State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 27 April 1981


Letter from John Henry Howitt to A. W. Howitt
[1 March 1842 — May 1842]

John Henry Howitt (1831–1843) was a member of the Howitt family, notable in the world of English letters in the 19th century, which was to achieve further fame in Australia through the work of Alfred William Howitt. John Henry arrived in Port Phillip in 1840 with his family, his father's brother Richard, and his mother's brothers Robert and John Bakewell. His father, Godfrey Howitt, had decided to emigrate to Australia for various reasons which are enumerated in Richard Howitt's Impressions of Australia Felix during four years residence in that colony: “the Doctor [Godfrey Howitt] is anxious for a more salubrious climate to improve the general health of his family, but more especially, if possible to save the life of his eldest boy, to whom one more English winter would be certain death. As a naturalist, also, he has dreams and expectations. He expects, moreover, to better his condition, rationally I hope, in this world's wealth …1 At least two of Godfrey Howitt's hopes were realised. During his medical career he was involved in many public duties, and was able to follow his botanical and entomological interests to a noteworthy degree. Initially the health of his eldest son John Henry improved, however this improvement can only have been superficial for on 20 May 1843 there appeared in the Melbourne Times the following death notice:
On Monday, the 15th instant, in the twelfth year of his age, John Henry, eldest son of Godfrey Howitt, Esq. M.D. The amiable qualities of this lovely boy, his high mental endowments, added to learned acquirements, which would have done honour to those far beyond his years, offered the flattering promise of future greatness and fame: rendering his premature death doubly distressing to his family, and a source of unfeigned regret to a numerous circle of admiring friends.
We present here a letter-journal written by John Henry Howitt from Melbourne approximately a year before his premature death, to his cousin Alfred William Howitt who was still living in England. The two boys were eleven and twelve years old respectively. Although neither of them were aware of the future career in store for Alfred William in Victoria, it seems likely that the precocious John Henry was in some way aware of the limits which his failing health would set. The letter is presented here in its entirety and the original punctuation and spelling have been retained.
Frances Thorn
March 1st My dear Alfred Are you alive and well this and fifty other things I want to know about you; Anna Mary's2 letters to Mamma did not say one syllable about you, I never thought I could have been so angry with Anna Mary who was so kind to me at Esher3 and in London I felt very much inclined to wish her letters into the candle I hope she will never again forget to write about you and I will forgive her this once. And I think you deserve a scold too, for you promised you would write to me as soon as you were at Heidelburg4 and give me a long account of its famous castle Mamma has often told me when I wanted something to do to begin you a Journal but I thought I would wait till your letter came but I am at last tired of waiting. To day is very hot the thermometer 96 in the shade just the heat that suits me: I was very poorly all last winter and kept almost entirely to the sofa but the hot weather has at last began to do me good. though I do not sit out of doors as I did last summer I get plenty of fresh air for we keep all our windows and doors open
4th Our dear little Charlie has many times been ill, he is cutting teeth; now he is lying quite still on Mamma's lap and takes very little notice of us so different to when he was well, oh what a fat merry little creature he then was; he has never been so ill before and Papa is very much afraid he will not get better. I dont
know what we should do without him he is such a very sweet entertaining little creature
13th When I began this journal I had no idea I should have such a sorrowful subject to write about Our darling little Charlie died on the 9th at 5 in the morning He is buried in the garden. I shall put by this till we feel cheerful again
17th I have had such a pleasant drive to day, down to the Beach. the very sight of the sea did me good, it was extremely green with just the tops of the waves tiped with foam. many ships, schooners, 'c were lying at anchor at Williams Town. 3 miles beyond the Manlius was in quarantine the Pathfinder with many of her sails set was tacking out of the bay; the Corsair steamer from Launceston was coming up some boats close to us were pulling out to sea and famously they were rocked up and down It was altogether a beautiful sight I did long to be on board the Pathfinder for I believe another journey would do me good
18th Willie and Edith5. go to school now to Mrs Stevenson from 1/2 past 9 till 3 and they like it very much Willie is reading Markhams History of England which have been very favourite books of mine He is a much better accountant than I am but that does not say much for him I had intended to learn Latin on the voyage but I have not begun yet in good earnest. I have no doubt you would think us all great dunces.
21st to day the thermometer is 70 the sun is very bright and there is a most gentle breeze I am sure you would think this a most pleasant country.
12th April. I have been staying 3 weeks at the Plenty with Mamma and came home yesterday I enjoyed it exceedingly, all but the drive there and back which shook me too much. Uncle Robert6 made me a little carriage to ride in, and took me several short drives in it. I went to see some trees that Willie had felled when he was there as thick as himself which he had made a famous boast of. Uncle Robert has a very nice garden it is down in a flat you go to it by a zig zag walk; his vines were 14 feet high They have abundance of Melons The pigs are regulary fed on them while we were there the dray and 4 bullocks brought up a load out of the garden, for the rats had taken a fancy to them there. The bell birds sing all day long at the Plenty I like to hear them much better than the laughing jackasses I read The Talisman, Old Mortality, and Ivanhoe while I was there which delighted me exceedingly and I am now reading Quentin Durward As we came home we called at the Yarra to see Uncle Richard.7The river winds there very prettily I had just a peep into the cottage but it did not look very clean I assure you Mamma got out but I took my very notes sitting in the carriage
29th All the talk lately has been about the Bushrangers who have in the Plenty district, the first there have been in Australia Felix. they are a party of 4 well armed and mounted, who have robbed more than thirty stations beside highway robbery, but their reign of terror did not last more than a week. they commit their daring deeds in broad day light would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stired; this they do while the other bushrangers ransack the hut of what they want and then are off to the next station. Two parties of gentlemen and a few of the mounted police went in pursuit of them one of the party 5 in number at last got on their track and at Mr. Hunter's the bushrangers were interrupted just as they were going to sit down to a breakfast of roast ducks The gentlemen of the house haveing been ordered from table to make way for their superiors When they saw the party in search of them they called out stand to your arms men they then rushed out and fired a volley but in retreating to the hut the ringleader got separated from the rest and after a very desperate resistance 3 of the gentlemen haveing been wounded the man was shot in self defence The other 3 after fireing 60 shots at last surrendered and are brought in for trial.8 Uncle's escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken
29 Edith has been a week at Brighton and is to stay 2 more. it is by the sea side. There
is a nice firm beach. I dare say she will be fonder of runing about on the beach than attending to her lessons though Miss Ascham a lineal descendant of Roger Ascham is the teacher at Mrs Were's. Little Johny Were is a very funny boy he says he does so wish he was married his Mamma is so cross to him. he is only four years old.
May. I have had a very nice ship sent me it is not half complete in the rigging I have been very busy putting Main Mizen and fore top gallant masts, flying jibboom, main fore and sprit sail yards, and in a few weeks I shall make it a complete model full rigged ship. It was made by a sailor who had not time to finish it. the length is two feet six. it is a 4 gun ship Melbourne people are very fond of keeping birthdays the children went yesterday into the country to celebrate one and they had a famous romp at hiding seek among the bushes. They went and returned in a tax cart and were in such high spirits. Edward intends to be a Doctor and Mrs Palmer told him she would have him when she was ill to cure her and he is quite set up about it I read the papers every morning there is generally some good fun in them such curious police reports~The Police Magistrate9 is very peremtory, so his name is a bye word here. “I'll Major St John you”Judge Willis10 is very quarrelsome in one case a little Lawyer who had the boldness to address him was frightened out of his senses by haveing thundered in his ear “who are you”“down sir, down sir I say”and with this the little Man rushed out of Court upsetting every one in his way. so Tipstaff was not summoned to take him out. Even Teddy stands a little in awe of Judge Willis and Big Chin, Mr La Trobe's messenger. But Judge Willis is a very good man though he is so cross sometimes. Willie, Edith and Edward join me in dear love to you Claude and Charlton and to Anna Mary
Your very affectionate cousin
John Henry Howitt


Richard Howitt. Impressions of Australia Felix during four years residence in that colony. London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1845, pp. 1–2.


Anna Mary Howitt, eldest sister of A. W. Howitt.


In 1837 the family of William Howitt moved into West End Cottage at Esher and continued to live there for four years.


Alfred Howitt and his brother Claude were educated for several years in the 1840's at Dr. Kaiser's Academy in Heidelberg.


Brother and sister of John Henry Howitt. Willie [William Godfrey] succeeded his father in his Collins Street practice and held a position of honorary surgeon to the Melbourne Hospital for many years. Edith Howitt became Mrs. Robert Anderson of Barra-gunda, Cape Schank.


Robert Bakewell, a maternal uncle. He had emigrated with the Howitt brothers and on arrival in Port Phillip acquired a property on the bank of the Plenty River, above Heidelberg. He prospered in the new colony and eventually became one of the founders of the firm of Goldsbrough, Mort ' Co.


Richard Howitt (1799–1870) migrated to Australia with his brother Godfrey in 1840. He owned a property on the Heidelberg Road, and farmed it until his return to England in 1844. He published several volumes of poetry, 1830,1840 and 1860, as well as his account of his experiences in Australia, Impressions of Australia Felix during four years residence in that Colony, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1845.


A full account of this bushranging incident appears in “Garryowen”[Edmund Finn] The Chronicles of early Melbourne(Facsimile reprint) Melbourne: Heritage Publications, 1976, pp.351–356.


Major Frederick Berkley St. John (d.1866) was Police Magistrate in Port Phillip 1842–1843, and also held various other posts. Major St. John was involved, in his career in Port Phillip, in many instances of bribery and corruption and finally left the Colony after a legal battle with John Pascoe Fawkner in 1848. Fawkner charged Major St. John with being guilty of improper actions in the discharge of his duties and the latter took him to court for libel. The case was eventually discharged when the jury were unable to come to a verdict. St. John was ruined by the publicity engendered by the trial and never held office in the Colony again.


The Hon. John Walpole Willis (1793–1877) was the first resident judge of the Port Phillip district, and served in that capacity from 1841–1843. His “peremptory”nature left him open to widespread criticism and dislike, until Gipps had Willis removed from office. Amongst Willis's most notable vagaries while judge were his refusal to hear a solicitor who had a moustache and the rebuke he delivered to a barrister who owned a stallion and advertised its stud services.