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La Trobe, Charles Josephlocked

  • A. G. L. Shaw

Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801–1875)

by Thomas Woolner, c. 1853

La Trobe, Charles Joseph (1801–1875), colonial administrator and traveller, born in London on 20 March 1801, was the third son of Christian Ignatius La Trobe (1758–1836) and his wife, Hannah Sims (or Anna Syms), of Yorkshire. He received a Moravian education, with a view to following his father in the Moravian ministry, but abandoned this for teaching. In 1824 he became tutor to the son of the Count de Pourtalès in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and soon proved himself a worthy pioneer of the Alpine Club. While mountaineering, he expressed in his diary and later in The Alpenstock (1829) the religious feelings inspired by the grandeur of 'the work of the Creator', but dissatisfied with this apparently purposeless way of life, in September 1829 he matriculated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he went back to travelling and in 1830 made a long walking tour in the Tirol, described in The Pedestrian (1832), in 1832 went to the USA with his former pupil, and, in 1834, to Mexico.

La Trobe returned to Europe in 1835, and on 16 September he married at Neuchâtel Sophie (1810–1854), the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Auguste de Montmollin, a Swiss councillor of state; and when he had finished his books, The Rambler in North America (1835) and The Rambler in Mexico (1836), he needed regular employment. Helped by the influence of his elder brother Peter Latrobe [see under Latrobe, John Antes] in 1837 he was commissioned to report on the education of black West Indians.

Lord Glenelg appreciated La Trobe's reports and in 1838 appointed him superintendent of the Port Phillip district of Australia, despite his administrative inexperience, for a major responsibility there would be the Aboriginal problem. He reached Melbourne on 1 October 1839, where his ‘subjects’ warmly welcomed him as foreshadowing greater independence from New South Wales, but in this, Governor Sir George Gipps, though personally friendly, controlled his subordinate closely and refused his pleas for more public works and more assisted immigrants. La Trobe was also unable to control the conflict with the Aborigines, although he showed his ‘rambling’ ability again, in fourteen years making ninety-four journeys all over the district and discovering land routes to Gippsland and Cape Otway, where he was responsible for building the important lighthouse at the entrance to Bass Strait.

Appointed acting-governor of Van Diemen's Land in 1846–7, La Trobe reformed the convict administration and his experience influenced his opposition to the imperial government's attempts to send convicts to Port Phillip in 1848–9; however, his opposition to popular election to the legislature and his failure to win more independence led in 1848 to a petition for his recall. However, in 1851 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of the newly separated colony of Victoria. Here the gold rush tripled the population in three years to 225,000 in 1854, but, while preserving law and order, he avoided conflict with the diggers. By refusing to lease land to the squatters and reserving large areas for small-scale settlement, he avoided a battle for the land, and, by promoting the Convicts Prevention Act, he limited the influx of ex-convicts from Tasmania. In Melbourne he reserved land for public parks, sponsored a piped water supply system and backed plans to establish the public library and the university. Conscientious and impeccably honest, La Trobe served Victorians well.

La Trobe sailed for England on 5 May 1854, after the death of his wife at Neuchâtel on 30 January; she had borne him one son and three daughters. On 3 October 1855 at Neuchâtel, he married his first wife's widowed sister, Rose Isabelle de Meuron, née Montmollin (1821–1883), and they had two more daughters. They lived chiefly in Worcester and at Litlington in Sussex. Blindness prevented La Trobe from writing his planned history of Port Phillip, but the pioneers' letters which he had collected for the project were sent to Melbourne and published in 1898. Made a CB in November 1858, and belatedly given a small pension (£333 6s. 8d.) in 1865, La Trobe died on 4 December 1875 at his home, Clapham House, Litlington, leaving £15,905. He was buried at Litlington, but in 1878 his family built a memorial chapel at Neuchâtel, to which the Victorian government donated a window on its centenary.


  • A. G. L. Shaw, ‘Governor La Trobe’, Victorian Historical Journal, 61 (1990), 17–32
  • A. Gross, Charles Joseph La Trobe (1956)
  • Gipps–La Trobe correspondence, 1839–1846, ed. A. G. L. Shaw (1989)
  • L. J. Blake, ed., Letters of Charles Joseph La Trobe (1975)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe’, Victorian Historical Journal, 47 (1976), 253–64
  • G. Serle, The golden age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851–1861 (1963)
  • D. McCaughey, N. Perkins, and A. Trumble, Victoria's colonial governors, 1839–1900 (1993)
  • G. Serle, ‘Noble vision and harsh realities: C. J. La Trobe and early Victoria’, Victorian Historical Journal, 47 (1976), 265–76
  • Garryowen [E. Finn], The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852, centennial edn, 2 vols. (1888)
  • J. Eastwood, ‘La Trobe, Charles Joseph’, AusDB, vol. 2
  • M. Cannon, Old Melbourne town (1991)
  • D. Walker, Beacons of hope: early history of Cape Otway and King Island lighthouses (1991)
  • ‘Correspondence on … convict discipline and transportation’, Parl. papers (1847–8), 52.33–79, no. 941 [despatch on convicts in Van Diemen's Land]


  • Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia, corresp. as superintendent and lieutenant-governor
  • State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
  • Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia, Colonial Office, UK, inward corresp.
  • State Archives of New South Wales, Sydney, colonial secretary's archives, New South Wales, letters


  • W. Brockedon, chalk drawing, 1835, NPG
  • F. Grant, oils, 1851–1854, town hall, Melbourne
  • T. Woolner, bronze medallion, 1853, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, La Trobe picture collection
  • T. Woolner, bronze medallion, 1853, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. Grant, oils, 1854, La Trobe's Cottage [National Trust of Australia], Victoria
  • S. Bellin, portrait, NPG
  • F. Grant, oils (after F. Grant), State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, La Trobe picture collection
  • photograph (after S. Bellin), State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, La Trobe picture collection
  • photograph (after portrait at Neuchâtel), State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, La Trobe picture collection
  • portrait, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

Wealth at Death

£15,905: Eastwood, ‘La Trobe’

£1500: probate, 21 Dec 1875, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

D. Pike & others, eds., , 16 vols. (1966–2002)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]