Jenolan Caves

August 1938 - In the Shadow of Evil

July 29, 2021


83 years ago, following record snows of early August 1938, and on the brink of WW2, Jenolan Caves had more than its usual share of Viceregal visits. Was it merely coincidental?

Dad and Dave Come to Town - Poster

Life went on, as war loomed

Controvertially, Time Magazine named Adolf Hitler as ‘Man of 1938’ – the same year that he annexed Austria. While Hitler was building concentration camps, and finalising plans to take over the rest of Europe, life went on as normal in other parts of the world.

Superman first appeared in action comics. The steam locomotive Mallard set the world speed record for steam - 125.88 mph. Howard Hughes completed a 91-hour flight around the world. Nylon, electroconvulsive therapy, and the ballpoint pen were all invented.

Oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia [i]. Nuclear fission of uranium was discovered. The Spanish Civil War was in full swing. Japan invaded China, and the British established a naval base in Singapore, one of Australia’s closest neighbours.

A Bumper Year for Australian Tourism

In only a few months, Australia would find themselves embroiled in WW2. But in 1938, in Australia, life had never been so good. 1938 was the year that marked Australia’s 150 year celebrations. The movie, “Dad and Dave Come to Town” hit Aussie cinemas. The Aeroplane Jelly song was recorded, and (foreshadowing the coming conflict) a direct radio-telephone link was established between Canberra and Washington DC.

Australia's 150 Years celebrationIn NSW, from Jan 26 to April 26 - The Empire Games were held in Sydney.  At  the same time, the NSW Tourist Bureau was heavily advertising all the tourism businesses that they controlled, including Jenolan Caves, the oldest and best known tourist attraction in NSW.[ii] Because of the sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations and the Empire Games, 1938 was a record year for Australian tourism.

Sydney Empire Games of 1938 - poster

Jenolan - Life Could Not be Sweeter

At Jenolan Caves, life couldn’t get any better. Right at the start of the year, the papers reported, “With the arrival of oversea visitors for the 150th Anniversary Celebrations, Jenolan Caves is enjoying an exceptionally busy season, 16,000 persons having made Inspections In three weeks. This is stated to have been the best period for 10 years” and “the greatest at any time since the Depression”[iii].

Because of the Empire Games, visitors were coming to Jenolan from all over the world. At Jenolan, visitors were making full use of the tennis court and the newly opened swimming pool. The cave tour guides got “particularly smart” new uniforms. The road to the caves had been recently been widened and was allowing 2-way traffic.[iv]

Record numbers at Jenolan Caves - Easter 1938

Record Numbers

Easter also brough record numbers. The Maitland Daily Mercury reported, “More, than 2000 people were in Jenolan Caves reserve on Sunday, and 1650 inspected the caves. This displaced the previous record, made in 1926, when 1625 to 1630 people passed through the caves in one day. The people came to the caves in 350 motor cars and 20 charabancs.”

The NSW Tourist Bureau sold “Daily sight-seeing tours by de luxe motor car” from Martin Place, Sydney to Jenolan Caves for 36 shillings. With an overnight stay at Caves House, you could have a mini-break for 72 shillings and sixpence. 

The Empress of Britain 1938

International Visitors

As recently as in 2019, we took huge groups of international visitors for granted. But in the old days, if a group of international visitors travelled through a region, it made the news – and it made the news many times in 1938. 

Most noteworthy was in April, when the luxury liner, Empress of Britain (the largest liner ever seen in Australian waters up to that time) docked in Sydney, unloading a cargo of gum-chewing, cigar-smoking American millionaires.  The Daily Telegraph reported, “Forty specially chartered limousines brought 150 of the ship's passengers from Sydney to Katoomba, where they had lunch. From there nearly 30 travelled to Jenolan and spent the night at the Caves House.”[v] Imagine 30 limousines parked outside Caves House!

Tandem Cycling Club article from 1938

The Road to Bathurst

Jenolan was particularly popular for motoring enthusiasts, cyclists and motorcyclists.  The unsealed road from Bathurst to Jenolan was pretty rough in 1938, but great for reliability tests.The Lithgow Mercury mentioned a motorcar reliability trial from Bathurst, to Oberon, Jenolan, Lithgow and back to Bathurst.[vi]  The Tandem Cycling Club brought a group of 20 crews to Jenolan.[vii] The Bathurst Motorcycle Club ran a reliability trial through Jenolan[viii].

The road to the dramatic Kanangra-Walls lookout had only recently been completed, and the beautiful town of Bathurst was working hard to get their share of the hordes of tourists that were flooding Sydney. So Oberon Shire Council decided to pressure the Minister for Roads to rebuild the road, to encourage more tourists to drive to Bathurst, via Oberon. However, the road was in such a poor state that the Department of Main Roads refused to take on the job, which would need to wait a few more years.[ix] [x]

Broadcasts from in the caves

Wireless programs and church services were still occasionally broadcast from inside the Lucas Cave, in the Cathedral Chamber.  In May 1938, the choir of the Hopkins Memorial Presbyterian Church at Lithgow took part in a church service in one of the broadcasts. The Tweed Daily reported that 300 people attended the service, which was broadcast by Sydney radio station 2GB.[xi] The Cathedral Chamber must have been pretty crowded.

Then, in August, 2GB broadcast another special church service from the Cathedral Chamber in honour of League of Nations Day.[xii] These broadcasts had become incredibly important for promoting Jenolan and, in the process, bringing tourists to the Blue Mts and western regions.  

Three Low Key VIP Visits

Herbrand Sackville 9th Earl de la Warr, Lord Privy Seal, British Cabinet - 1938Lord and Lady Wakehurst 1938As mentioned in the intro, in 1938, Jenolan had more than its usual share of VIP visits. Does it make you wonder?

In February, 1938, Herbrand Sackville 9th Earl de la Warr, Lord Privy Seal in the British Cabinet visited the Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, along with Sir Frederick Shedden, who was the Australian Secretary to the Department of Defence. Isolated Jenolan is close to Lithgow which, in a few months, would play a vital role in the coming World War, manufacturing machine guns and rifles, in the defence of Australia. The Federal Government was about to spend £500,000 at the Small Arms Factory – a huge investment.[xiii] (That is approximately equal to $27,690,932 in today’s money.)

After their arms factory visit, they drove to Jenolan Caves, for an unofficial visit.[xiv] Newspapers did not disclose what they did at Jenolan.

At the very end of July, Jenolan had their heaviest snowfall in 20 years.[xv] Yet only 3 days later, in freezing weather, the NSW Governor John Loder 2nd Baron Wakehurst and Lady Wakehurst paid an informal visit to Jenolan to inspect the caves and to have lunch in Caves House.  They arrived with their friends Mr and Mrs R. O. Wynne of Wynstay, Mount Wilson.[xvi] (Crack shot, Lt. Colonel Wynne’s ceremonial walking stick was actually a concealed .22 rifle.[xvii]) Lord Wakehurst was Governor of NSW from 1937 to 1946 – a particularly long term for a NSW Governor. 

Baron Huntingfield, Acting Gov-General of Australia in 1938The very next week, the acting Governor-General of Australia, William Vanneck 5th Baron Huntingfield, visited Jenolan. Although the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he visited Jenolan, and returned to Sydney the following day, the purpose of the visit was not disclosed.[xviii] Whether he brought his wife, Lady Huntingfield, is also unknown.

What else was happening at Jenolan?

What other newsworthy things happened at Jenolan in 1938?  Jenolan continued to welcome groups, such as the American Women’s Hockey Team in April [xix], a group of 60 schoolgirls in December, arranged by the Katoomba Rotary Club [xx] and a big group of Boy Scouts from around the world who were in Sydney for the Australasian Scout Jambooree.

All of the tourism businesses that the NSW Tourist Bureau managed, had wishing pools for collecting donations for local hospitals and ambulance services.  In 1938, Jenolan donated £163/10/- [xxi].  (This is approximately $15,000 in today’s money – a sizable donation!) Visitors would make a wish and toss coins into the Underground River in the Imperial Cave. Twice a year, cave guides would scoop the coins out, using tins with holes in them, as the water was far too cold to scoop the coins out by hand [xxii]. 

In November, The Australian National Travel Association announced that Australia would have an exhibit at the Golden Gate Exposition, which was to be held in San Francisco the following year. Models were to be made of Australia’s most spectacular attractions, including Jenolan Caves, and would be featured in a special room at the Expo.[xxiii] This was fantastic news! 

The end of 1938 saw the hottest Christmas period for 50 years.[xxiv] In spite of the heat, an unforgettable time was enjoyed by everyone. At Caves House, 180 guests sat down to Christmas dinner “which was served with due ceremonial” in the grand dining room, and the following evening, everyone partied at the Mad Hatters Ball![xxv]

The Sun newspaper printed this lovely description of New Year’s Eve, “Headed by Father Time, preceded by a band of pipers, the ghost of 1938 was escorted to the Grand Arch from the ballroom of Caves House by the 300 guests at Jenolan. At midnight, Father Time disappeared slowly up the steps of the Right Imperial Cave, and Miss Patricia Laccatti, as 1939, made her debut whilst the guests sang "Auld Lang Syne."[xxvi]

Life simply could not get better than this.

The Shadow of Evil

1938 was overshadowed by the threat of war. No one, including those who worked at isolated Jenolan, was ignorant of what was going on in the wider world, in fact the manager’s son, S. G. Stilling had already joined the R.A.F.[xxvii]. Maybe that was what made 1938 an especially poignant memory – a year full of the sweet promises that were ruined the next year when Australia entered WW2.

So what was the purpose of those mysterious VIP visits to the biggest cave system in Australia, run by the NSW government, only an hour from Australia’s most vital arms factory, where the Government was investing heavily, as England and Australia stood in the shadow of evil, on the brink of war?  Maybe those guys just needed a break.  We can merely speculate.  But if you would like to share your thoughts...

Next time you visit Jenolan, imagine you have stepped back in time to 1938. Stay overnight. Enjoy High Tea, leisurely lunch (if it's the weekend) or dinner in Chisolm's Restaurant, upstairs in Jenolan Caves House.  Chisolm’s was built in the fashionable Art Deco style. Lofty columns, high bay windows and imposing ceiling, deeply embossed with strong geometric patterns, define it as a place where the most important people dined. You can feel all the refinement of those architectural features, which, along with a warm open fireplace, are still there. 

[xxii] The Binoomea, Issue 37, August 1983, page 7

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