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The Robe Hotel


Written by Peter Wilmouth

The town of Robe is tucked away on South Australia’s rugged Limestone Coast, 336 kilometres south of Adelaide. Named after Governor Frederick Holt Robe, who inspected the area in January 1846 and chose Guichen Bay as the location for a port, the township was surveyed three months later, and the first allotments sold at auction in October. 

Robe’s first licenced premises, The Robe Hotel on Mundy Terrace, originally named the Bonnie Owl, was built in 1847. The bones of the original hotel and were among the oldest built structures in this historic town. The hotel was later replaced by the handsome two-storey Robe Hotel. The location has held a continuous licence since 1847. 

The establishment of rival ports and railway systems that bypassed the town in the following decades saw Robe fall into decline, but in the early 1900s, the town reinvented itself as a holiday destination, known for its healthy sea environment. 

Robe Hotel c 1920

Like many coastal and country towns…

settling in the mid-1800s, a pub is one of the first and most crucial structures, not just for sustenance and somewhere for visitors to stay but as a central community hub. Indeed, the Bonnie Owl opened for business within months of the town being settled. In her book ‘Almost an Island, The Story of Robe’, local historian Liz Harfull notes an Englishman in his seventies, John Denford, applied for a licence even before the town’s first allotments were sold. The application was rejected because the township was “not yet formed”.” 

By January 1847 Denford had found a site in Mundy Terrace and had begun putting up the wooden framework. He applied again for a licence and this time was successful. Robe Hotel became one of South Australia’s earliest licenced premises and, ever since, a much-loved local icon. 

The first iteration of the Robe Hotel was a substantial building given the town’s structures were rudimentary at the time. It featured two sitting rooms, five bedrooms and stabling for six horses. 

In 1939,

Roland Campbell, something of an expert on early South Australian pubs, wrote a letter to The Border Watch newspaper in Mt Gambier outlining which pubs held records for being the oldest in the state. “The Hotel Robe (to give it its more modern name) was licensed as the Bonnie Owl in 1849 so misses the record by a year as the oldest under the same name, but it still holds the palm [prize] as being the oldest on exactly the same piece of land.” 

By 1849 the licence was held by Denford’s son Robert and the pub’s name was changed to Robe Hotel. The hotel continued to expand. Seven years later, under the management of Mr H.T. Brooks, it offered seven bedrooms, four parlours and stabling for 13 horses. Henry Dobinson took over in 1863 and became one of the hotel’s longer serving publicans. 

Local historian Liz Harfull notes that in 1906 the hotel was bought by Adelaide-based wine merchants A.E. and F. Tolley for 542 pounds, beginning the family’s long association with Robe. The Tolleys owned the pub for more than 90 years, overseeing several renovations and engaging a series of licensees including a female publican Elizabeth Jane Bourke who held the Robe Hotel licence in 1919 and 1920. 

A report in The South Eastern Times newspaper report in 1926 noted – via “Our Robe correspondent” – that “Mr Fox, of the Outer Harbour kiosk, has arrived to take over from Mr Anderson, the Robe Hotel. It was an error: his name was Mr Fax. “Mr Fox [Fax] is a young man with enterprising ideas, and the residents expect to find him a livewire in the promotion of efforts to retain Robe’s popularity as a tourists’s pleasure resort.” It added: “Building alterations at the hotel are to be commenced immediately. It is proposed to erect 32 additional rooms.” 

During the 1920s

the hotel was still on the Princes Highway before a new road was built in the mid-1900s connecting the towns of Kingston to Millicent.  

As more families acquired motor cars in the 1920s, it became a popular spot for ‘motor camping’, and Robe Hotel was a popular spot for travellers to stop for a meal or overnight. A hotel guest book from the early 1920s donated to the local history collection by the descendants of a publican is an insight into how warmly visitors felt about the hotel. “Most comfortable,” said one. “Fine marble bath,” said another. “Good crays,” another wrote. “Bonzar hotel this,” said a happy visitor. 

Fishing – and the Southern Rock Lobster which was abundant in the area – was a drawcard and the local economy was boosted helped the in the 1940s when commercial fishing took off. 

A report in The South Eastern Times in 1926 – outlining decisions regarding licencing for pubs around the region – noted the attraction of the area. “Robe is a favourite seaside resort, one of the favourite spots in South Australia during the summer months,” it said. “In consequence of which the hotel is largely patronised as the figures will show.” 

In what appears to be a pitch for permissions to improve the facility, the report went on: “The class of persons accommodated there are of a superior class who would be quite prepared to pay a reasonable tariff if superior accommodation were provided.” 

After Elizabeth Jane Bourke, the next woman to manage the hotel was Annie Fax who ran the business with her husband James Hurtle Fax, who took up the licence in around 1926. Annie Fax ran the hotel almost until the end of World War II. 

The Robe Hotel exterior

In the late 1920s..

the Tolley family demolished the oldest section of the pub and added a new wing across the front. The building was now two storeys with 32 bedrooms, five new bathrooms and hot and cold water in every guest room. The work was completed by 1928. 

The following year, 1929, the Robe Hotel added what was then an extraordinary offering for guests: a flood-lit tennis court. It also offered a motor boat that patrons could use to go fishing, perhaps to catch one of the local crays that other guests had remarked on. 

Rob and Betty Hall took on management of the hotel in 1970 and became licensees in 1972. Rob’s mother was a descendant of bootmaker Thomas Christian Backler who had settled in Robe in the 1850s. They ceased managing the hotel in 1980 and in 1988 the Robe was sold to Mount Gambier trucking magnate Allan Scott. 

Now in its third century, we are proud to honour the hotel’s 177-year life.