Jenolan Caves

1884 – Correcting a Geographical Absurdity

August 5, 2021

Section of Thomas Mitchell's map of the 19 Counties in 1834, showing a mountain labeled Jenolan

137 years ago, on 19 August, 1884, our caves were officially named the Jenolan Caves.[i]  Previously, the caves had been known by a variety of names, causing confusion.

Controversy Over an Official Name

The naming of the caves became an irritating side issue in the 1884 problem of how to bring more tourists to the caves and thereby bring more prosperity to the region. 

The Department of Mines 1883 Annual Report said that during the year, 603 people visited the caves – a tremendous number of visitors for those days.[ii] For many years, travellers had to pass through the Oberon region on their way to the caves. But in 1882, a rough road had been made from Mt Victoria to Jenolan, potentially taking business away from Oberon. So, in 1884, 3,037 residents of Oberon petitioned the NSW Legislative Assembly, asking that a light line of railway be made from Tarana to the Fish River Caves, via Oberon.[iii] Unfortunately, the government decided against it, in favour of building a bridle track from Katoomba to Jenolan. 

The man who did the survey for the bridle track, which we know today as the Six Foot Track, was William Marshall Cooper, a British surveyor and artist. In April 1884, he wrote to Philip Francis Adams, Surveyor General, and suggested that the name Fish River Caves was "incorrect and misleading”.  Adams preferred to rename the caves after the parish in which they were located.  Adams asked the Undersecretary of Mines, Harrie Wood, to make the decision. Wood asked Charles Smith Wilkinson (Geological Surveyor) if he could think of any name. Wilkinson preferred ‘Jenolan’ but thought more appropriate indigenous name could be considered. No one seemed able to make a decision.[iv]

On June 13, 1884, there were objections to the name change in the Legislative Assembly, as some members wanted to retain the more familiar ‘Fish River Caves’. When Cooper found out, he responded, “in short, the present name of the Caves is a geographical absurdity" and that the use of the present name however well-known was not "a sufficient reason for perpetuating a gross misnomer."[v]

Announcement of new official name

Cooper continued to press the matter. Production of Jenolan Parish map was being held up while bureaucrats decided on the name of the caves. Cooper knew that if the map was published without the name-change, there might never be another opportunity to change it. But he managed to get the new name ‘Jenolan’ approved by the end of July.[vi]

The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “The name of the caves is to be changed on the recommendation of Mr Cooper from Fish River Caves to Jenolan Caves.  Jenolan is the name of the parish in which the caves are situated, while the Fish River is in no way connected with the caves, as it is in a different watershed, and is separated from the caves by the main dividing range of the colony.”[vii]

Sir Thomas Livingstone MitchellA Name with Indigenous Roots

In 1834, before the caves were stumbled-upon by European settlers, Thomas Mitchell, Australia’s Surveyor-General, completed a detailed map of the Nineteen Counties - the limits of the Colony of NSW, which stretched from Taree in the North to Batemans Bay in the south and as far as Wellingon in the west. On his map, he included a mountain, clearly labelled ‘Jenolan’, which appears to be very close to our caves.[viii] (To find it on the map, the nearest coordinates are 150° by 34° - look slightly west of the Cox’s River.)  How did Mitchell come up with the name ‘Jenolan’? 

Researcher Jim Smith, citing the research of Robert Hamilton Mathews, and the recollections of William Russell (Werriberrie), believes that in the Gundungurra language, ‘geno’ meant foot, and ‘bulla’ meant two. Also the creator ancestors were called the ‘bullens’. In the Dreamtime, as the bullens walked over the land, their feet formed mountains, ie ‘genobullen’ or ‘genowullen’.[ix] Possibly, when Mitchell and his team asked for the name of the mountain, local Aborigines may have said ‘genowullan’, which Mitchell wrote as ‘Jenolan’. The Parish of Jenolan was named after this geological feature. 

However, because ‘genowullan’ was a general term, at least one other mountain has a name that sounds exactly the same, but is spelled ‘Geenowlan’. Mt Geenowlan is located in the Capertee Valley.

Because of Mount ‘Geenowlan’, some felt that ‘Jenolan’ would be confusing. But Mount ‘Jenolan’, was very close to the caves - only seven or eight miles east, and it was marked on Sir Thomas Mitchell's map. Mount ‘Geenowlan’ was not on Mitchell’s map. So the government went ahead and changed the name of the caves to ‘Jenolan’.  

That Versatile Irishman, Mr Nolan

After the caves were named the Jenolan Caves, a myth arose that the name Jenolan was derived from a man’s name - a Mr. J. E. Nolan.  This was completely untrue. No one knew what J. E. stood for, or anything else about this mythical man, but imaginative journalists were quick to fill in the gaps.  You hope you get a giggle out of the following:

  • Bulletin, 11 September 1886, page 18: “Now the name ‘Jenolan’ is that of one J. E. Nolan, who once ran a pig farm hard by.”[x]
  • Australasian Star, 6 March 1888, page 2: “Some years ago, when they were still known as the plain Fish River Caves, an old hand named J. E. Nolan ran a humble hog-farm in the vicinity. Hence the name.”[xi]
  • Evening News, 1 October 1888, page 3: “The name of the caves was taken from that of Mr. J. E. Nolan, who claimed to have discovered them”[xii]
  • Daily Telegraph, 1 October, 1908, page 3: “The celebrated Jenolan Caves derive that appellation from J. E. Nolan, a surveyor at the time of this discovery.”[xiii]
  • Freeman’s Journal, 17 June 1926: “says Mr. Brown. 'I well remember Mr. Chambers relating to me that he was well acquainted with a Mr. J. E. Nolan, whose daughter Jenny was a great traveller on horseback and her father stated on one occasion when Mr. Chambers was on a visit with him to the caves that they were discovered by Jenny, hence the name Jenolan. ”[xiv]
  • Freeman’s Journal, 14 October, 1926: “But Jenolan is supposed to come from the name of Jennison, a bushranger, J. E. Nolan, who used them for hiding his ill-gotten goods, and for his shelter ”[xv]
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1934, page 3: “the Jenolan Caves had not been named after a J. Nolan, but was apparently an aboriginal name in use as early as 1833. Surely Paddy's pig himself if he could speak could tell the world that any termination such as Nolan was sure Irish. ”[xvi]
  • Lithgow Mercury 15 August 1934, page 2: “The police constable who came to arrest McKeown, was John Edward Nolan. He was a decent fellow, sympathised with McKeown, and said he would speak for him and get him off as lightly as possible. For his friendliness, McKeown showed him the entrance to the Right Imperial Cave, which he had found while exploring the mountains. After the arrest, the policeman and Mr Whalan (of Black Bullock) returned and following a week's exploration, reported the discovery of the Caves. Whalan received the reward, and the Caves were called after J. E. Nolan. ”[xvii]
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Oct 1935, page 10: “Rev James A. Nolan. another Methodist minister in West Maitland, who arrived in 1871 was a son of Mr. J. E. Nolan, after whom the renowned Jenolan Caves are said to be named. ”[xviii]
  • The Australasian, 8 June 1940, page 35: “It has been found that the original Crown grant of the land on which they were found was made to one J. E. Nolan, and somehow the initials were used as part of the name for the caves. ”[xix]
  • The Land, 23 October 1953, page 28: “the caves were named after a bushranger named J. E. Nolan, though some say that J. E. Nolan was an early settler and not a bushranger. ”[xx]

Just to make sure we're clear - there is absolutely no truth to any part of any of the above points! Oops ! Except that there actually did exist someone called James Nolan, in the Bathurst area, in 1859 [xxv].  In fact, a man named James Nolan was one of the first people to set foot in the Lucas Cave [xxvi].  But the caves were NOT named after anyone named Nolan.

Why not Fish River, Bindo, Binda or McKeown’s

If you travelled to the caves from the direction of Bathurst, you crossed the Fish River on your way, so you probably called the caves the Fish River Caves. But Cooper was right when he said that there was actually no connection between the Fish River and the caves.  If you travelled to the caves from Hartley, you probably referred to them as the Bindo Caves, because, you had to go over Mt Bindo along the way.  Mt Bindo is 28 km from the caves – quite a long way. Or you might have called them the Binda Caves, because you had to travel past a cattle station of that name, about 13 kilometres away from the caves.[xxi]  However, ‘Binda’ could not be an ‘official’ name, as it had already been used for a small town 167 km south of the caves. Sometimes the caves were even called McKeown’s Caves, after the convict whose capture lead to the caves’ discovery. This name doesn’t seem to have even been considered.

The Aboriginal name for the caves

In 1896, the Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser ran a lengthy article entitled, ‘Round About the Mountains’, by E. D. Hoben. In the article, Hoben described Gundungurra man, Billy Lynch, “He was born in the Kanimbla Valley 60 years ago and he has lived on the mountains ever since… His knowledge of the mountain fastnesses and their flora and fauna, and of their native traditions, is great. I determined to seek out Mr. Billy Lynch, and with the assistance of Mr. Clive Backhouse, of the A. J. S. Bank at Katoomba, I secured him and his story of the mountains.”[xxii]

Billy was a contemporary of Jeremiah Wilson, Jenolan’s first ‘Keeper of the Caves’.  Jerry Wilson said that Aboriginals did not know or enter the caves. But according to Hoben, Billy said that Jerry was wrong. He said, “The old natives knew the caves... The native name for the caves was Binomil.”[xxiii]

In 2014, researcher Jim Smith, published a paper about Gundungurra place naming, ‘Illuminating the Cave Names of Gundungurra Country’, in which he listed 6 different spellings and meanings:

Table of spellings and meanings of 'Binomil', by Jim Smith

Also, according to Jim Smith, for a brief period, the caves may have been known by another Gundungurra word. In 1885 the Jenolan Caves guide Fred Wilson (brother of Jerry Wilson) told an English traveller that the caves were called ‘Jelanda’. It is thought that Fred might have heard the word ‘Joolundoo’ and mispronounced it ‘Jelanda’. But researchers have found that Joolundoo was the name of the waterhole, where the climactic scene of the Gurangatch and Mirragan legend takes place, and that it is actually located in the lower Duckmaloi River, 14 km from Jenolan Caves.”[xxiv] So Fred was mistaken.

Jenolan Known Around the World

Nowadays, the name Jenolan Caves is recognised around the world. When Aussies hear the name Jenolan Caves, they think of fun, adventure, family tradition and some of their most treasured memories of school excursions, family holidays and romantic escapes.  

[iv] The Binoomea, March 1984, page 4 (from The Romance of Jenolan by W. L. Havard)

[v] The Binoomea, March 1984, page 4 (from The Romance of Jenolan by W. L. Havard)

[vi] The Binoomea, March 1984, page 4 (from The Romance of Jenolan by W. L. Havard)

[xxiv] Illuminating the cave names of Gundungurra country, by Jim Smith ( page 85



0 Comments (Reply)
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

Please Contact Me