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Sophie La Trobe - Montmollin



 Neuchâtel is the place where Sophie was born the 9th of February 1809.  Neuchâtel is name of the canton as well as its capital, situated in the west of Switzerland. The Jura formes the border to France  and on the eastern side it has it's lake.  High plateaus with rough climate stretch out alongside the Jura chains. The mountains has its people called montagnards.  They attended to alpine cattle farming. The fertile areas are those going down to the lake of Neuchâtel. They call it vignoble, because they grow vine there, a beautiful Burgundy.



Frédèric Auguste de Montmollin and Rose Augustine De Meuron had 13 children and Sophie was the eighth. They were part of the noblesse of Neuchâtel who through their practice of intermarriage held all the important  places in office. Frédéric de Montmollin was a member of the governing body, the State Council and the mayor of Valangin, positions held by three former generations of his family. After his death in 1836 that capacity went to Sophie's older brother François de Montmollin.


Because Frédéric de Montmollin was also the Chancellor of the king of Prussia, the whole family stayed at the Castle of Neuchâtel, but their ancestral home was an imposing building on the market square. Four storeys, with eye-catching large gargoyles. It was built for Georges de Montmollin, Sophie’s great-grandfather, who was given the nobility. The legend has that its foundation  were cemented with vine.

Inside, it had you walking on parquetry, admiring the panelled walls and the frescoed ceilings. Warm and comfortable, with a rustic-bourgeois atmosphere.


Sophie is a descendent of the famous Reformed Theologian Osterwald. Her great-great- grandfather  Jean-Henry de Montmollin married Barbe Osterwald the daughter of Rev J F Osterwald. The composer Mendelsohn married a cousin of Sophie.


The castle of Neuchâtel and the land around it was the property of the mighty Counts of Neuchâtel and Valangin from 1147-1373. Not having any descendants of their own it changed hand through  many noble houses until the line Orléans-Longueville took it up in 1504. Having formed an allegiance with Berne in 1406 and Lucerne 1501 Neuchâtel took part in the Burgundy battles. Le Locle has is own Legend of amazons who fought  in 1476 against the Burgundians. The tale ‘La saboulée des Bourguignons’ tells that women of Le Locle chased back the Burgundian fighters, by releasing the bull of the village on them.

Because the House Longueville was French the Swiss Confederates conquered Neuchâtel in 1512 but gave it back in 1529. Influenced by Berne they introduced the Reformation in 1530 , preached by Guillaume Farel. New blood was brought in by the Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution in 1685. They generated a fresh dynamism to the economics in Neuchâtel. As in 1707  Marie de Nemours died as last one from the Orléans house, the principality of Neuchâtel offered themselves to Frederick King of Prussia. This had the advantage of the identical religion and the remoteness of Prussia so that they didn't fear to be disturbed.  The whole region had a surge of industrialisation. Numerous manufacturing plants for printed calico, then cutlery-mills, wire-mills, forge-mills, canon-powder-mills, dyeing-mills, spinning-mills to name a few.

In 1806 the King of Prussia had to give the principality Neuchâtel to Napoleon, who gave it as a present to Prince Berthier. But in 1814 Napoleon gave it back to the King of Prussia and Neuchâtel became the 21st canton in Swiss confederation.

The watchmaking began in the mountains; The craft of pillow-lacing employed 6500 women in 1820, mostly the wives of watchmakers. El Locale and la Choux-de Fonds grew  demographically. Quietly thriving businesses  were the starting point to the revolution that started in the mountains. They wanted a republic  and they were successful in 1848. A colossal construction at Col-des-Roches an underground waterfall in Le Locle enabled Jonaz Sandoz  to operate a subterranean factory. The water following through a complex system of aqueducts and galleries activated six water wheels therefore operating four flour-mills,  one oil-mill, one threshing-mill. This interesting workmanship intrigued many voyagers, one of those was the Danish writer Hans-Christian Andersen who stayed in Le Locle a few times. In 1770 the Jaquet-Droz created automatons, robots, two hundred years before the coming of the artificial intelligence. Paper-manufacture, printing and the book trade provided Neuchâtel with another flourishing commerce.


Printers cause trouble, it was said in 1588,  55 years after the printing began. True to that saying they agitated the minds with religious, social and political thought,  constantly fearing imprisonment. The works of Rousseau and Voltaire where at the root of some disturbance. Reformation, Revolution and Enlightenment gave ample material to print, particularly  because the French printing press was paralysed through censure. Between 1770-1790 they took part in a grand enterprise:  Encyclopedia of Diderot.


Neuchâtel  attracted many literati to it's beautiful sights like Byron,  Ruskin, Shelley, Dumas,  Hugo, Chateaubriand and Lamartine. Another place not far away was Coppet,  the property of Madame de Staël drawing in to her circle of 1799-1817 Benjamin Constant, the Brothers Schlegel,  Sismondi, Chamisso and Madame Recamier, only naming a few of them.


As to Sophie, she was brought up by her father according to the writing of Rousseau. Hardening of the young blood, retour à la nature, the noble savages, one has to leave one's children to their own devices. Let them be wild and beautiful until they reach puberty. Then the learning out of books should begin. Frédéric de Montmollin had them read about every possible facet of life, for example from agriculture, to pillow-lacing, religion, literature and made them learn piano, German, English and Italian, French being their mother tongue.


Sophie de Montmollin was fourteen years old, when she was introduced to the tutor, Charles Joseph La Trobe, of her Cousin Albert de Pourtalès.  Her uncle, Compte Frédéric de Pourtalès was a friend of Napoleon, fighting alongside with him, but also being equerry to the Empress Josephine. The wealthy merchant family wanted a mentor to this son and thought of la Trobe perhaps because both family where descendants from Huguenots.

Eleven years passed. Many times their path crossed, when families got together for lively discussion, song and theatre. Not much is known about their courtship but that Charles proposed to Sophie after having just had three books printed about his walks in Switzerland and Tirol, a pending fourth one on Mexico, so to speak as dowry. After some hesitation of Sophie's parents, they got engaged and married on the 16 September 1835 in the British Legation of Berne, at 10 o'clock in the morning. No celebration afterwards to everyone's disappointment. They spent their honeymoon at Jolimont of the Pourtalès family, a summer holiday house in the mountains.


When Sophie's father died in 1836, and Charles was on his way his way to Jamaica, to observe the schools of the newly freed slaves, Sophie moved in with her mother in their family home, where she gave birth  in 1837 to her oldest daughter, Rose. All the other children were born in Australia. Eleanora Sophie (Nellie) in 1842, Mary Cecilia (Cécile) in 1843 and Charles Albert (Charley) on Christmas Day 1845.


The news that Sophie de Montmollin, now la Trobe, was to going to go away to land with savages went like a whirlwind around Neuchâtel. Rousseau's idea of noble savages was in everyone's mind. How exiting.


One cousin Pourtalès had been at school in Vevey with William Macarthur, son of the notorious John Macarthur of New South Wales,  reassured Sophie that she wouldn't go to an uncivilised country.


On the ship Fergussen they arrived in Sydney the  24 July 1839. They were  welcomed by the Governor Gipps, whose second fiddle Charles would play for the whole stay. The vice-regal lifestyle in Sydney gave way to the quiet existence, that she would lead in Melbourne.


Wading through the muddy streets of Melbourne, they were given an enthusiastic welcome, which would fade away. Soon would the bleating of the disgruntle colonists be heard.

Rightly would the settlers want a strong hand of their superintendent to lead them, speak up for their rights in the right channel.

They said: "Mr. La Trobe does not by public days, or some other means, draw those distinctions which society requires. It is in HIS power to do so, and in some sense it is his duty also."

Charles La Trobe daunted with the new responsibility, preferred to be absent, making 94 trips. We can now see his written observations and drawings.

Nevertheless he found time to instigate things like the Botanical Gardens, the State library, the Yan Yean Reservoir, the hospital, churches, the Mechanics Institute, the University of Melbourne.


1839 Melbourne was just a four year old settlement, the houses were wattle and daub construction, and few ones were brick. The society were truly in its infancy, a few colonist having formed the Melbourne Club.


As Superintendent  of Port Phillip District, Charles was only provided the house-rent  and other charges,  from the British Government. A fact that he stated in a few letters, that the Queen gave him neither a house, nor the means to keep it open.

Their wooden house brought with them was soon put up, on a piece of  purchased of land, auctioned  with no counterbid.

It was an attractive little cottage, Jolimont they called it. The porch and the veranda with covered with flowers and creepers, so that the interior was rather dark. Which must have pleased Sophie, for she suffered under the harshness of the Australia sun.


 The interiors were equiped with their own furniture,  linen china and crockery  and gave it a delightful atmosphere. Sophie La Trobe had brought the standard of the old world to Melbourne,  and they opened their  home to visitors on a regular basis. It's said that she started the custom of the Christmas -tree in Melbourne.

In 1841 Charlotte Pellet and her daughter Rose came to live at Jolimont, she was a nurse in the family de Montmollin's,  and took up the role of the house keeper, after the separation from her husband.

Agnes the oldest daughter proved to be a handful  for Sophie, so they decided to send her back to Neuchâtel  for her education. In 1845 Agnes sailed back under the supervision of the Captain's wife, Mrs Ferguson.

Charles La Trobe was required to go to Tasmania for four months in 1846 and took Sophie with  the 3 remaining children with him.

Back in Melbourne, schools seemed hard to find for a good education. The children ran wild and caused her many headaches. In 1850, Charley was just 5 years old, they got a Swiss governess Mademoiselle Béguin who taught  them each morning.

La Trobe submitted his resignation in 1852, but could not leave until 1854 for the lack of his replacement.

He insisted that Sophie and Mademoiselle Béguin took the children back to Neuchâtel .  They sailed on the Blackwall on 25 February 1853.

Sophie died on 30 January 1854 never seeing Charles again. He read of Sophie's death  in the News paper that was faster than the mail.


It said of her, that she was always at Jolimont, not enjoying the trips with her husband. That she had often migraine, and didn't like official celebrations. She was only a Swiss, a genovese, not beautiful and myope.

Harsh words. 

In view, that she rode to her friends on a basis regular, accompanied Charles to Tasmania with her children,  took her children in a carriage to Queenscliff, their holiday cottage and managed quite successfully  the household together with stables and garden on a measly salary.

It was the ideal of bourgeois womanhood to stay at home and attend to the children, not gallivanting around.

Should we condemn her because of this, or do we want to examine the trend of our times ourselves?

©  Corinne Othenin-Girard 2001  Text to a short film

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