Jenolan Caves

His Name is Spoken with Respect

December 9, 2020

Robert Irvin Bailey

His obituary described him as “quiet and unassuming”. Although he seems to have shied away from attention, nearly a century after his death, his name is spoken with respect at Jenolan. 

Robert Irvin Bailey was born in 1867 at Racehorse Creek, near Oberon, NSW [i].  He obtained a job as a labourer at Jenolan in 1892, but his main interest was caves.  One of his descendants wrote that, “He explored the valley caves and was in Hennings Cave with H. Simmons in August 1888. He was co-discoverer with Jeremiah Wilson of the Jubilee Cave.”[ii]

In 1898, in Bathurst, he married Catherine Cecilia Barker, from Hartley, who was working as a maid at Jenolan [iii]. They named their son, born in the same year, Leonard. As soon as “The Nest” was built, on the hill behind Caves House hotel, they moved in.  Their home, “The Nest”, was built from recycled timbers, and as Bailey was a labourer, it’s not too big a stretch to imagine that he built it or helped to build it. [iv]

In January 1900, their daughter, Minnie was born. 

Bushfire at Jenolan in 1902By 1902 newspapers reported that the Bailey home was nearly destroyed by a raging bushfire, from which they were very lucky to escape.  The Australian Star said, “Terrific bush fires have been raging around the Jenolan Caves for the past few days partly surrounding the Caves Hotel and Government buildings…Mr. Bailey, who had been assisting to quench the fire, found that it had got dangerously close to his residence, and just got there in time to prevent – with help – its destruction. Mrs. Bailey in the meantime had taken her two young children and hurried to a neighbour’s place…”[v]

One-hundred and seventeen years ago, on 17 December 1903, Bailey was appointed as a cave guide, with a salary of £100 per year.[vi] As a cave tour guide, Bailey was popular.  A Lithgow Mercury article mentioned that, “As usual, the caretaker and guides, assisted by Mr. R. Bailey as a special guide, did remarkably well in handling the various large parties.”[vii]

After-hours, along with colleagues, James Wiburd and Jack Edwards, Bailey was in the habit of exploring the caves, looking for new passageways and caverns. It was an incredibly risky pastime, but it is where, in the history of Jenolan, the “quiet and unassuming” Robert Bailey left his mark, because the trio discovered 2 of Jenolan’s most spectacular caves.

In June 1903, by climbing and squeezing down from the Lucas Cave, they discovered an enormous new branch - the astonishing River Cave. The Australian Star reported, “It contains several chambers of very attractive appearance, in which very fine groups of stalactites and pillars occur, and two massive and superb stalagmites.”[viii]  The Lithgow Mercury said, “Mr Trickett, accompanied by Messrs. Wiburd and Bailey, made a survey of a portion of the recently discovered cave off the Lucas Cave, but have not yet managed to reach the river. It is now thought that the cave extends much further than was at first anticipated.”

The River Cave turned out to be one of Jenolan’s longest caves, and the favourite of many, with huge richly decorated caverns and pure underground river.  

Then, in July 1904, going even deeper beyond the Lucas Cave, and beyond the River Cave, the 3 men discovered the stunning Orient Cave, today considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful caves.  The Daily Telegraph reported that the caverns “are surpassingly beautiful. They are decorated from end to end. There are ‘shawls’ 8ft in diameter, massive fluted columns 30ft high, clear pools with crystal floors 15ft in diameter, and ‘shawls’ with translucent white bands alternating with very dark bands. The variety of tints exhibited by the formations is not equalled in any other cave at Jenolan. For beauty, variety, and grandeur it is difficult to imagine anything to surpass the caverns of the new branches of the Lucas Cave.”[ix]

Discovery of Orient CaveWithout the discovery of these spectacular caves, Jenolan would not be what is it today. And although for two years, the names of Wiburd, Edwards and Bailey made it into newspapers all over Australia, for Robert Bailey, these discoveries were just another day on the job. Then it was back to everyday tasks. 

In those days of only 3 cave guides, they had to be ‘jacks of all trades’. A newspaper item from 1905 reported that “During their spare time, Caretaker Wiburd and Guides Edwards and Bailey have for now over a week, been engaged in planting ornamental trees of various kinds recently supplied by the Forestry Department.”[x]

Also, every six months, they had to retrieve coins from the bottom of the frigid river in the Imperial cave. They devised a way of enticing visitors to toss money in, by appealing to their competitive streak. The Lithgow Mercury reported, “visitors have cast the coins into the river endeavouring to place them on a short stalagmite under the water, which…is very rarely done, as the current is so great that coins are carried down-stream, and finally settle on the mud-bottom. Every six months this money has been collected by the guides, and sent to the Lithgow hospital.”[xi]

This practice started around 1905, with substantial donations from the ‘Jenolan Wishing Pool’ going to either Lithgow or Bathurst hospitals, all the way up to at least 1954 [xii]. The Evening News reported, “The recovery of the coins is a task of some difficulty. When it has been decided to clear the ‘collection box’, the guides dive for the coins. As the water in the pool is very cold, and as the work necessarily occupies some time, those who undertake it do not have the pleasantest of baths. On this occasion the money was gathered from the pool by the curator Mr J.C. Wiburd, and Guide Bailey.”[xiii]

And of course Robert Bailey was well-loved as a cave guide.  When 32 children from Oberon Public School visited Jenolan in 1907, the Lithgow Mercury reported, “Mr Bailey, guide in charge of the party, took a great interest in the young folk, and was soon engaged pointing out the various places of note and instructing the children in the various formations found in the caves.” Afterwards, “All were tired out with the long day, but unanimous in declaring it to be one of the most enjoyable ‘red letter days’ in their lives.”[xiv]

Obituary for Robert Bailey

In 1909, Bailey and family moved from Jenolan to Mt Victoria, where they felt their children could receive better schooling. It is said that he commuted 56km, to work at Jenolan, on a heavy-framed bicycle.[xv] We can only imagine how fit he must have been at that time. 

But perhaps it become too much for him, as he resigned in 1910,[xvi] and the family moved to Clarendon, near Windsor, where they ran a post office and a poultry farm[xvii]. 

In 1917, tragically, their son, Leonard, was killed in action at Passchendaele, Belgium.[xviii] Their daughter, Minnie, became a teacher, married and moved to Gilgandra.

In October, 1923, Robert Bailey died of a heart attack, at his home, Leonardville, at Clarendon. He was only 56.  His death notice simply said that he “was an industrious man, and by his quiet and unassuming disposition, made many friends”.[xix]



[iv] The Binoomea no 88, April 1996, page 2

[xvii] The Binoomea no 127, Aug 2006, page 3

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