Charles La Trobe

Charles La Trobe
1st Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria
In office
15 July 1851  5 May 1854
Monarch Queen Victoria
Succeeded by Sir Charles Hotham
1st Superintendent of Port Phillip
In office
4 February 1839  14 July 1851
Governor George Gipps
Charles FitzRoy
Personal details
Born Charles Joseph La Trobe
(1801-03-20)20 March 1801
London, England, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died 4 December 1875(1875-12-04) (aged 74)
Litlington, East Sussex, England, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Resting place Litlington Church
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Sophie de Montmollin (1835–1854)
Rose Isabelle de Meuron (1855–1875)

Charles Joseph La Trobe, CB (or Latrobe; 20 March 1801  4 December 1875) was appointed in 1839 superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales and, after the establishment in 1851 of the colony of Victoria (now a state of Australia), he became its first lieutenant-governor.

La Trobe was a strong supporter of religious, cultural and educational institutions.[1][2] During his time as superintendent and lieutenant-governor he oversaw the establishment of the Botanical Gardens,[3] and provided leadership and support to the formation of entities such as the Mechanic's Institute,[4] the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Philharmonic, the Melbourne Cricket Ground[5][6] and the University of Melbourne.[1]

La Trobe was the nephew of British architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Early life

Charles La Trobe was born in London, the son of Christian Ignatius Latrobe, a leader of the Moravian Church, from a family of French Huguenot descent, whose mother was a member of the Moravian Church born in the United States. He was educated in England and later spent time in Switzerland[7] and was active in mountaineering; he made a number of ascents in the Alps 182426. La Trobe wrote several travel books describing his experiences: The Alpenstock (1829) and The Pedestrian (1832).

In 1832 he visited the United States along with Count Albert Pourtales, and in 1834 travelled from New Orleans to Mexico with Washington Irving. He then wrote The Rambler in North America (1835) and The Rambler in Mexico (1836).[8]

On 16 September 1835 he married Sophie de Montmollin (18091854) in Berne, Switzerland. Their first child, Agnes Louisa de La Trobe, was born on 2 April 1837 in Switzerland.[9]


In 1837 La Trobe was entrusted with a government commission in the West Indies and reported on the future education of the recently emancipated slaves.

On 4 February 1839[10] he was appointed superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales though he had little managerial and administrative experience. La Trobe sailed into Sydney on 26 July 1839, with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, for training on procedures. The La Trobes went on to Melbourne on 1 October.

La Trobe bought 12½ acres of land on the fringe of the city, now called Jolimont, at auction at the upset price of £20 an acre; the residents of Melbourne having agreed among themselves not to bid against the superintendent. Governor Gipps was disturbed when he heard about it. La Trobe, however, convinced him that he had acted innocently. On the land he erected his home, which has been preserved and is called LaTrobe's Cottage, which he had transported in sections from London.

Melbourne had a population of around 3,000 at the time and was rapidly expanding. La Trobe commenced works to improve sanitation and streets.[8] As Port Phillip District was a dependency of New South Wales at the time, all land sales, building plans and officer appointments had to be approved by Governor of New South Wales George Gipps, with whom La Trobe had a good personal and working relationship.

A carte de visite photo of his daughter, Agnes Louisa, Madame Pierre de Salis (1837-1916) in 1875.

A Separation Association had been formed in 1840 wanting Port Phillip District to become a separate colony. In 1841 La Trobe wrote to Gipps, asking him to visit Melbourne to form his own opinion on the separation question.[8] La Trobe did not actively campaign for separation, content that Earl Grey had included separation in the reorganisation plan for the colonies.[7] La Trobe acted as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land for four months in 1846-47. By 1851, Port Phillip district had gained separation from New South Wales, becoming the colony of Victoria, and La Trobe was lieutenant-governor for three years - a position he held until 1854.

Soon after separation gold was discovered at several locations in Victoria and La Trobe had to deal with the mass exodus of the population of Melbourne to the gold fields.

He was commonly referred to as "Charley Joe", and by extension, any government officials or policemen were called "joes".[11] La Trobe, who had suffered self-doubt and criticisms due to his inexperience, had submitted his resignation in December 1852 but had to wait until a replacement, Charles Hotham, could take his place.

After Victoria

Towards the end of his governorship, La Trobe's wife Sophie became ill and returned to Europe with their four children. Sophie died on 30 January 1854. On his return to Europe after his term, La Trobe in 1855 married Sophie's sister, Rose Isabelle de Meuron (1821–1883), a marriage which was illegal in English law as incestuous at the time. (See Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907.) The couple had two daughters (born 1856 and 1859) in Switzerland and moved to England in 1861.[12] He did not get any further British government appointments. His eyesight was increasingly deteriorating, and he was completely blind for the last years of his life. He died in 1875.

Geelong keys

La Trobe is also linked to the discovery of a minor piece of evidence suggesting early European exploration of Australia. In 1847, at Limeburners' Point near Geelong, Victoria, Charles La Trobe, a keen amateur geologist, was examining the shells from a lime kiln when a worker showed him a set of five keys that he claimed to have found, subsequently named the Geelong Keys. La Trobe concluded that the keys were dropped onto the beach around three centuries ago. In 1977, Kenneth McIntyre hypothesized they were dropped by Portuguese sailors under the command of Cristóvão de Mendonça.[13] Since the keys have long been lost their exact origin cannot be verified. However, research by Geologists Edmund Gill and P.F.B. Alsop showed the age of the deposit they were found in dated to 2330–2800 years old, making La Trobe's dating implausible. The error by La Trobe is quite understandable according to Gill and Alsop, given that in 1847 most people thought the world was only 6000 years old.[14]


Memorial plaque at Cape Otway

Much of Melbourne's substantial inner-ring parks and gardens can be attributed to La Trobe's foresight in reserving this land.

Melbourne and Victoria are dotted with things named in honour of La Trobe, including La Trobe Financial in Melbourne's CBD, La Trobe University and Charles La Trobe College in Melbourne's north east, the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria on La Trobe Street in the CBD, the federal electorate of La Trobe in Melbourne's outer east, the Latrobe Valley in southeastern Victoria, Mount LaTrobe in Wilsons Promontory and, in Tasmania, Latrobe and Latrobe Council.

There are statues of La Trobe outside the State Library and at La Trobe University's Bundoora campus.

The family motto of La Trobe is used at La Trobe University for their own motto. The motto in English is "whoever seeks shall find".[15]

See also


  1. 1 2 Eastwood, Jill. Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  2. In his first speech in Melbourne La Trobe declared: "It will not be by individual aggrandisement, by the possession of numerous flocks and herds, or of costly acres, that we shall secure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness, but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound religious and moral institutions, without which no country can become truly great." "The C J La Trobe Society - Melbourne Victoria". Retrieved 2016-09-29
  3. Ltd, August Pty. "Our Story | About Us | Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria". Retrieved 2016-09-29.
  4. Marsden, Anne (June 2011). "Charles Joseph La Trobe 1801–1875" (PDF). The Melbourne Athenaeum Inc. Retrieved 29 September 2016. External link in |website= (help)
  5. "The ground of champions gets its turn to take a bow -". Retrieved 2016-09-29.
  6. "MCG 150th Birthday". Retrieved 2016-09-29.
  7. 1 2 Jill Eastwood (1967). "La Trobe, Charles Joseph (1801 - 1875)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2. MUP. pp. 89–93. Retrieved 2007-07-13.
  8. 1 2 3 Serle, Percival (1949). "La Trobe, Charles Joseph". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
  9. LaTrobe family tree
  10. "Superintendent of the Port Phillip District". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  11. Edward Ellis Morris, Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages
  12. Mytree
  13. McIntyre, K (1977) The Secret Discovery of Australia, Portuguese ventures 200 years before Cook, p.249-262 Souvenir Press, Menindie ISBN 0-285-62303-6
  14. Gill, E (1987) "On the McKiggan Theory of the Geelong keys" in The Mahogany ship. Relic or Legend? Proceedings of the Second Australian Symposium on the Mahogany Ship (Ed. Potter, B).p.83-86 Warrnambool Institute Press ISBN 0-949759-09-0
Government offices
New office Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria
Succeeded by
Captain Sir Charles Hotham
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