Jenolan Caves

1931 Ribbon Cave Opening - Vulgar Snobbery or Desperate Measure?

August 10, 2021

Ninety years ago, on August 22, 1931, the Ribbon Cave opened to the public at Jenolan, to great ceremony. 

Sir Philip Woolcott Game, Governor of NSW

A coach-load of VIPs turned out for the occasion.  The main dignitaries were the NSW Governor, Sir Philip Woolcott Game and his wife, Lady Gwendoline Game.  They brought their 3 children and the Governor’s official secretary, Mr Harry Budge and his wife. 

Christopher 'Gus' Kelly MLA

Their entourage included no less than 5 members of the NSW parliament: the Chief Secretary, Mr. Mark Gosling MLA, Mr Francis Michael Burke (the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly), Mr Hugh John Connell (the Deputy-Speaker),  Mr. Hamilton Knight MLA, Mr. Christopher ‘Gus’ Kelly MLA (member for Bathurst). Each brought their wives. 

The party also included Mr Herbert John Lamble (Director of the Government Tourist Bureau), Mr Childs (Police Commissioner), Mr Cocks (Assistant Director of the Tourist Bureau) and Mr T. J. Smith (President of the Board of Fire Commissioners). They also brought their wives.

Mark Gosling MLA

The distinguished party was accompanied by an unspecified number of reporters. Even the poet, Roderic Quinn [i], had been invited as a guest of the government. (If he wrote a poem about his visit, we have been unable to find it.)

The whole party set out from Mt Victoria at 9:30am and travelled the 36 miles in a heavy snowstorm.  The Sun reported that “Even at the Caves House which is only 2,600 feet over sea-level there was a slight fall of snow at breakfast time this morning.”[ii]

Tourism Had Become Vital

Hugh Connell

What prompted all these extremely busy men to make the long trip into the depths of the Blue Mountains, in Winter, during a heavy snowstorm?

Mr Kelly kicked off the speeches, by extending a welcome. The Chief Secretary, Mr Gosling, who was also the ministerial head of tourist resorts, followed Kelly with a speech about the success of tourism in NSW. He expressed how proud he was that so many tourists, both domestic and international, were coming into NSW. He stressed how vital it was to make sure that NSW did their utmost to capture their share of the tourist market.

Hamilton Knight

He announced a rate reduction at Caves House, ”further reductions had been made for the coming season. From August 24, he said, the daily rate for accommodation at the Caves House would be 12/6.”[iii]. (This was a real bargain - less than $60 in today's money.)

Mr Gosling presented a range of impressive figures about North American tourism, stating, “United States travellers spent £200,000,000 in Europe each year. In 1920 Canadian revenue from tourists was $300,000,000 (about £60,000,000), and Canadian tourists spent $100,000,000 (about £200,000) overseas. This left Canada with a credit balance from tourist traffic of £40,000,000.”[iv] (To give you an idea of what this meant, in today’s money, £200,000,000 is roughly equivalent to $17billion.)

He went on to say that “The Government of New South Wales has not been backward in its endeavours to stimulate the interest of interstate and overseas tourists, and no other State of the Commonwealth offers such an extensive programme of spectacular features or a better equipped State Hotel than that at Jenolan.”[v]

Next to speak was Mr Connell, who “stressed the importance of doing everything possible to make the beauty spots of NSW accessible to the public. It was a good thing to know that the Caves were successful financially. That was a tribute to the management, for if that could be done at a time like the present, what might they expect when good times came again?“ [vi]

How Did the ‘Ribbon’ Cave Get its Name?

Examples of ribbon helictites in the Ribbon Cave

In 1931, it was quite an expedition to get into the Ribbon Cave. The party entered through the Lucas Cave, with its massive caverns, then down into the serpentine River Cave, with its huge caverns and pure waters and then up into the Orient which is considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in the world. Finally, they could move up into the Ribbon Cave. But in 1931, because the Ribbon Cave can handle small groups only, Jenolan’s Cave Superintendent, Mr Wiburd, took the Vice Regal family through it first and the others later.[vii]

The Ribbon Cave is a long, narrow branch of the Orient Cave. It was discovered way back in 1904.  But because it is a treasure trove of extremely delicate crystal formations, all within easy reach, a lot of work was needed before it could be opened to the public.[viii]  The main goal was to protect the precious formations from visitors. Also, paths, stairs and lighting needed to be installed. 

Why was it called the Ribbon Cave?  Of all the caves at Jenolan, the Ribbon contains the most, best and biggest examples of Ribbon Helictites. Everyone knows that stalactites grow down from the ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the floor, but helictites appear to defy gravity by growing out sideways. There is still no absolute explanation for how they do it, so they have often been referred to as ‘cave mysteries’. Ribbon helictites are crystal formations that seem to float out sideways – like curling white ribbons.

It’s a Little Gem

After Sir Philip Game inspected the newly opened Ribbon cave, he said that “he felt rather ashamed that he had been 15 months in New South Wales and had not visited the Caves until to-day.[ix]” The sun quoted him as saying, “It is a little gem, extraordinarily beautiful and interesting. It makes one realise the smallness of man among these wonders of nature.”[x]

After the speeches, and the tour of the Ribbon Cave, luncheon was served in the Grand Dining Room (now Chisolm’s Restaurant).

After dinner there was a tour of the Left Imperial Cave (now known as the Chifley Cave). Those that didn’t want to go underground could stay behind and play billiards. The whole group stayed overnight in Caves House.

After breakfast, Mr Wiburd showed everyone through the Devil’s Coach House cave to feed the brush-tailed rock wallabies which were quite tame. Sir Philip said that experience was the most pleasant of his stay.[xi]

The Governor took his children to the top of the valley to see the snow, which was about 6 inches deep.[xii]  Then after lunch, the whole party left.

Parting Gifts

The visit was enjoyed by all. Before leaving, Mrs Gosling presented Lady Game with a cushion bearing a painting of a kookaburra.[xiii]  And Sir Phillip gave Mr Wiburd a cigar.  ‘The Gossip’ column of The Daily Telegraph elaborated on this – “A hobby of Mr Wiburd, Superintendent of Caves, is the collection of cigars – vice-regal cigars. He has had one presented to him in his service, approaching 45 years, by every Governor who has visited the caves, and no collection in the Mitchell Library is treasured more carefully.”[xiv]

All the staff at Jenolan would have felt on top of the world. Jenolan was doing spectacularly. For Mr Wiburd, who was due to retire that year, the occasion would have been all the sweeter, as it was his last big official function.[xv]

men lined up in front of a soup kitchen during Great DepressionTough Times!!

Men in a dole queue at Circular Quay, Sydney, 11 June 1931

But wait! Remember what year it was! When Wall Street crashed in 1929, the Australian economy collapsed. In Australia, politicians were desperately trying to improve the country’s situation.

Although Jenolan was thriving, by August 1931, unemployment in Australia was around 30%. Shanty towns of homeless people were springing up. There was civil unrest. There was no social welfare, so families had to rely on charity, handouts and food coupons to survive. Encouraged by the Communist Party of Australia, unions became more aggressive. Activists and radicals began to appear on street corners.  The Labor Party, then in office, and led by the Premier, Jack Lang, split over how to save the NSW economy in the Great Depression.


The trip to Jenolan was reported favourably in most newspapers, but sparked bitter criticism in others.

The Smith’s Weekly published a scathing letter: “Dear Treasurer, How much money did you allow to be spent on the ridiculous jaunt of the official snobocracy to Jenolan Caves at the weekend?...What did the jaunt cost the Treasury? Maybe £100; maybe more…Your Treasury couldn’t pay the Public Servants until the money was cadged from other states. It can’t pay cash to the bakers who supply dole bread to the starving. It can’t start a job for one of the 150,000 unemployed in the State…Your Labor Ministry and Party ought to be ashamed of the vulgar snobbery of this weekend jaunt to Jenolan. Men and women who put you into power are starving and the cost of the Jenolan trip…should have bought a family’s food for a year…”[xvi]

The ‘jaunt’ certainly was an extravagance, and it provided great publicity for Jenolan. However, it was also a political move, to demonstrate that the NSW Government was not panicking. Holding their nerve, they decided to put family fun and relaxation on display, and spread the good news that tourism was doing well at NSW’s most famous beauty spots. Only in hindsight do we realise how desperate they must have been.

Sir Phillip Takes a Shocking Step!

The NSW government could not have been in more serious trouble. 

Four months after the opening of the Ribbon Cave, the economic crisis prompted an early Federal election.

Then, on May 13, 1932, Sir Phillip Game sacked the entire NSW Government and appointed the opposition leader as NSW Premier. It was Australia’s first real constitution crisis – the first time that a governor had dismissed an elected government in Australia.[xvii]

Of the 5 politicians present for the Ribbon Cave opening in 1931, Mr Gosling, Mr Burke, Mr Connell, Mr Kelly and Mr Knight, only Mr Knight retained his seat in the state election held after the 1932 dismissal.

Sir Philip Game returned to England in 1935.


The Ribbon Cave today

Currently the Ribbon Cave is temporarily closed to tours, until social distancing is no longer a requirement.  But you can still plan your future Ribbon cave experience. Remember that the Vice Regal party of 1931 also visited the Orient Cave and the Chifley Cave, which are definitely open for tours. Just like Governor and Lady Game, and their entourage, you can enjoy high tea, weekend Chisolm’s lunch, and of course you can stay overnight and have dinner and breakfast in the grand dining room, Chisolm’s. Try our ‘Eat, Dream, Explore’ package.

Step back in time, leave technology behind and embrace the historical ambience of Caves House.

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