Jenolan Caves

Jenolan Christmases Last Century

December 7, 2020

What do you usually do on Christmas Day? How do you think your great-grandparents might have answered that question?  These days, because we all lead extremely busy lives, convenience is king. An increasing number of Aussies want to get together with loved ones, to savour delicious wine and memorable Christmas feast, where someone else does all the work. 

It’s interesting to go back through newspapers to the world of 1900 to 1950, and discover the different ways that Christmas Day was handled in the old days of Jenolan.

Camping Crowds

In 1900, Jenolan Caves had enough guestrooms to accommodate around 50 guests. But Jenolan was so popular, particularly at Christmas, that mostly, people camped, on the hill behind Caves House hotel. Management tried to make it easy for campers, but the available space was inadequate.

A very cynical, (but funny) article in the Lithgow Mercury from 1902, said, “About fourteen miles from the Caves all the vehicles bunch up, and a race was evidently taking place for first on to the camping ground at Jenolan…On arrival at the Grand Arch, anxious inquiries were made for the camping-ground…Well, there is plenty of room-for about 100 BULL-DOG ANTS! The sulkies have to be placed in all sorts of precarious positions on the side of the mountain, and the horses have to anchor anywhere they can…There are tent-poles for the erection of seven tents, and the authorities are seemingly satisfied that this number is quite sufficient…There must have been a hundred parties out during the two days – Christmas and Boxing Day – and it would have made the authorities ears tingle if they had heard the ‘blessings’ called down upon their heads by parties who had to have their meals carefully balanced on an uneven rock, their horse almost standing on top of them meanwhile, and the sulkies undecided to turn a side somersault twice or remain in the shaky position it was only possible to put them in.”[i]

But Jenolan Christmas 1901 was still fun for many.  “During the evenings a portion of the Lithgow Band played musical selections in the Grand Arch…About 150 persons visited the caves on Xmas Day and Boxing Day.”[ii]

Over the next few years, Jenolan’s campground got even more crowded at Christmas. After Christmas 1905, a letter to the Daily Telegraph said, “The present ground is a disgrace to any civilised community…The so-called campground consists of four small areas, with wire fencing round them each of about the size you would fence off your back yard for a dozen fowls…The situation of cooking, eating, sleeping and feeding  your horses with 20 square feet, with horse-dung, flies and debris thrown in, is anything but pleasant.  When I was there in Christmas week, there were nearly a hundred people camping. There were 12 vehicles and about 15 horses.”[iii]

Thankfully, by 1908, Jenolan management had introduced a fee of 1 shilling per head, for using the campground at Christmas, which helped to reduce the number of campers.[iv]

But as automobiles gained popularity, each Christmas brought even bigger Christmas crowds to see the caves and stay at Caves House.  In 1911 the Evening News said of Christmas, “The Jenolan Caves were patronised to their utmost capacity.”[v]  In 1914, the Daily Telegraph reported, “All previous records at the Jenolan Caves were eclipsed this Christmas by the tourist traffic.”[vi]

World War I

Finally, the government agreed to increase accommodation at Caves House.[vii] An enormous new 4-storey wing, with an immense dining hall, was added, and the grand opening coincided with the grand opening of the fabulous Orient Cave in 1918.  That Christmas, “Recent attendance at the Caves House have eclipsed all previous records.”

Also at Christmas that year, there was even a group of celebrities at Jenolan.[viii] There was Mr and Mrs John Christian Watson. Mr Watson was the most surprising Australian Prime Minister you’ve never heard of. He was Prime Minister for 4 months during 1904. At age 35, he was Australia’s youngest Prime Minister, and he led the first Labour Party Government. Politician Albert Bruntnell, M.L.A. was also there, with war hero, Private Jackson V.C. . Private Jackson is the youngest Australian to have been awarded a Victoria Cross (V.C.), and his was the first V.C. to be won by an Australian on the Western Front, in World War I. That Christmas, Jenolan was really honoured.

The following Christmas, World War I had ended, and the Lithgow Mercury reported, “At the Christmas dinner at Jenolan Caves House there sat representatives of practically every country on earth – a party from Japan, another from the Argentine, a number from New Zealand, Canada and USA, representatives from India, South Africa and Great Britain, and they all joined in the national Anthem as with one voice.” The Hon. Sydney Smith was the guest of honour, as he was the politician who had first proposed building Caves House in 1896. There was a concert and “The evening ended with…the singing of Auld Lang Syne, the whole audience linking hands and singing the old song, thus giving the best possible illustration of an ideal world’s friendship.”[ix] What a wonderful Christmas that must have been!

The 1920s brought bumper Christmases for Jenolan. Newspapers reported, “Dancing, musical, vocal, dramatic items and Christmas trees were enjoyed in the delightfully decorated ballroom each evening.”[x] And “The popularity of Jenolan Caves is so great that all accommodation has been booked up for weeks ahead. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, 'shake downs' will be evidence in all parts of the palatial house, and full 300 guests are expected to eat their Christmas dinner there.”[xi]

From 1925, fancy-dress featured at Caves House Christmas, at least for the next few years.  The Lithgow Mercury reported, “Extraordinary enthusiasm greeted the announcement on Christmas Day that a fancy-dress carnival would be held on Boxing night. Notwithstanding short notice, over 100 of the 220 guests made costumes which possessed merit much beyond the average…The carnival was held in the spacious ballroom, and a buffet supper was served in the billiard room…The menus reflect extraordinary care and skilful judgment, and the catering generally was on a plane equal to the world’s finest hotels.”[xii]

The Great Depression

The Great Depression reduced Christmas numbers at Jenolan. On 23 December 1930, the NSW Tourist Bureau said “Up to yesterday Tourist Bureau bookings were only half what they were last year…the Jenolan Caves House and the Hotel Kosciusko, which usually house 200 guest each at the Christmas season, have been only half booked up.”[xiii]

But by Christmas 1932, business was back up again.[xiv] And Christmas 1933 saw the return of the fancy dress balls. Also “an innovation of Christmas Day was the cooks’ parade in the dining hall. With the guests seated at the table, the cooks, wearing white caps and aprons, and bearing steaming and savory dishes, marched into the hall.”[xv]

In 1935, “From December 23 to 31 no fewer than 1500 guests were catered for at Caves House, the accommodation of which was taxed throughout.  Naturally, the staff was exceptionally busy, but the splendid organisation which has always been evident at the caves was equal to all emergencies, and the manager received many congratulatory messages, particularly from overseas visitors.”[xvi]

In 1936, “On Christmas Day, a gala dinner was provided at the Caves House and was thoroughly enjoyed by the guests.”[xvii]  And fancy dress was back again on Boxing Day evening.[xviii]

In 1939, Christmas featured a cocktail party followed by entertainment.[xix]

World War II

Guests were accustomed to staying not just for the day, but for several nights.  In 1940, the Lithgow Mercury reported, “A message from Jenolan Caves states that a heavy Christmas-New year season is expected. At the caves House practically all rooms have been booked out. Many parties have begun to arrive, and the majority of the visitors will stay for periods ranging from four to 10 days.”[xx]

Also in 1940, for the first time at Jenolan, there were celebrations to see in the New Year. “At a ceremony in the Grand Arch Father Time will go in and in a few moments Miss 1941, bright and smiling, will emerge. A pig barbecue will be conducted, and after midnight there will be a concert in the Grand Arch.”[xxi]

Due to World War II, with the 40s came petrol rationing.[xxii] By Christmas 1943, Jenolan had to turn guests away, because we were so short of staff. Caves House Manager, Vincent Rose, said “We were booked up three months ago for Christmas. We could take an extra 75 guests if we had the staff. Guests are allowed to stay only four days at a time.”[xxiii]

When World War II ended, tourist numbers came back in full force.  On 10 December 1947, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Jenolan Caves accommodation for Christmas was booked out six months ago.”[xxiv]

Jenolan Caves Christmas Menu 2020

A wise woman once said, "What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present and hope for the future."  It is easy at Jenolan to feel tenderness for the distant past. But last Christmas, due to a devastating bushfire, we had to cancel lunch, to the great disappointment of many. However, nothing can spoil Christmas this year. We have much to be thankful for, and we are looking forward to a bright future. So, our enormous Christmas tree is up, and we expect a full Chisolm’s Restaurant for Christmas Lunch.

Chisolm’s was built in the early Edwardian era, so this year, each table will be served its own banquet, an array of dishes, including some with an historical twist.  To satisfy the Aussie appetite for Christmas seafood, you will also enjoy “crisp skin barramundi” “grilled scampi” and more. Traditional Christmas dishes include "roast turkey", “bread sauce, stuffing and potatoes” and “brussels sprouts and garden greens”.  Wicked sweet treats include Aussie favourite “passionfruit and mango pavlova”, but you can also enjoy “Neslrode pudding” - very popular in the Victorian era.

These are only some of the dishes that you can share with family and friends this Christmas at Chisolm’s Restaurant, upstairs in Caves House - at the indestructible Jenolan Caves.  See the Christmas Banquet Lunch Menu Here.  Bookings are essential.


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2 Comments (Reply)
Chris Betteridge (Reply)
These blogs get better and better every time. This one is so interesting, with a great mix of stories and all those links to newspaper articles from last century. I love the artwork on the Christmas 1940 menu. The menu for 2020 sounds fantastic - I wish I could be there. Merry Christmas and a very Happy, Healthy and Successful New Year to everyone at Jenolan Caves. Best wishes, Chris Betteridge
Carolyn Melbourne (Reply)
Thank you so much Chris! I really enjoy doing the research in Trove. I learn so much. Thank you for your good wishes, and may the same blessings come back to you twofold!
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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911
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