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Frederick Holt Robe (1802–1871)

by E. J. R. Morgan

This article was published:

Frederick Holt Robe (1802-1871), by Thomas Foster Chuck

Frederick Holt Robe (1802-1871), by Thomas Foster Chuck

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H1523

Frederick Holt Robe (1802-1871), soldier and administrator, was the fourth son of Colonel Sir William Robe and his wife Sarah, the daughter of Captain Thomas Watt of Quebec. At 15 he joined the army, was gazetted ensign in 1817 and promoted lieutenant in the 84th Regiment in 1825 and captain in the 87th Regiment in 1833. With the Anglo-Turkish force in the Syrian campaign of 1840-41 he took part in the advance on Gaza and the affair before Askalon and received the war medal and the Turkish medal. In 1841 he was promoted brevet major for services in the field. He was assistant military secretary at Gibraltar in 1845 when he was ordered to take the place of Governor (Sir) George Grey in South Australia. Robe went reluctantly, for he had no administrative experience except as an army officer. He arrived in Adelaide in the Elphinstone, which soon went on to New Zealand with Grey, to whom Robe had been instructed to look for advice and assistance.

Robe was sworn in as lieutenant-governor of South Australia on 25 October 1845 and soon found his position difficult. Grey's administration had been adjusted to an impoverished colony; now wheat and copper were changing the economy from penury to comparative affluence. Robe was conservative and a High Anglican, accustomed by training as a soldier to obey his superiors and to expect obedience from his inferiors. These attributes made him ill-fitted to control aspiring colonists who demanded independence and an increasing share in their own government. In the Legislative Council Robe could count on his three senior public servants but constant opposition of the four non-official nominees forced him frequently to use his casting as well as his deliberative vote. He was responsible for giving South Australia its first Education Act but most of his actions made him unpopular. He enjoyed giving balls and entertainments at Government House, yet as a bachelor he had to appoint a hostess, and his choice was often criticized. When labour became scarce with rising prosperity, employers clamoured for Chinese coolies and scorned his plan for introducing the families of ex-servicemen. When shipping congested the harbour, his proposal to pay for a steam tug was condemned by merchants as a violation of their free port. However, Robe's administration was bedevilled by two large issues, both of which were largely initiated by instructions from Downing Street.

The first was the royalty question. Before Robe's time no mineral rights were reserved to the Crown when land grants were made. After the discovery of copper Grey proposed in 1844 to withhold from sale any crown land known to contain minerals, and one private tender for a section was actually refused. Disgruntled settlers prepared a petition to the Queen; with 700 signatures, it was carried to Government House on 29 December 1845 by a deputation. Robe's brief reply was that he would forward the petition. Next March regulations were gazetted reserving a royalty of one-fifteenth of all minerals from crown lands sold after that date; this resulted in another petition to the Queen. Sales of land continued, but in May 1846 Robe, on the instructions of Lord Stanley, withheld from sale for a year any land suspected of containing minerals. Robe's bill to facilitate the collection of mineral royalty dues was carried on its second reading on 2 October 1846 by his casting vote, after which the council had to adjourn because the four non-official members walked out, leaving it without a quorum. They returned a week later and Robe forced the bill through committee by his casting vote, thus vindicating his authority: he then withdrew the bill.

The second bone of contention was state aid to religion. Robe's own inclination was to confine this to the Church of England, an attitude in direct conflict with that of many of the colony's founders and early settlers. The scheme adopted by Robe gave state aid to religious denominations according to their numbers; in July 1846 the grant-in-aid to carry it into effect was proposed by John Morphett and sanctioned with the strong support of Anglican members in the Legislative Council. The measure was noisily opposed by a large number of voluntaryist Dissenters, many Anglicans, and some Catholics whose bishop had fallen out with Robe. The South Australian League for the Maintenance of Religious Freedom was promptly formed and a petition in protest with 2000 signatures was presented to Robe who commented stiffly, 'I have no remark to make'; this petition was sent to England and the news of its rejection by the Queen reached Adelaide in October 1847. Meanwhile other petitions flooded the Legislative Council, but in July 1847 Robe, in accordance with directions from England, introduced an ordinance in which per capita grants were replaced by limited subsidies to churches in proportion to the amounts subscribed by each congregation. This ordinance was also bitterly opposed by voluntaryists in the council and throughout the colony, but in 1848 it came into operation for three years. During Robe's term grants of land were also made to the churches of England, Scotland, and Rome and to the Wesleyans and some Lutherans; other churches rejected all state aid. Bishop Augustus Short, who, on arrival in 1847 stayed with his family at Government House for a month, was also granted portion of Victoria Square in Adelaide as the site for a cathedral; in 1855, however, the Supreme Court of South Australia decided that this grant was invalid.

Robe was a cultured man; he suggested, without avail, the formation of an 'Adelaide Art Society' and he was patron of the Mechanics' Institute which was re-opened in 1847. He regularly attended meets of the Adelaide Hunt Club. Early in 1846 he went in the government cutter to examine the south-east coast, and the town of Robe on Guichen Bay bears his name. Even his bitterest enemies admitted that he was honest and straightforward. If not wholly a success as governor, he failed through duty too rigidly applied to a society in ferment. He also found his position distasteful and after only six months in Adelaide he applied for transfer. In 1847 he was appointed deputy quartermaster general at Mauritius, but could not leave South Australia until Sir Henry Young arrived in August 1848. Although in farewell Robe told the Legislative Council that he looked to his Sovereign alone for 'any expression of approbation', warm tributes were paid to him by many colonists. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1847 and in 1848 was made C.B. He did not return to Australia; he was promoted colonel in 1854 and major-general in 1862. He never married. He died at 10 Palace Gardens Terrace, London, on 4 April 1871.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia, vol 1 (Lond, 1893)
  • Centenary History of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • Robe letters (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. J. R. Morgan, 'Robe, Frederick Holt (1802–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Holt Robe (1802-1871), by Thomas Foster Chuck

Frederick Holt Robe (1802-1871), by Thomas Foster Chuck

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H1523

Life Summary [details]




4 April, 1871 (aged ~ 69)
London, Middlesex, England

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