This iconic Robe building was erected in 1863 to serve one of the busiest ports on the southern coast of Australia – for several years the customs revenue collected here was second only to Port Adelaide, and some 16,500 Chinese landed here on their way to the Victorian goldfields in the mid 1800s.
Designed by colonial architect William Hanson, the Customs House was built of limestone with striking red-brick quoins by local contractors, Pearce and Savage. It is set on a five-sided block in what was the heart of the working port and the administrative centre, with panoramic views of Guichen Bay. This is where the transfer of goods between land and sea routes took place, and bonds and customs duties were paid. The front door faces the Royal Circus, which functioned as a roundabout for teamsters delivering wool for export. In peak season, their wagons and drays often lined up beyond the eastern outskirts of the town.
The first officer in charge of the building was Henry Dudley Melville. Appointed Robe’s first full-time customs officer in 1855, he was also Harbour Master and the official Receiver of Wrecks for the entire South East region, as far as the Victorian border. Initially, Melville worked from one small room of a wooden house situated in Mundy Terrace, which one disgruntled ship’s captain described as ‘a paling shed not fit for a dog to inhabit, and a disgrace to any British port’.
The new building was much more appropriate, however with trade dropping off significantly at Robe in coming decades, it only served as the Customs House for 25 years. It was then handed over to the District Council of Robe to use as its chambers.
The Customs House was almost lost to posterity in the 1960s when it was slated for demolition so new council chambers could be built. However, a campaign supported by the National Trust of SA saved the building, which was restored and reopened as a museum operated by National Trust volunteers in 1971.