CHARLES JOSEPH LA TROBE - 'THE MAN'

[Dr. Dianne Reilly]

Dr. Dianne Reilly AM Finds Gold in Charles Joseph La Trobe's Legacy to Victoria.

Dianne Reilly is Secretary of the La Trobe Society which was formed in 2001 to promote recognition and understanding of Charles Joseph La Trobe who has been largely ignored and not recognised for his work in providing a solid foundation for Victoria.

From day one in the Port Phillip District La Trobe was misunderstood. As Superintendent all his decisions had to be approved by Sir George Gipps in Sydney. He had no idea of the challenges ahead and in his first speech he declared that "it is not by individual aggrandisement . . . or by costly acres that the people shall secure . . . prosperity and happiness but by . . . sound religious and moral institutions." The colonists, numbering about three thousand, were however only interested in improving their material wealth.

Accompanied by his wife Sophie and daughter Agnes, La Trobe had arrived in Sydney in July 1839 and spent time there being briefed by Sir George Gipps. The trip down the coast to Port Phillip had taken two weeks due to ferocious gales in Bass Strait and on the 2nd October 1839, La Trobe was rowed ashore to Liardet's Beach (Port Melbourne) and when landed, he walked into town in heavy rain for his first unofficial view. Accustomed to cities like London, this settlement with only one decent street (Collins Street) must have seemed very primitive.

La Trobe was ideal for the job. He was of upright character, well-educated and cultured with a reputation for caution. The interests of the colony were uppermost in his mind and he hoped to create a civilised enviroment for his people. Work he had done for the British Government regarding emancipated slaves in the West Indies and his observations made during his 'rambles' in North America, of the American Indians, taught him the importance of assimilation. He hoped that the aborigines could be converted to Christianity and join into society.

His religious views were those of the Moravian Church. The La Trobe family was of Huguenot origins and their religion was Protestant, Non-Conformist, and Evangelical and La Trobe's father, Christian Ignatius La Trobe, was a Moravian missionary active in the anti-slavery movement. It was probably as a result of his father's work that Charles Joseph La Trobe went to the West Indies in 1837, and his reports to the British Government led to his appointment as Superintendent in Port Phillip.

Born in London on 20th March 1801, La Trobe finished his education and worked as a teacher. In 1824 he went to Neuchatel, Switzerland and tutored the children of Count de Pourtales. Whilst in Switzerland he became a skilled mountaineer, and wrote the first of his travel books - "The Alpenstock."

In 1832 La Trobe accompanied Count Albert de Pourtales on a tour of America where he met author, Washington Irvine who described La Trobe as 'busy and cheerful' and a man of a 'thousand interests' - fascinated by butterflies, beetles and the natural landscape. He was a prolific and talented artist.

La Trobe married Sophie Montmollin in Berne in 1835. They honeymooned at a manor house called Jolimont, near Neuchatel. When La Trobe arrived in Port Phillip in 1839, he brought with him a prefabricated house which he called 'Jolimont.'

La Trobe perceived immediately that the settlement was handicapped by being a part of greater New South Wales, however he though Separation could only proceed when the requirements for self-governing and economic management were in place. The residents of Port Phillip thought otherwise.

The discovery of gold in 1851 caused an enormous upheaval in Victoria. La Trobe travelled on horseback to see conditions on the gold fields but the introduction of a licence fee caused resentment. In August 1853 a petition with 5,000 signatures was presented to him demanding reduced licence fees and civil rights.

In reality the situation was too dificult for anyone to control but although La Trobe did manage to keep society operating he had to make difficult decisions quickly and made errors of judgement. Aware of his unpopularity, and feeling stressed and bitter, with his wife Sophie unwell, he submitted his resignation on 31 December 1852.

Whilst awaiting La Trobe's relacement, Charles Hotham, Sophie returned home with the children. Unfortunately her death in January 1854 was announced in the newspaper before La Trobe had received mail from her family. In 1855, La Trobe married Sophie's widowed sister Rose Isabelle de Meuron. This type of marriage was illegal in Britain thus excluding La Trobe from receiving another appointment and it wasn't until 1865 that he was awarded a pension.

When he left Victoria on 5 May 1854, the goldfields were in chaos, but he had achieved much. Separation from New South Wales had occurred in 1851 and he was patron or instigator for the University of Melbourne, the Melbourne Hospital, the Philosophical Society, the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Mechanics' Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Cape Otway Lighthouse. He had made 94 major horseback trips around the district, reaching Mt. Gambier in the west and Gippsland in the east where he had been told there were coal deposits.

La Trobe died on 4 December 1875 in Litlington, Sussex, England. As Alexander Sutherland wrote in 1888, "in the future there will appear in even bolder relief, the simple, unostentatious, genial and gentlemanly figure of Charles Joseph La Trobe."

( The above is a report on Dr. Dianne Reilly's address at the General Meeting on 12 September 2015 )

( Contributed by Jan Hanslow. PPPG Member No. 1057 )


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