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Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe
20 March 1801 4 December 1875

 Statue of Governor La Trobe 

Statue of Governor La Trobe

Charles La Trobe's time in Melbourne is very much the story of the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He was born in London of Moravian parents and had made his reputation as a mountaineer, adventurer and writer.

Charles La Trobe arrived in the fledgling settlement of Melbourne on 30 September 1839 where he had been appointed Superintendent of the Port Philip District. He brought with him a wife and a cottage. His cottage can still be visited in the King's Domain, while the name his wife reputedly gave to the hill on which they settled - Jolimont - still lives in on in the name of that inner city suburb.

Here we had a gentle and cultured man put in charge of what was, in effect, a wild west town. Furthermore this settlement was later to experience all the turmoil of a gold rush. He had no management or administrative experience and was to demonstrate few skills in those areas.

In 1854 La Trobe was to be replaced, and his wife Sophie returned to Switzerland due to illness while Charles awaited the arrival of Governor Hotham. La Trobe was never to see Sophie again as she died soon afterwards.

He was a well-intentioned man who had good ideas about distributing wealth but little understanding of what was required to generate and sustain that wealth and social concord, and as a result he left the colony bankrupt and with fermenting social problems. His management of relations with the local Aborigines may also have started as well-intentioned (in a colonial European fashion) but it is hard to interpret some of his later dealings in this area as anything but shameful. Along with Hotham, La Trobe must be considered one of the major contributors to the conditions that led to the Eureka Stockade uprising.

Back in England, La Trobe was never given a similar posting and gradually lost his eyesight. He received no pension from the colonial authorities and died in 1875.

Before he died, La Trobe recognised the importance to the colony of a number of the documents in his possession and sent them back to Melbourne where they became the nucleus of an important historical collection now known as the La Trobe Library collection. This collection is now the most important resource for anyone with an interest in Melbourne history. The grand domed reading room at the State Library is one of the glories of Melbourne and dedicated to La Trobe. The La Trobe Library collection and La Trobe Reading Room are two of the grandest and most enduring monuments to any individual from the early decades of Melbourne. La Trobe Street in Melbourne, La Trobe University and the Latrobe Valley are some of the other places named after him. (Although the appropriate spellings of his name is 'La Trobe' some places named after him are spelled 'Latrobe').

Over time La Trobe has become generally well regarded by the sort of academics who have good ideas about distributing wealth but little understanding of what is required to generate and sustain that wealth and social concord. As a result many profiles of La Trobe concentrate on what he did leave us rather than what he could have left us. Since some of us at White Hat spend much time in the library collection bearing his name, it probably behoves us to do the same.


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A contemporary representation of
Charles La Trobe in central Melbourne
(This temporary installation was removed at the end of June 2006
and has been acquired by La Trobe University)

The nearby plaque read (in part):
"Contemporary artist Charles Robb's tribute to Charles La Trobe is in part a sincere homage to this relatively under acknowledged figure of Melbourne colonial history, but also a critique of Nineteenth Century value systems. Despite his enormous contributions to Melbourne development, La Trobe remains unrepresented in Melbourne's public monuments*. Robb's inversion of La Trobe questions the purpose of public monuments, and their meaning in contemporary society."

{* Note at the time of this installation, the statue shown at the top left of this page had not been erected}

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