Jenolan Caves

1900 – Caves and Coal - Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

August 8, 2019

Cook's Cavern was named after Joseph Cook.

At Jenolan, Australia’s largest publicly accessible cave system, there are literally hundreds of chambers and passages, some named for their appearance, and some named after people. Deep within its farthest reaches, there is a chamber called, ‘Cook’s Cavern’.  Who was Cook? Not a cave explorer as you might expect.  Modern visitors are shocked to learn that, in spite of the environmentally sensitive nature of the Caves, they were once managed by the NSW Department of Mines. In 1900, the Minister for Mines and Agriculture, responsible for the administration of Jenolan Caves, was Lithgow’s Member of Parliament, Joseph Cook, who went on to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1913. It is for this hard working coal miner, turned Lithgow politician that Cook’s Cavern was named.

Joseph Cook was Australian Prime Minister in 1913.

Joseph Cook - humble beginnings

Today although an Etonian education is almost a prerequisite to become Prime Minister of England, in egalitarian Australia, that is certainly not the case. In fact, many of those who held the highest office in our land came from quite humble backgrounds. One of Jenolan’s best known caves was named for train driver Ben Chifley, Australian Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949, whose father was a Bathurst blacksmith. Chifley’s great rival, Bob Menzies, despite his patrician persona, was the son of a shopkeeper in rural Victoria. Two other Prime Ministers, Andrew Fisher and Lithgow’s Joseph Cook, were coal miners.

Young Joseph Cook became head of his family, when at the age of 13, his father was crushed to death by a fully laden coal skip. Coming to Australia in the mid 1880's he worked at the Vale of Clywd Colliery, on the outskirts of Lithgow. Seeing self-education as the key to advancement, he qualified as a weigh check man, calculating each miner’s pay from the weight of their skip as it came to the surface. Methodical with figures, as a book keeper, he audited the books of Lithgow's local paper, the Lithgow Mercury.

A founding member of the ALP

Cook became president of the Miners’ Lodge in Lithgow and General Secretary of the Western District Miner's Federation. In 1891, he became a founding member of the Australian Labor Party and Member for Hartley, which covered Lithgow and the Blue Mountains, once the seat of John Lucas, who had worked tirelessly to protect the Jenolan Caves.

Quiet and modest, Joseph Cook was said to have lacked a sense of humour. His propensity for independent thinking led him to move away from the Labor Party, even though he was its leader. However, he still aspired to social reform. He joined George Reid's Free Trade Government as Postmaster General, believing that he could improve the lives of the working classes.

When he became Minister for Mines he had the weight of all skips assessed by regulation. This gave financial certainty to miners, who were paid by how much coal they hewed each day. 

Cooks Cavern in the Jubilee Cave was named after Joseph Cook.Also, as Minister for Mines, he was responsible for the administration of Jenolan Caves. On a visit to Jenolan in 1900, certain chambers of the Jubilee Cave were named. The names were printed on tin plaques and 'placed in conspicuous positions in their respective caves'.  The plaque denoting Cook's Cavern was placed at the junction of the left and right branches of the cave system. Could this have been because he had left the ideals of early socialism and moved to the right of politics?

Member of Australia's first federal Parliament

Following Federation, Cook contested the new Federal seat of Parramatta, representing Lithgow and much of his old state seat of Hartley. By July 1905, he was deputy leader of the Free Trade Party, and became leader in 1908. Recognising that protectionism was the only way to meet the growing strength of the Labor Party and its appeals to Australian nationalism, he led the free traders into a coalition with Albert Deakin, becoming Deakin's Deputy and Minister for Defence.

In 1909 the famous Lord Kitchener visited Australia to advise the new Commonwealth on its military preparedness. In implementing Kitchener’s recommendations, Cook made his greatest contributions - compulsory military training (cadets), an officers training college at Poltroon and the Small Arms Factory in his own constituency, Lithgow, to manufacture military grade weapons.

Cook had long argued for the creation of a local naval force to augment the Royal Navy's Australian Station, and his persistence was rewarded by the founding of the Royal Australian Navy. In October 1913, as Prime Minister he welcomed flagship HMAS Australia to Sydney. It was the most powerful warship in the southern ocean.

As Prime Minister, he held the office but not the power, as Labour held a majority in the Senate. The viper tongued Billy Hughes described him as someone 'who had risen from the darkness of the coal mine to wipe his lips with snow white linen at Government House.' *

Within the year, it was Joseph Cook, who was to follow Britain's declaration of war with the simple words “I have received the following dispatch from the Imperial Government – War has broken out with Germany”. The next day, he said, “…our duty is quite clear – namely we must gird up our loins and remember we are Britons.” 

Joseph Cook was Minister for the Navy.

By 1917, he had buried the hatchet with Hughes, who ratted on his Labor colleagues to form a minority government. Cook became Hughes’ deputy and Minister for the Navy. He and Hughes represented Australia at the historic Versailles Conference in 1919. Cook was treasurer in Hughes’ Nationalist Government, until he resigned, to become Australia's High Commissioner in London, a post in which he was well regarded. 

Retiring from public life in 1929, Joseph Cook died at Bellevue Hill in Sydney, aged 87, one of the last surviving members of Australia’s first federal parliament. His complex career of political roles and alliances, at one time largely forgotten, have gained more recognition in recent years, particularly in his adopted home town of Lithgow.

It is ironic that in 1900, a working-class Lithgow politician, in charge of mining, visited Jenolan Caves, where some of Australia’s earliest conservations named one of their most delicate and environmentally sensitive chambers after him.  The name plate remains in situ in Cook’s Cavern, in the Jubilee Cave, today, a reminder that, as Shakespeare once said, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

Note that although the Jubilee Cave is currently closed for tours, plans are afoot to reopen it when Caves House has been renovated.

* Ross, John [ed], Chronicle of Australia ,Penguin, Melbourne ,193  quoted in Carlton,Mike         First Victory 1914 William Heinman Australia 2013    

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