Robe. First settled town of the South East. Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Built 1858.
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Robe was the earliest town gazetted in the South East in 1846 (Naracoorte and Penola were founded in 1850). It was named by Governor Grey (1845-48) and the bay was named by Nicholas Baudin in 1802 after a French Admiral. The town site was selected and surveyed in 1846 by Thomas Burr. William Smillie, the Advocate General of SA from 1840 until he suddenly died in Paris in 1852 had mixed with SA governors since his appointment in 1840. The main street of Guichen Bay (Robe) was named after him by Governor Grey when the town was surveyed. One of the first buildings in the town was a small wooden Customs House erected in 1847 indicating the town’s role as an early port. The current Customs House was built in 1863 and closed in 1888. Royal Circus around it allowed bullock drays to turn easily. Near it is a monument to the Chinese immigrants of 1857 and to Matthew Flinders.
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. Ormerod, a merchant and founder of Naracoorte was crucial to the town’s development for he owned the jetties and the general store (the Grey Masts Wool Store in Smillie Street.) Captain Gerard Butler was the first Government Resident from 1846 and he resided in the Residency which still exists as Robe House. It was built in 1847. Robe appears to have been the only town in SA with a residency- government representative, local magistrate, commander of any British troops in the area, general administrator etc. In most areas of SA magistrates travelled on a court circuit and they did not live locally. The South East was too far from Adelaide for that kind of system hence the construction of the Residency in Robe for the whole of the South East. Normally the Resident presided over the local police and courts but Robe had an influx of 20,000 Chinese immigrants headed for the Victorian goldfields between 1855 and 1863 so more than a Resident was needed. Troops were required in the town as Robe was not prepared for this sudden invasion of people, opium smoking, smuggling and drinking. Most of the Chinese arrived in 1857. A detachment of the SA 12th Regiment was sent to Robe to keep the peace, support the police and ensure the rule of law prevailed. The Adelaide government approved barracks for the military in 1857, but by the time they were erected the need had passed. The barracks closed in 1858 once the Chinese deluge had ceased and they became the second Police Station. The Ormerod Cottages near Royal Circus were used as barracks for the British troops in 1857 and when the Governor Sir James Fergusson travelled to Robe for the summer season at Karatta House 1869 to 1870. Around 100 British troops were stationed in SA from its foundation to guard the Governor, control the populace and help build infrastructure for the colony. SA usually received a platoon of troops from those sent to NSW. So in 1857 twenty five troops from the 1/12th Regiment of Foot were stationed at Robe under the Command of Lieutenant Saunders. In 1858 new troops arrived from the 2/40th Regiment of Foot. Troops of the 1st/50th Regiment served Governor Fergusson and accompanied him to Robe in the summer of 1869/1870 but all British troops had left SA by the end of 1870 due to Imperial needs ( Maori Wars in New Zealand and wars in South Africa.) Governor Fergusson continued to use Karatta House at Robe as a summer residence until he left SA in 1873. The next governor set about building Marble Hill.
Robe grew quickly and many Irish females and Scottish families arrived in 1855. Several big houses were built in the town: Karatta House was built for Henry Jones of Binnum Run near Bordertown in 1858; the Lodge was completed in 1850 as a residence and butcher shop; the handsome 12 roomed Moorakyne House was built by George Ormerod around 1856 and used as his residence until his death in 1872; and Lakeside Manor was built of local limestone in 1884 for George Danby, the youngest son of the Rev Sir Robert Affleck, Baronet of Dalham Hall, England. Lakeside Manor has imported English oak beams, Carrera marble fireplaces, numerous bay windows and the remnants of a carbide-gas lighting system. George Affleck changed his name to Danby to inherit the British estate bequeathed to him. This allowed him to move from a tiny cottage in Robe to his new mansion! Ormerod’s house Moorakyne eventually became the Church of England manse in 1909. It overlooks Lake Butler. Major landowners of the town and district included Sir Samuel Davenport and Sir John Morphett hence there are streets named after them in Robe.
In 1847 the Police Station (and first soldier barracks) was built, followed by the Court House (1848), the Telegraph Station in 1858, and the Gaol (1861). The Old Gaol near Cape Dombey was never fully completed and it closed in 1881. It is now demolished. The first private school opened in Robe in 1858 but the state school was not completed until 1884. Several hotels including the Bonnie Owl, the Bush Inn, the Caledonian Inn and the Criterion Hotel were soon opened in the first few years of the town’s history. The Bush Inn built in 1852 and licensed in 1855 was a roadhouse inn which originally catered for teamsters carting wool to Robetown port. The Bonnie Owl was licensed in 1848 and was later re-named the Robe Hotel. During the 1860s as many as ten licensed hotels operated in Robe. The Caledonian was built by Peter McQueen in 1858. It was here that Adam Lindsay Gordon stayed during an illness and he eventually married the licensee’s daughter, Maggie Park. One of the first churches to serve the town was the Catholic St Mary Star of the Sea built in 1859. During the 1870s it had more rooms added which served as a convent and school conducted by Mary MacKillop’s Sisters of St Joseph. A Presbyterian Free Chapel was built in 1858 adjacent to where St Peter’s Anglican Church was built in 1860. (The Anglican church was not consecrated until 1914!) In 1869 a Bible Christian Methodist Church was opened in Robe. It later became a temporary state school in the 1880s before reverting to being a Methodist church.
During the early years ship owners frantically sought cargo for their empty ships on the return run to Europe. Robe supplied horses for the Indian Army, wool, tallow and sheepskins for Europe. Lake Fellmongery was named after the scouring (washing) process used to clean sheep skins. The town had an industry devoted to this task which began in 1853 after a load of wool was sunk in Guichen Bay and had to be washed before it could be sent on to England. Fellmongery continued into the mid-1860s. Besides fellmongery, the large stock numbers supported a short-lived but quite successful Guichen Bay Boiling Down Works. It processed up to 9,000 sheep per week between 1867 and 1869. The sheep were butchered, skinned and the carcasses boiled down to produce fat or tallow for candles. Between 1856-66 close to £2 million worth of wool was shipped from Robe by Mr. Ormerod alone. He dominated all trade in the port of Robe. Robert Lawson of Padthaway was just one of many who shipped their wool through Robe and Ormerod’s shipping company. Ormerod’s shipping company closed in 1878. As other ports were declared at Beachport and Kingston, Robe began to decline as it never had a railway like Beachport and Kingston to bring goods from the hinterland. Robe became an isolated town by the mid-1880s. The Obelisk on Cape Dombey was erected in 1855 to assist passing ships and those heading into Robe. After complaints by ship captains the obelisk was painted in alternate red and white bands in 1862 which still remain.