Jenolan Caves

Into the Coach House of the Devil Himself

April 12, 2021

James Whalan was determined to find his stolen bullock bows and chains. He was even hopeful of retrieving one, maybe even two, of his missing horses, which he was certain had also been pilfered.  He started his search near the small cave where he and his men had recently captured that thieving scum, McKeown.

Example of a bullock bowNot finding anything in the immediate vicinity of McKeown’s valley hideout, James rode his horse deeper into the gorge, along the creek bed which was dry as a bone. Straining to see between the dense eucalypts, he scanned the high limestone cliffs for any clue that McKeown might have passed that way, carrying his ill-gotten gains.  No sign of anyone.  Small wallabies skipped lightly among the rocks far above.

Although born into prosperity, James knew that he owed his position to the toil and tears of his ex-convict parents, and he was not prepared to simply sit and do nothing while his belongings lay in this wilderness for some other miscreant to chance upon. Why should he? He was convinced that his property was hidden somewhere nearby.

The country was too steep and rugged for his horse. He made the decision to search on foot. Securing his horse to a tree, James struggled onwards and downwards through thick undergrowth, pushing deeper into the valley. The limestone cliffs, soaring skyward on either side, slowly drew closer together. The eucalypt canopy closed over his head. The sun was well passed its zenith. He had the odd feeling that he was being drawn into a massive funnel. He knew he was fortunate it wasn’t raining, because in a storm, such a valley could mean his death.

The entrance to the Devil's Coach HouseHe pushed on. The soaring cliffs converged into a massive stone arch, more enormous than anything he had ever seen or even imagined. Good Lord. Long stalactites hung from the roof far above. He peered into the vast cavern. His eyes widened in astonishment.  It was unbelievable. Trepidation fought with his need to find his horses and bullock bows. Seductively, the huge space lured him in. River stones crunched under his feet. The massive twilight cavern was in deep shadow. Even his breath seemed to intrude in the silence. Finding a small pool where pure water emerged from underground, he took a long, cold drink. No sign of his possessions.  Suddenly, as though warning him to go no further, an eerie, bone-chilling cry pierced the darkness. Then another. And another.

With pounding heart, James left the cave and retraced his steps, up the steep terrain this time, retrieved his patient horse and hurried back to Gingkin Station about 8 miles away, where he made a strange report - that he has been all the way to the end of the world, to the coach house of the Devil himself.[i]

Fact or Fancy?

So that is how we might imagine pastoralist, James Whalan in 1837 becoming the first European settler to set foot in the spectacular Fish River Caves, later known as Jenolan Caves. We cannot claim that the story above is factual. Nothing was recorded at the time. Nothing appeared in the newspapers of the day.  However, as the years went by, there were so many conflicting stories about Jenolan’s discovery, that ‘Keeper of the Caves’, Jeremiah Wilson, wrote what we now consider to be the most likely version. And it is a good read. It was printed by the Lithgow Mercury on April 7, 1899, 62 long years after the event, but in it, Wilson laid out why he believed his version to be true. Of course, Wilson may have embellished his story, so it can't be taken as gospel either.  It is quite possible that the thief, James McKeown, really was the first to find the caves, during the time when he used that valley as a hideout.

We actually have very little information about James Whalan.  We know that he was born in Parramatta on 5 March 1806. He had 3 brothers (Charles, Campbell and John) and a sister, Sarah. His father, Sergeant Charles Whalan, had done extraordinarily well for himself, so much so that his brief bio is too good to not share.

James’ Father - Big Shoes to Fill

Charles Whalan, born in 1772 in England, was convicted of trout poaching in 1787, age 14. For that, the poor boy spent 4 years in Newgate prison, and in 1791 he was transported to NSW with the Third Fleet.  He was said to be well educated, meaning that he could read and write, so he was put to work in the government stores. After only 16 months in the colony, Charles was pardoned, and he immediately joined the NSW Corps 102 Regiment in 1793, becoming an orderly for Governor William Bligh. Legend says he was there at Bligh’s arrest. He transferred to the 73 regiment and became Governor Macquarie’s Sergeant of the Bodyguard of Light Horse. 

Charles Whalen outshone all expectations.  A reference written by Governor Macquarie in 1822, described Sgt. Whalan as “peculiarly correct, honest, honourable and faithful, never having had one occasion to find fault with him, or in the least degree to censure his conduct…I do further certify that sergeant Whalan is worthy of anything that can possibly be done for him. I accordingly most strongly recommend him to the favour, kindness and patronage of His Excellency the Governor in Chief for some position under Government.”[ii]

Finally, after 31 years in the service of one Governor after another, Charles was discharged in 1824. But while in service, he was granted much land around Sydney and Parramatta. His first grant was 75 acres (shared with 2 other men) in 1798, at Windsor.  Was granted 100 acres in Minto in 1810.[iii] Was granted a bull from the government herd in 1818. Records show that Charles used his land very well, to produce cattle for the colony. In 1818, he was granted 100 acres in Parramatta. And in 1821 he was granted 500 acres at Fish River. A newspaper article in 1837 reveals that he had been granted 750 more acres in Prospect. In 1838, he purchased 988 acres at Oberon. Clearly, Charles was determined to rise far above the situation into which he was born.   Read this great account of Charles Whalan.

Charles Whalan would have had a huge influence on his eldest son, James. 

Who was the Real James Whalan?

As for James, he also benefited by government grants, and it is quite clear that James was  determined to follow in his father’s footsteps regarding land acquisition.

In 1821 he was granted 5 horned cattlefrom the government [iv]. He was only 15 years old, and his father likely used his influence, but James would have been expected to repay the government in kind, after 3 years.  

The next year, James was granted 300 acres in Ropes Creek Rooty Hill [v]. In fact, the Sydney suburb of Whalan was named after James, the discoverer of Jenolan Caves.

In 1831 James married Lydia Dargin. Over the years, they had 7 children. 

In 1837 James explored the Oberon district, choosing some of the best country, leasing about 9,000 acres in 12 lots.[vi]

When James discovered the Jenolan Caves, it is not clear where exactly he was living, but he may have been living at Gingkin Station, about 12 km to the west of the caves.[vii] 

Later in the same year, he moved his family to his block at Tarana, Emu Valley [viii].

At the end of that decade he purchased a number of blocks, including his brother Charles’ 988 acres, ‘Glyndwr’, at Bullock Flat [ix], now known as Oberon.

Unfortunately, it is just about impossible to say what he was like as a person. All we have are mundane snippets. 

However, in her thesis, ‘Mountain Beings - Relationships with land in the Oberon district, 1800-1900’, Phillipa Gemmell-Smith wrote “James Whalan and John Hogan are two of very few people recorded as having any dealings with Aborigines. Whalan’s use of Aboriginal names, unusual in the district, suggests a level of engagement with Aboriginal people. He was the first European to use the name “Duckmaloi” for the river previously referred to by surveyor William Govett as the Fish River. He identified 640 acres at Gingkin with “the native name of Behum” in 1841.[x]“ According to her “Thematic History of Oberon Shire”, Phillipa also says that ‘behum’ or ‘beung’ was “the ‘fighting field’ or ‘field of blood’ where traditional scores were settled.”

Also, James and Lydia may have decided to go into inn-keeping. The Thousand Years Journey:The Story of Sgt. Charles Whalan, by Ron Whalan, says,"James Whalan had three properties in the Oberon/Tarana area and he finally settled at “Emu Valley” where he erected an inn. It was a change station for the coaches of Cobb & Co and was known far and wide as the “Hill House”. And there is documentary evidence that Lydia was granted a publican's license for the Royal Oak hotel, at Fish River, in 1855.

The Caves

After James Whalan discovered the Jenolan Caves, there seem to be no records of him doing any exploration. Perhaps he was not interested. Maybe he was too busy.  Possibly after mistaking the unearthly cry of the Sooty Owl for the demonic scream of Satan’s horses from Hell, he just never felt like going back. 

Charles Whalan, younger brother of James Whalan

grave stone of James Whalan at Holy Trinity Church, Kelso

However, in 1842, James’ younger brother Charles started taking curious folk to the caves to look around. Alfred Whalan, one of Charles’ sons, wrote, “My father then started with a servant named Nicholas Urwin and rode all day looking for the place described. Just at nightfall they saw the entrance to the Grand Arch. The hill below them being too rough to get down, they decided to camp where they were and to make the decent in the morning, which they did, exploring the Grand Arch, Devil's Coach-house, and Nettle Cave. This was in the early forties, as I remember seeing my father's name in the Grand Arch dated 1842. After that time my father and brothers, Charles and Edwin Whalan, conducted parties to the Caves for many years.”[xi]

Like his brother James and father Charles Senior, Charles the younger had also acquired a large property in the region. He enjoyed taking people to the caves, and on the way, putting them up for the night at his own property. 

James Whalan Still a Mystery

James kept acquiring land. For example in 1851, he took up a portion of the Ferndale property.[xii] Then, unfortunately he died in 1854. He was only 48 years old.  If there is a restless ghost now haunting the valley, perhaps it is that of James Whalan still searching for his missing bullock bows, chains and horses.

Recently, a descendent of James Whalan contacted us, to see if we had any information about him. But we have no more information than what you see in this article.  If any reader has more information, and would like to share it, please contact us.

[iii] – NSW registers of Land Grands and Leases, 1792-1867



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