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C. J. LA TROBE (1801-1875), SUPERINTENDENT, LIEUT.-GOVERNOR, VICTORIA

Several entires addressed to the above have recently appeared on auction sites, all addressed to La Trobe as the Superintendent, with or without his name, and addressed either to Port Phillip or Melbourne. An O.H.M.S. entire was sent per 'Colina' to His Honor, C.J. La Trobe Esqre with a red boxed 'FREE/ ALBERTON' and an on the reverse an unframed ALBERTON / [Crown]/ OC *25/ 1848/ N.S. WALES plus an unframed reception MELBOURNE/ [Crown]/ NO*6/ 1848/ PORT PHILLIP postmarks. The vendor states that at the time Alberton was an isolated coastal community with no overland route to Melbourne (Figures 1 & 2).

An entire with a red boxed FREE/OVENS was addressed to His Honor, The Superintendent, Melbourne and on the reverse there was an unframed BARWON/ [Crown]/ MY*24/ 1849/ PT PHILLIP and an unframed GEELONG/ [Crown/ MY*25/ 1849/ PORT PHILLIP, an unusual circuitous route (Figures 3 & 4).

Charles Joseph La Trobe was born in London on 20 March 1801. His father, the Rev. C. I. La Trobe, was a Moravian minister who married a Miss Sims of Yorkshire, and their son was originally educated for the ministry. He traveled in Europe, possibly as a tutor, and in 1829 published his first travel book, The Alpenstock. While on the way to America with the young Count de Pourtales, to whom La Trobe appears to have been either a tutor or mentor he met Washington Irving and the three afterwards travelled through America together. Irving gave a revealing description of La Trobe: "He was a man of a thousand occupations: a botanist, a geologist, a hunter of beetles and butterflies, a musical amateur, a sketcher of no mean pretensions, in short, a complete virtuoso; added to which, he was a very indefatigable, if not always a very successful, sportsman. Never had a man more irons in the fire; and, consequently, never was a man more busy or more cheerful." (Figure 5).

La Trobe in 1837 was sent to the West Indies to report to the British government on the future education of the recently emancipated slaves. This report gave satisfaction, and in February 1839 he received the appointment of Superintendent of the Port Phillip district. He proceeded to Sydney, arrived on 26 July, and stayed about two months. He arrived at Melbourne on October 1, 1837 and received an enthusiastic reception.

Melbourne was very primitive when La Trobe arrived. Streets were marked out but quite unmade, in some cases they were little better than bush tracks. One of his earliest acts was to set labourers to work improving these conditions. The population was about 3000 and rapidly growing, there was no drainage, and health conditions were very bad. La Trobe appointed a board of health to inquire into the causes of the heavy mortality of the town, and steps were taken to form a municipal corporation. Everything had to be referred to Sydney, where local affairs often appeared to be more pressing. La Trobe himself had comparatively little power, and in spite of his invariable courtesy he was not long in losing his first popularity.

But he had really been doing very good work, for finding that his many requisitions were receiving insufficient attention, he had persuaded Governor Gipps of N.S.W. to come to Melbourne in October 1841 and form his own opinion of the position. This had a good effect, but a movement in favour of separation from New South Wales rapidly developed, and finding La Trobe insufficiently sympathetic, the Melbourne city council in 1848 sent a petition to the Queen praying for his removal from his post as superintendent. This was backed up by a resolution carried at a meeting of 3000 persons.

The request was refused, and the colonial office showed its confidence in La Trobe by appointing him Lieutenant-Governor, when separation was at last effected. The influx of population caused by the discovery of gold was the cause of fresh troubles to him, and he had problems of the most difficult character in connection with the conflicting claims of the squatters and the immigrants. His hesitation concerning the best courses to be followed, led to much abuse of him by the press for which there was little warrant. Early in 1854 the Argus began to insert among its advertisements a notice "Wanted a Governor".

La Trobe could stand the strain no longer, resigned his position, and left for England in May 1854. He had been administrator of the government for 15 years, and had shared fully in the dissatisfaction which was the common fate of all early governors. Henceforth he lived a retired life in England. He was made a C.B. in 1858, and succeeded in 1864 in obtaining a pension of £333 a year from the British government. He became blind and died at Litlington near Eastbourne on 2 December 1875. He was married twice first to Sophie de Mt Mollin who died in 1854 leaving three daughters and a son, and then to Susanne de Mauron, who survived him with two daughters..

La Trobe was a thoroughly amiable and kindly man, always courteous and conscientious in carrying out his duties. He was well educated and a capable writer, as his travel books show, and an excellent amateur draughtsman. His private life was irreproachable, but his administrative work was bitterly criticized during the last few years of his office. Later historians have been able to realize the extreme difficulty of his position. He could do no more than pass on the sometimes premature demands of the Port Phillip residents, and then carry out his instructions.

It is possible that he may have deferred too much to Sydney officials, but it is doubtful whether he could have effected much more than he did. He certainly acted with decision in twice preventing the landing of convicts, in 1849 and 1850. Melbourne owes much to him for his part in the founding of the public library, the university, and the Melbourne hospital. He encouraged from the beginning the formation of a reservoir to supply Melbourne with water, and he supported the setting aside of the land for the Botanical, Fitzroy, and other public gardens.

The details of this paper were taken from the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography


 
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