Robe in the South East of South Australia


Robe's best known building,
The Customs House 1860s.
Its first customs officer, Henry Dudley Melville, was also the
'Receiver of Wrecks' and Harbourmaster of South Eastern Ports.

Map of Robe

Situated on Guichen Bay, about 340 km south east of Adelaide, Robe and the bay were sighted long before South Australia was established. Nicolas Baudin named it in 1802 after Admiral de Guichen. It was also regularly visited by whalers, sealers and sailors before the town was officially proclaimed in 1847, and named after Major Frederick Holt Robe, Governor of South Australia, who had selected the site in 1846.

Soon after the town was proclaimed, woolgrowers moved in and the surrounding area became dotted with homesteads. Business was brisk and bullock teams, bringing in the wool or wheat were a common sight. For many years, until the railway arrived in the neighbourhood, almost all exports from the South East left Robe from one of its jetties owned by George Ormerod. Unfortunately for Robe, it was never connected to the railway as a result of Ormerod's misgivings.

Ormerod was an important man for many years. His company, Ormerod & Co, owned the jetties, the store and the Ant until she was wrecked in 1866. Another important person was Captain Gerard Butler, the first Government Resident who settled at the port in 1846. For several years Customs revenue collected at Robe were only second to those at Port Adelaide.

Several Adelaide residents stayed at the port during the summer months to escape the heat. One of whom was Governor Sir James Ferguson. He stayed at Karatta House, originally built by Henry Jones in 1858. Another of the early buildings was The Lodge, completed in 1850 as a residence and butcher shop.

The town grew quickly and many Irish females and Scottish families arrived in 1855. They were followed two years later by large numbers of Chinese men (#17,000) on their way to the Victorian gold diggings. They preferred to walk the 150 km to the gold fields across the Victorian border and avoid paying $20 tax, which they would have to had they disembarked in Melbourne. During 1857 thirty-two British, American and Dutch ships all landed the Chinese who often had to pay the locals exhorbitant fees to ferry them from the ship to shore and guide them to the Victorian border.

Not all had a safe arrival. Many hundreds had to swim for their lives. When the brand new 1032 ton American built, but English owned ship Pheaton, with 250 Chinese aboard arrived on 1 February 1857, she was wrecked, fortunately without the loss of anyone. Three months later, on 27 April, the wooden hulled, 588 ton British ship Sultana, was lost in bad weather due to the inexperience of the Chief Officer. Once again all crew and passengers were saved. The third ship to come to grief was the 800 ton Dutch ship Koning Willem II which tried to land 397 Chinese on 15 June. When all were landed safely the ship was smashed up two weeks later in a gale. This time fifteen crew members were lost.

At one stage some 4,000 Chinese were camped near the town. As some of the locals saw this as a menage and danger to the community, it was decided to call in the 40th Regiment of Infantry stationed at Adelaide.

During this busy and expansive time, shipowners frantically sought cargo for their empty ship on the home run. Robe supplied horses for the Indian Army and wool, tallow and sheepskins for Europe. During the ten years from 1856 more than $2 million of wool was shipped from Robe. But when the price of wheat began to fall it was uneconomical for farmers from as far away as Mount Gambier to transport it all the way to Robe. They instead carted it to the new harbour at Port MacDonnell. Other ports which took trade away later were at Beachport, and Kingston.

No other port in the South East had what Robe, or Robetown, or Port Robe as it was first called, could offer. It had churches of several different denominations, a government resident in 1846, a court house in 1848, a customs house, telegraph station in 1855, police station in 1847, barracks, goal, and several hotels including the Bonnie Owl, Bush Inn, Caledonian Inn and the Criterion Hotel. The Bonnie Owl was licensed in 1848. When later a new building was erected in front of the old hotel, it was named the Robe Hotel. The old building was then used as a laundry. During the 1860s as many as ten licensed hotels operated in the Robe area.

The Caledonian, which also still trades today was built by Peter McQueen in 1858. It was here that Adam Lindsay Gordon stayed during an illness. The Australian poet, policeman, steeplechaser and Member of Parliament was so impressed with the services of the licensee's daughter, Maggie Park, that he married her.

One of the first churches to serve the towns population was St Mary's Star of the Sea. During the 1870s it had two rooms added which served as a convent and school which was conducted by the Sisters of St Joseph. They were often visited in the early days by Mary MacKillop.

After the 1870s a general decline set in as it missed out on both railway and sea transport. Robe became an isolated town by the mid 1880s. Luckily it had enough local and surrounding industries and trade, such as farming and fishing to survive into the next century.

In November 1893 Quiz and Lantern reported that Robe had natural advantages which rivalled even those of Port Lincoln. If Robe were nearer to Adelaide it would be the watering place of South Australians. The chief characteristic of the Robe people is their desire to make you feel at home when you get there.

In February 1906 the 'Children's Hour' published an article calling Robe one of the 'has been' towns of South Australia, where you would find ruins of some buildings used as residence or places of business when trade was brisk and population numerous.

If it ever looked like a 'has been' town, there is certainly nothing like it today. The town has still some very old buildings, most of them well kept like this grand residence the Lakeside Country House. It was built of local limestone in 1884 by George Dandy, the youngest son of the Rev Sir Robert Affleck, Baronet of Dalham Hall, Suffolk. He died in 1891 aged seventy-three years.

Still proud of its 150 year history, the Robe 150 Committee decided to rebuilt the Lookout Tower at Beacon Hill. When completed by local contractor Marc Dawson it was officially opened by Dame Roma Mitchell on 13 January 1996.

Robe Cemetery


Visit Robe's old buildings Visit Lakeside


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