Jenolan Caves

1929 – The Very Crown Jewels of the Commonwealth

July 27, 2022

plaque unveiled in the Grand Arch, by Sir Edgeworth David


plaque in the Grand Arch commemorating early cave explorers

Tannatt William Edgeworth David

At Jenolan Caves, on the wall of the spectacular Grand Arch, there is a tarnished plaque, commemorating Jenolan’s early cave explorers. And the unremarkable photo above, shows a group of dignitaries, all men, unveiling that plaque, in the monochrome gloom of 1929. A group of onlookers complete the grey tableau.

However, a closer look at the image reveals that the elderly man unveiling the plaque wasn’t just anyone – he was one of the great Aussie heroes of the era – Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David!

So famous was this humble geologist, that in his lifetime, his name became a household word in Australia. So what was he doing at Jenolan Caves? 

Welshman, Tannatt William Edgeworth David, was born in 1858. He received his first taste of geology at Oxford University, which launched him into a lifetime of addiction to glaciation. Yes, the hows, whens, wheres, and whys of glaciers, and their effects.

Young’s Mysterious Disappearance Makes Way for David

David was hired by the NSW government in 1882, to be the new assistant geological surveyor, replacing Lamont H. Young, who had disappeared in mysterious circumstances – possibly murdered on the goldfields. David worked hard, and by the end of 1882 he had prepared a geological sketch map of the Yass district and collected fossils there.[i] The rest of his career, in one way or another, was dedicated to the study of fossils, geology and glaciers. How did such a man attain superstar status? Well, as Confucius said long ago, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying small stones.”.

Greta Colliery 1890

David’s First Claim to Fame

In 1886, while doing a geological survey of the Hunter coal fields, David discovered the Greta coal seam. It was huge - yielding over £50million worth of coal up to 1949. David was instrumental in having the whole coal-bearing area, estimated at 20,000 acres (81 km²), reserved for mining purposes. The vast coalfield eventually employed tens of thousands of people in over 30 collieries.[ii]

David Comes to Jenolan Caves

Digging around the Internet, we discovered the earliest mention of David visiting Jenolan in 1888 - at the first meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, during which he presented three papers, and helped lead a four-day excursion to Jenolan Caves.[iii]

Professor David in the field with his students

We can only speculate on what they did at Jenolan, but it’s pretty safe to say that they would have been shown around by our first official ‘Keeper of the Caves’, Jeremiah Wilson and his brother Fred. They would have stayed in Jeremiah’s accommodation house, which once stood where Caves House now stands.  By that time, quite a few caves had been discovered at Jenolan: the Devils Coach House, Arch, Nettle, Elder, Lucas, Left Imperial (now known as the Chifley) Right Imperial and the Mammoth. We can well imagine that the Wilson brothers would have been pretty chuffed to show all those great minds through their amazing caves.

David began public lecturing, then became Chair of Geology and Palaeontology at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Geology in 1891. As a professor, he was famously popular with his students. One of his first innovations was the introduction of field trips – a surprisingly unconventional idea at the time. Also he encouraged many Australian women to become geologists and palaeontologists. You can only imagine how radical that was, way back then.

Examples of live microscopic radiolaria

Clues to Climate Change

In 1895, David found radiolarian fossils (fossils of microscopic salt-water marine creatures) in rocks in the New England area of NSW. He travelled to England, to compare his sample with similar fossils in Cornwall and Devonshire.[iv]

Along with the movement of glaciers, knowledge of radiolaria became important to David’s work in understanding how the Earth has changed over time.

Glass model of single radiolaria, made in 1862No doubt, you are wondering, what on earth are radiolaria?  Radiolaria were first discovered in 1834. They are microscopic, single-celled animals – protozoa in fact - but with beautiful and intricate glass shells. Radiolaria have existed for at least 550 million years and are found in all the world’s oceans. There are more than 15,000 living and fossil species of radiolaria. They travel alone or in gelatinous colonies, some large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Scientists use the composition and distribution of radiolarian fossils to date sedimentary rock, like chert and limestone, and to estimate Earth’s past climate.[v]

Microscopic radiolaria fossils and dressmakers pin tip to show scaleIn an 1896 paper about radiolaria, David wrote that the black cherts of Jenolan were found to yield better results than the red jaspers of the New England District of New South Wales, so we know he was studying those ancient fossils at Jenolan during those years.[vi]

Around the same time, he and his wife Cara bought a home in Woodford, in the Blue Mountains.

But David was an outdoor man, with a thirst for travel, adventure and exploration. In 1897, he went on a 3-month core-drilling expedition to the remote Pacific coral atoll of Funafuti. He took Cara, engineer/scientist George Sweet, 2 senior students and a party of workmen. They took core samples to a depth of 340 metres, where he found more radiolaria to study.

Still travelling the world, from 1900, he conducted field studies of glaciation in the Kosciusko plateau and Precambrian glaciation in South Australia.  In 1904, David was elected president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science which met in Dunedin, and in 1906 he attended the International Geological Congress held in Mexico. On his way back to Australia, he studied the Grand Canyon for the effect of the San Francisco earthquake.[vii]

Edgeworth David - Superstar!

Mackay, David and Mawson at the South Magnetic PoleBy now, David was very famous in scientific circles, but then something shot him to superstardom, making his name a household word.  

In 1907, David was invited to join Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic Nimrod Expedition. Keen to study glacial activity in Antarctica, he left for New Zealand with Leo Cotton and Douglas Mawson, two of his former students.

David was nearly 50 years old, with no previous Antarctic experience. From 5 to 11 March 1908, David led the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the only active volcano in Antarctica.

Then, on 5 October, with Mawson and Alistair Mackay, David set off for the Magnetic South Pole. On 16 January 1909, they arrived and took possession of the region for the British Crown. This achievement covered 1,260 miles (2,028 km), and has stood as the longest unsupported sled journey until the mid-1980s.

“The journey of four months during which David, with Mawson and a young Scots doctor, Forbes Mackay, dragged laden sledges from sea-level up more than 2,200m to their goal on the ice plateau and back, covering in all some 1,250 km, has passed into the annals of polar exploration as an epic of courage and endurance.”[viii]

David returned to Sydney, to a hero’s welcome.

Showing Off Jenolan Caves Again

In 1914, as one of 300 scientists, David was back at Jenolan, with the British Assoc for the Advancement of Science [ix]  And in May 1915, he returned again to Jenolan, this time as part of a vice-regal visit by NSW Governor (Sir Gerald Strickland), the Victorian Governor (Sir Arthur Stanley), South Australian Governor (Sir Henry Galway).[x]

Military Innovation and Yet More Fame

Major Tannatt William Edgeworth DavidWW1 TunnellingIn August 1915, as the First World War raged in Europe, David proposed that the government raise a military force to undertake mining and tunnelling.

So, at the age of 57, he set up the Australian Mining Corps and was appointed as a major.

The first contingent of 1,300 men (many his former students) was organised into three tunnelling companies, plus an electrical and mechanical mining company.

They arrived on the Western Front in May 1916. Given the long title, 'Geological Adviser to the Controllers of Mines in the First, Second and Third Armies', David advised on dugouts, trenches, tunnels and wells, gave lectures, and produced maps.  

In 1918, David was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was promoted to lieutenant colonel.[xi]

In 1920 he was knighted and became known as Sir Edgeworth.

The Returned Serviceman

On his return to Australia, Sir Edgeworth and his wife moved to Hornsby, and his wrote his “definitive work, The Geology of the Commonwealth of Australia”. Then he helped set up The Australian National Research Council and served as its first president. 

Jenolan’s Celebrity Tour Guide

In the January school holidays of 1922, Sir Edgeworth returned, yet again, to Jenolan – this time as a celebrity cave guide!  Because “Extra guides at holiday times for the Caves cannot be picked up on every corner”, David volunteered the services of himself and 2 of his students. “Their services were in constant demand, and hundreds of people were treated to thrilling dissertations upon stratas, stalagmites and stalactites, given in simple language.”[xii]

In May of the same year, David and others from the Sydney University Geology School lead tours of high school boys through the caves.[xiii]  Then, in 1923, he brought a large party of geologists, zoologists and botanists, from the Pan Pacific Science Congress to Jenolan.[xiv]

Back to the Story of the Old Tarnished Plaque

On Saturday, Feb 23, 1929, a busload of dignitaries descended the 5-Mile Road, into the Jenolan valley.

Unfortunately, due to a landslide, the buses were unable to drive through to the Grand Arch, so everyone walked the last mile on foot.[xv]

What was the big occasion?  Well, lets go back to the old tarnished plaque in the Grand Arch.  It was the 50th anniversary of Jeremiah Wilson’s discovery of the Imperial Cave, and the plaque was unveiled, to commemorate Jenolan’s many early explorers.

As Sir Edgeworth was the foremost authority on Jenolan’s geology and history, the main honours were his. In his speech, he said, “These caves are Nature’s jewels. Surely we have in our keeping the very crown jewels of the Commonwealth. The Government is to be warmly congratulated on the way it is keeping these jewels, and our thanks are due to the pioneers who have helped to keep these jewels undimmed.”[xvi]

The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Some of the figures quoted by Sir Edgeworth David caused a murmur of amazement. During 1928, 78,000 people, he said, visited the Caves. Since the time when Jenolan was opened to inspection, more than 1,000,000 people had been guided through mystery and grandeur that could not fail to be a joyous memory and a source of inspiration for the remainder of their lives.”[xvii]

Keeping it typically short and sweet, Sir Edgeworth gave the audience an overview of how the caves were formed. The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate quoted him, “By radioactive methods they had found that these rocks had been formed about 350,000,000 years ago – there were murmurs of surprise at this figure. Sir Edgeworth went on, nothing of importance had occurred after that until comparatively recently. About 100,000 years ago, when mountain lions and other extinct beasts prowled over these hills, the caves began to form in the limestone”[xviii]

How even more surprised they all would have been, if they knew what we know now – the caves were formed a whopping 340 million years ago, and the limestone is far older - 430 million years!

The unveiling was also attended by Mr Chaffey, the Minister for Mines and Forests, Mr Ryan, MLC, Oliver Trickett (who surveyed all the caves that had been discovered by 1929) and Mr Lambie of the Tourist Bureau. Everyone stayed 2 nights at Caves House which had been completed only 3 years before.[xix] Great times indeed!

One Titbit of Irony

The plaque that Sir Edgeworth unveiled stated that Jeremiah Wilson discovered the Imperial Cave in 1879. But, we now tend to think that Lamond Young and Henry Cambridge, most likely discovered the Imperial Cave in 1878. After the discovery, Cambridge suddenly moved on, and Young disappeared, probably murdered. Wilson took credit for the discovery a year later.  For those who like to ponder life's little ironies - Young’s replacement was Edgeworth David, who 50 years later, unveiled the plaque, minus Young’s name.

Step Back to 1929 on Your Next Jenolan Visit

Jenolan Caves HouseVisitors flock to Jenolan to experience the astonishing cave formations, but next time you visit, ask your cave guide about fossils. Unfortunately, microscopic radiolarian fossils can’t be seen with the naked eye. But luckily, the Chifley Cave, in particular, has bigger fossils that you can see, if you know where to look.

On your way to the Chifley Cave, in the Grand Arch, stop for a moment, gaze up at the old, tarnished plaque, and imagine you have stepped back to 1929. There you are, in the crowd of eager onlookers, stretching out your hand, to be shaken by the great man – Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David.

After so much excitement, follow in the footsteps of greatness to Caves House hotel, for excellent food and wine in Chisolm’s Restaurant, and afterwards, a well-earned night’s sleep!

Related Reading

Radiolaria Info:

05 Sep 1932 - FOSSILS AND FASHIONS - Trove (– news item about a female geologist at WA Science Congress

28 Feb 1929 - MOVIE RECORD - Trove ( –news item about Paramount films in the caves

SLNSW 10510 Jenolan Caves magnesium flashlight photograph of the official party at the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the discoveries of various caves 23 February 1929 - PICRYL Public Domain Image (– great images of the unveiling

Ernest Shackleton and the Nimrod Expedition - 1907-1909 (

Virtual War Memorial | Mining Corps ( Australian Mining Corps 

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