The town's distinctive combination of historical buildings, ocean, fishing fleets, lakes and dense bush is widely appreciated. Robe lies on the southern shore of Guichen Bay, just off the Princes Highway.
Guichen Bay was named by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin after Admiral De Guichen in 1802, as he was charting the south coast of Australia. Part of it is protected in the Guichen Bay Conservation Park. Robe is one of the oldest towns in South Australia, founded by the colonial government as a seaport, administrative centre and village only ten years after British settlers formally established the Province of South Australia.
Robe was named after the fourth Governor of South Australia, Mayor Frederick Robe, who chose the site as a port in 1845. The town was proclaimed as a port in 1847. It became South Australia's second-busiest (after Port Adelaide) international port in the 1850s. Robe's trade was drawn from a large hinterland that extended into western Victoria, and many roadside inns were built to cater for the bullock teamsters bringing down the wool, including the 'Bush Inn' still standing on the outskirts of Robe. Exports included horses and sheep skins and wool. The Customs House is listed by the National Trust of Australia. A stone obelisk was built on Cape Dombey in 1852 to assist ships to navigate safely into the bay. Even so, there have been a number of shipwrecks along the coast in the area. An automatic lighthouse was built on higher ground in 1973.
Soon after the town was proclaimed, woolgrowers moved in and the surrounding area became scattered 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 which didn't come to the town, 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 arrive in 1855. During the Victorian gold rushes around 1857, over 17,000 Chinese people landed at Robe to travel overland to the goldfields, as Victoria introduced a landing tax of £10 per person (more than the cost of their voyage) to reduce the number of Chinese immigrants. The immigrants then walked the 200 miles (320 km) to Ballarat and Bendigo. Not all had a safe arrival though with many hundreds having to swim for their lives due to ship wreckages.
At one stage up to 4,000 Chinese were camped near the town; as some locals saw this as a danger to the community, it was decided to call in the 40th Regiment of Infantry stationed at Adelaide.
During this busy and expansive time, ship-owners 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 two million dollars 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.
However, towns of other ports were nowhere as sufficient as Robetown as it was first called. 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, gaol 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 1860's as many as ten licensed hotels operated in the Robe area.
Bush Inn built in 1852, The Old Gaol built in 1861, Caledonian Inn built in 1859
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, steeplechase and Member of Parliament was so impressed with the services of the licensee's daughter, Maggie park, that he married her in 1862.
One of the first churches to serve the towns population was St Mary's Star of the Sea. During the 1870's it had two rooms added which serves 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 1870's Robe saw a general decline set in as it missed out on both railway and sea transport. By the mid 1880's it became an isolated town. Luckily it had enough local and surrounding industries and trade, such farming and fishing to survive into the next century.
The town still holds some very old buildings, with the majority of them well kept like the grand residence of Lakeside Manor. Lakeside was built of local limestone in 1844 by George Dandy, the youngest of the Rev Sir Robert Affleck, Baronet of Dalham Hall, Suffolk.