barry to Childers, 16 January 1860, The La Trobe Journal, no. 73, p.89.


La Trobe to Tulk, 29 June 1865, MS 3626 Volume B, SLV. (In the Appendix to the Librarian's Report, 8 October 1866, Tulk reported that La Trobe's second donation was 200 volumes, but the total officially recorded for both donations is only 141 (see The Catalogue of Donations to the Public Library of Victoria from 1856 to 1872).


The error remains in the online catalogue of the British Library. It was corrected in the printed 1880 catalogue of the Public Library, but reappeared in the online catalogue of the State Library (now corrected as a result of this article).


Rolf Boldrewood, Old Melbourne Memories, London, Macmillan, 1899, p.136.