Now housing the maritime museum, the Customs House was built in 1863 and used for 25 years as a Customs House and office of Harbour Master and Receiver of Wrecks for the south east coast as far as the Victorian border.
Run by the Robe branch of the National Trust SA, it became a museum in 1969 after being the local council offices for many years. It reopened after a major refurbishment in October 2008.
The Customs House stands on top of a small sandhill overlooking the sea and encircled by a road called the Royal Circus. Originally bullock teams pulling drays piled high with wool or wheat would use this road as a turning circle when bringing their goods to the customs house before export. For several years the customs revenue collected was only second to those at Port Adelaide.
Between 1856-58 large numbers of Chinese men, amounting eventually to around 16,500, arrived off ships at the port of Robe on their way to the Victorian gold diggings. This was to avoid paying the £10 ($20) tax if they had disembarked at Melbourne. Instead they preferred to walk the 200 miles (320 km) across the Victorian border. However many ended up paying exorbitant fees to the locals to ferry them from the ship and guide them across the border. There is a cairn commemorating the Chinese who walked to the goldfields near the Customs House and also marking the re-enactment of this event which took place in 1986 during the state’s 150th anniversary. At some point there were around 4000 Chinese camping near the town the locals feared for their lives so 26 mounted redcoats, members of the 40th of Foot Second Somerset Regiment, were sent from Adelaide to keep the peace. They kept their horses in the police stables on Frome Street which today is still in existence and is used by the National Trust for their museum storage.
The displays in the museum tell the stories of gold fever and the Chinese migrants as well as the many shipwrecks off the coast and general everyday life for the early settlers of the period. There are several display cases of interesting artefacts from the area as well as some interactives for children and the young at heart including large jigsaw puzzles relating to shipwrecks. There is also a new slide show of historical photographs set to music to view on a flat screen monitor.
The Robe National Trust branch meet on a regular basis. For times and place of meetings call the Branch Chair Tracey Bainger on 0423088785. The Branch also has ownership of the Robe Old Police Stables built in 1864 and looks after the CSIRO field station, which operated from 1935-1976, investigating diet deficiency of the local sheep, and provides guides for heritage bus tours of Robe, and heritage walking tours of Robe.