Charles Joseph Latrobe was born on 20th March 1801 in London to Christian Ignatius Latrobe and Hannah Syms. A missionary in the Moravian Church, Christian Latrobe had some influence in the abolition of slavery.
Charles developed a wide range of interests and a respect for people through a religious schooling. He became a teacher and in 1824 went to Neuchâtel, Switzerland to tutor Count Albert de Pourtalès. He became an accomplished mountaineer and made notes and sketches of the countryside. These were used to write two books: "The Alpenstock" and "The Pedestrian".
From 1832 - 1834 he accompanied de Pourtalès to North America and Mexico. Accompanied by the author Washington Irving, whom they had met en route to America, they travelled extensively. Visiting historic sites, climbing mountains, taking paddle steamer trips and riding on horseback, Latrobe continued to sketch and make notes. He wrote another two books: "The Rambler in North America" and "The Rambler in Mexico". Later, the three men met Judge Henry Elsworth, the Commissioner to the Indians. Latrobe was upset by the treatment of the Indians.
Latrobe returned to Switzerland and married Albert's cousin Sophie de Montmollin on 16th September 1835. Through family contacts with the Colonial Office he was sent to the British West Indies to study the effects of early education efforts on recently emancipated slaves. As a result of Latrobe's reports, he was offered the position of Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.
Latrobe, his wife, and daughter Agnes arrived in Sydney on 25th July 1839. With no administrative skills, Latrobe was briefed for 2 months by Sir George Gipps and finally arrived in Port Phillip on 30th September 1839.
At over 6 feet in height, Latrobe looked strong and intelligent. His role was arduous. In 1839 the population of Port Phillip was under 2,000. When he resigned in 1854, Melbourne was the then richest city in the world with a population of 76,560. From a settlement of wattle and daub houses, Melbourne now had gas lighting, a railway line, a telegraph line, and foundation stones had been laid for a university and public library.
Latrobe awaited his replacement, and Sophie who had been unwell returned to Switzerland with her children. Sophie died on 30th January 1854 and Charles was to learn of this in a newspaper article. He left Melbourne on 5th May 1854 travelling via Panama.
On 3rd October 1855 Charles married Sophie's sister, Rose Isabella de Meuron. Latrobe was never given another posting and after years of selfless devotion to his duties, he was bitter that he was not eligible for a pension. Eventually he was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1858.
Failing eyesight prevented Latrobe from writing a book about early Port Phillip. Before his departure he had received from 58 early settlers details of their experiences in the Colony. He presented these to the library in 1872. The State Library holds over 400 of his sketches and the National Gallery owns a silver gift given to Latrobe on his departure.
On 4th December 1875 Charles died in Litlington, Sussex, England. His widow, Rose Latrobe, erected the memorial 'Chapelle de l'Hermitage' at Neuchâtel and in 1978 the Victorian Government sent 3 stained glass windows for the centenary of the chapel.
Many of our societies, gardens and national parks are the result of Latrobe's vision. Dianne Reilly of the State Library is disappointed that few people understand the legacy that Charles Latrobe has left Victoria. A recently formed Latrobe Society hopes to redress this situation by erecting a statue of Latrobe and also by offering a perpetual scholarship for research into our colonial history.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
From one of our members:-
I was interested to read Jan Hanslow's write-up of the address given at the November 2002 Meeting by Dianne Reilly of Superintendent Charles Latrobe and his contributions to our city all those years ago.
As we have relatives in Neuchatel we sent them a copy of the article and asked about the chapel which Latrobe's second wife Rose had built in his memory.
Their return letter told of the families (de Pourtales and de Montmollin) who are well known and regarded in Neuchatel and also included a newspaper cutting and an article from the parish newsletter about the little church. It has been much appreciated by the local parishoners and gradually improved. In 1936 there was a donation for the refurbishment of the chapel and the Victorian Government arranged a centenary gift of windows in 1978.
On this latest occasion, the 125th anniversary of its construction, the congregation with a generous donation from a member added two more stained glass windows and a grapevine was planted. There was also a reception at which a representative of our government was present - I wonder who that was? As far as I can gather from my imperfect translation of the newspaper article the building is now heritage protected. The conservator, Francoise Jeannuret, Director of Culture was present at the celebrations.
Contributed by Jean Gaze (PPPG Member No. 165)
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