Jenolan Caves

Illumined by the Light of Another World

February 28, 2022

The Nettle Cave

Illumined with the Light of Another World

Jenolan has an intriguing and sometimes contentious history.  Like, who actually discovered the caves? Was it James Whalan or his brother Charles? Was it really a bushranger? Well, we think we have this puzzle pretty much solved!  

The Devil's Coach House caveHow the Caves were Discovered

In 1837, thieving scoundrel James McKeown, was hiding out on the western edge of the Blue Mountains.  Local pastoralist, James Whalan, mounted a search. Deep in a rugged, isolated valley, he located and captured McKeown. Afterwards, James Whalan returned to the site of McKeown’s capture. From there, on foot, he slowly made his way through steep terrain, following the valley downhill, in search of his stolen property - with no luck!

However, he stumbled upon something else – the massive twilight caves that we now know as the Grand Arch and the Devil’s Coach House. In search of water, he entered the caves. But when he finally returned home, he said that he had been to the end of the world, in the coach house of the Devil himself![i]

We have been unable to find any record that he ever returned to the caves, but we know he described his amazing discovery to his younger brother Charles.

the Arch CaveSpellbound for 30 Years

Sometime in the next year or 2, Charles, went to the caves, following James’ directions, and began exploring them.  Charles immediately fell under their spell, becoming Jenolan’s first cave guide, using pack horses to bring adventurers to the caves, and showing them around - for approximately 30 years.

Although it can’t be confirmed, it seems more than likely that he was the person who discovered the Arch Cave, Nettle Cave, Elder Cave and possibly much more.

In the past 2 years, we have researched and written an article about the thieving James McKeown and another about James Whalan.  Now here is the story of Charles Whalan.

Pioneers Indeed

On May 17, 1811, Charles was born to a couple who started out as convicts, but who rose far above their early circumstances. The third son of Sergeant Charles Whalan, young Charles had the benefits of privilege – a good education and influential friends.

In 1836, he married Welsh-born Elizabeth Harper, and the couple moved across the Blue Mountains to settle near his brother James. Those were pioneering days indeed. Elizabeth is said to have been the first white woman ever to set foot in that region.[ii]  Three years, and 2 kids, later, Charles took up a government lease on 950 acres, at Fish River Creek. It was roughly in between James’ 2 huge properties, and immediately to the east of the present town of Oberon, then more or less known as Bullock Flat.[iii] Charles and Elizabeth named their property ‘Glyndwr’.[iv]

In fact, Elizabeth is credited with renaming Bullock Flat after Shakespeare’s character ‘Oberon’, because the region was as enchanting as the fairyland in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Charles WhalanWhat did Charles Whalan look like?

He was enigmatically described as, “Of middle height, and spare of flesh, or rather, with every ounce of it hardened into muscle, he presented the picture of a nervy man, with spring in every movement. He had a somewhat wistful face when in repose, and the furrowed brow told the story of battles fought within for his own soul and the salvation of others; but it was a face, at the same time, illumined with the light of another world.”[v]

Into the Halls of Matchless Loveliness

The Grand ArchBy the time he and Elizabeth moved to the area, Charles had already started exploring the massive caves that his brother James had discovered, unofficially known as ‘McKeown’s Caves’, and then later as ‘The Fish River Caves’.  He had become quite an expert. “Whenever he could contrive to spare the time he prosecuted his searches, until he had penetrated many of those underground 'crystal palaces,' whose wondrous beauty has since won the highest admiration of all who have gazed upon them; and nothing gave him greater pleasure than to conduct his friends to the halls of matchless loveliness which he had discovered.

“Visitors came from far and near, for the fame of the caves soon spread; and many a party has he conducted to and through them. There were no hotels in the neighbourhood in those days, and visitors to the caves made his house their stopping-place going to and coming from them, always finding a hearty welcome and receiving every attention from Mrs. Whalan. Until his sons were old enough to undertake the work, Mr. Whalan was the only guide to the caves.”[vi]

Many a Matrimonial Match

Even for Bathurst residents back then, it was a long, difficult trip to explore the caves. So, adventurers would make their way to Glyndwr, where they would stay the night. Parties of up to 25 keen adventurers might arrive at their door without notice! “As hospitality was unbounded, friends and strangers were all treated alike. Many a matrimonial match was made during these excursions”, wrote one of Charles Whalan’s daughters.

Windows Contained Glass – Luxury!

“The women would be accommodated in the house, three to a bed, and the men would camp, often in Whalan’s flour mill. Compared to most early settlers’ houses around Oberon ‘Glyndwr’ was luxurious: constructed of milled weatherboard with a shingled roof, wooden floors, plastered interior walls, large rooms, brick chimneys and the many windows contained glass”.[vii]

Poem Whalans Mill by E.J.Brandy“There are many still living who will recall the old days when with blankets and billy-cans strapped to their saddles, equestrians — aye, and fair equestriennes too — threaded their way through the almost impenetrable scrub which prevailed everywhere between the Duckmaloi River and the caves.”[viii]

“After dismounting, they had to walk up and down the mountain as it was too steep to ride, and camping in the Grand Arch, they often stayed for several days.”[ix]

Charles (and later his sons) guided visitors to and around the caves, for more than 30 years, until 1866.

What was that about a flour mill?

Yes, Charles and Elizabeth built a flour mill. Farmers brought their grain from up to 50 miles around.[x] First, it was a windmill with huge canvas sails. Horses could be hitched up, to turn it to face into the wind.

In 1841, it was replaced by a water mill. When this watermill opened, Elizabeth is said to have smashed a bottle of wine on the wheel and christened it ‘Glyndwr Flour Mill’. The next innovation was a steam-driven flour mill.[xi]

The beauty of the countryside was so inspiring that in 1947, a poem was written, called ‘Whalan’s Mill’. The poet, E. J. Brady, had been a pupil at the school which Charles Whalan established on his property.[xii]

The first school

Yes, several more kids later, Charles built a school, or rather, a church that doubled as a school.  The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “a small schoolhouse was erected here about seven years ago, which was for three or four years used as a place of education for the children of Mr. Whalan and of his tenants. It is now occupied for the tuition of Mr. Whalan's own children, and those of two of his brothers residing in the immediate neighbourhood, and it is also used as a Sunday-school, and a place of worship under the Wesleyan form, and in which there is held a public service once every Sunday, conducted by Mr. Whalan himself…Some advances have been made by Mr. Whalan and others towards a national school for the neighbourhood. ”[xiii]

Conducted Church Services Himself 

New Wesleyan ChapelYes, although Elizabeth had always been a religious woman, Charles didn’t see the light until 1843, when he underwent a profound conversion.  “In his speech concerning the deep things of God, the quiver of the lips, the trembling of the voice, and the moistened eye told how deeply real he felt eternal things to be. He was mighty in the Scriptures, and a very Israel in prayer at the throne of grace. Prayer to him was no hollow mockery; he literally laid hold of God and said: 'I will not let Thee go unless Thou bless me.' And it was no spasmodic exercise but the breath of his life. He prayed without ceasing night and day. His communion with God and his regular study of the Bible surrounded him with an atmosphere of holy feeling which instantly communicated itself to those who were brought into close personal contact with him.”[xiv]

The legend of Charles Whalan, a fervent lay preacher for 40 years, lived on in the Methodist community for many years after his death.

Charles had holdings to the west, north and north-east of the town. In about 1848, he built a sod-walled chapel on his land [xv].  A decade later, work began on a slab and shingle chapel which could seat 100 people.[xvi]

Charles was best known for his generosity. Many of the early Oberon families were his tenants, or employees, and he gave land to some of them. He took in and raised 3 sons of his sister, Mary, who had died, and all their descendants started numerous retail businesses in Oberon.[xvii]

Indian Relief Fund

Unsuccessful Efforts to Strike it Rich

Clearly, Charles was a man of amazing mental and physical energy, with many diverse concerns. He tried his hand at gold and copper mining on his own property.  “Believing the country around his residence to be rich in minerals, he spent much time and capital in seeking to develop its resources. He had several likely looking copper lodes opened out and sunk to a considerable depth, but meeting with no success, he turned his attention to gold mining [xviii] and searching for precious stones, only, however, to meet with a like fortune, and Mr. Whalan lost heavily.”[xix]

High Aspirations in Public Life

The 1850s were especially busy for Charles, as he entered public life. 

In 1856, he threw his support behind a local candidate for the NSW Legislative Assembly, James Martin.[xx]

The next year he was sworn in as a magistrate, a position he held for 30 years.[xxi]

He raised money for charity.[xxii] He became a Justice of the Peace in 1858 [xxiii].

Finally, in 1859 he was nominated to represent East Macquarie in the NSW Legislative Assembly.[xxiv]

Letter to Prince Albert

He was unsuccessful in this aspiration, which is perhaps a shame, as he was a man of vision. It was said that “He took a lively interest in all public questions, and was amongst the earliest advocates of the formation of a railroad to Bathurst, when that…was looked upon as an impossibility, and pooh-poohed as a Utopian dream.”[xxv]

Sharing his Delight

And through all this, he continued to take people to see his beloved caves, to share his delight in them.  It is more than likely that he or one of his family or employees, who accompanied him to the caves, actually discovered and explored the Nettle Cave, the Arch Cave and the Elder Cave.

It’s not too big a stretch to suggest that Charles Whalan may have discovered and explored much more of the cave system – areas for which other explorers have claimed credit in later years. 

In 1860, one of Charles’ employees, Nicholas Irwin, and a Methodist friend George Whiting, discovered the massive ‘New Cave’ (now known as the Lucas). Two of Charles’ sons were in the group that explored the ‘New Cave’ the day after it was initially discovered.[xxvi]

This is how George Whiting described Charles, “One of the most constant and experienced explorers is our respected local magistrate, C. Whalan, Esq., who has often sacrificed his time and ease to become the guide and exhibitor to many of the large parties of visitors who have so often experienced his hospitality and attentions. This gentleman's first visit goes back to 1838, and, ever since then, he has frequently visited them.”[xxvii]

A Life Well Lived

Charles Whalan obituary‘The Fish River Caves’ were finally renamed ‘Jenolan Caves’ in 1884. Charles Whalan died shortly after, on Feb 2, 1885. The Australian Town and Country Journal printed that Charles Whalan “was a most exemplary and worthy member of society. In the old penal days, when tyranny, arbitrary power, and unbridled autocracy ruled supreme, the name of Charles Whalan stands prominently as a kind and humane master, and one whose untiring efforts were being constantly directed towards the improvement of that unhappy class over whom he had had control.”[xxviii]

In memory of Charles Whalan - Methodist

The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journalsaid, “Besides an aged widow, he leaves four daughters and three sons, a large number of grand-children, and some great-grand-children, by whom his good name and consistent life are considered greater wealth than any material inheritance that could have been bequeathed them.”[xxix]

At Jenolan, we still have the large, framed photograph of Charles which their many descendants kindly donated to Jenolan Caves in 1921.

Charles Whalan

The multi-faceted Charles Whalan was a pioneer, a farmer, a family man, a cave explorer, a miller, a preacher, a philanthropist, a landlord, a miner, a builder of churches, a promoter of education, a magistrate, a Justice of the Peace, and he even almost made it into Parliament!  “His prominent characteristic was unselfishness.” [xxx] We are so proud to be able to number Charles Whalan amongst the most colourful characters in Jenolan’s unique history. 

Following in Charles’ Footsteps Today

The Plughole Adventure ExperienceAt Jenolan, the Devil’s Coach House cave, the Nettle Cave and the Arch cave are all closed, currently. But plans are afoot to possibly reopen them sometime in the next few years. On your next visit, your guide may take you into the Grand Arch, on your way to explore the Imperial, Chifley or Lucas Caves. 

If you have a thirst for adventure, you can try the challenging Plughole Adventure Caving Experience, where you abseil, climb, squeeze and crawl deep into the heart of the Elder Cave, just as Charles Whalan would have done!

0 Comments (Reply)
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

Please Contact Me