Jenolan Caves

Jeremiah Wilson - Can We Ever Really Know Him

October 24, 2020

Jeremiah Wilson approx 1879


It would have seemed impossibly far. A harsher fate was scarcely imaginable for the criminals that England was still sending to Australia in 1844.  But free settlers were arriving too, especially in NSW. They were adventurous, determined, enterprising and tough.

William and Rebecca Wilson had come out from Inniskillen, Northern Ireland, on The United Kingdom, bringing their 3 little boys – Jeremiah, Noble and James, all under 5 years old.  In Ireland, Rebecca has been a house servant, and William a labourer, but by 1853, they were settled on their own land grant on Fish River Creek, near Oberon NSW.[i]

Jeremiah, ‘Jerry’, grew up tall, blue eyed, red haired and favoured a long bushy beard.  Measles in childhood left him almost deaf.  So, as an adult, he always carried an ear trumpet around his neck, and shouted whenever he spoke. Like his father, he became a pastoralist.

Adventurous Jerry was fascinated with the nearby Jenolan cave system (back then, called Binda Caves or Fish River Caves). Within this system, several big caves had been found. An 1860 news article lists Jerry and his brother, Noble, amongst the first to explore the ‘New Cave’ (later called ‘The Lucas Cave’) - only a week after it was discovered by Nicholas Irwin. But before that, Jerry is likely to have explored the caves as a teenager.  Although he probably did not discover the Elder Cave (as this news item seems to have claimed many years later), he is thought to have explored it extensively in 1856.

Jeremiah Wilson appointed Keeper of the CavesIn 1867, the NSW Government put Jerry in charge of the Binda/Fish River Caves, appointing him “Keeper of the Caves” [ii]. How did this young farmer get such a role?

Well, 20 years later, in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, on 19 June 1886, John F. Mann gave himself the credit, saying, “Sir, It is satisfactory to notice the interest now taken in the Jenolan Caves. Many yours ago I resided for some months in their vicinity. My last visit to the caves was, I think, in 1866. I then saw with deep regret the wholesale destruction which was being carried on, and expressed my feelings on the subject very freely to the neighbouring settlers. I endeavoured to impress upon them the necessity for their banding together to preserve such natural curiosities, and that it would remunerate many of the young men to establish themselves as guides and protectors to these caverns. Mr. Jeremiah Wilson, who had all along evinced great interest in them, at once adopted my views. I supplied him with a canvas tent and sundry camp utensils, and he at once established himself as a guide &c. Shortly after this I was fortunate to meet at Hartley the Hon. John Lucas, who was, I think, then Minister for Works. I mentioned the whole matter to him, and through his influence Mr. Wilson was officially established as caretaker, an appointment he has apparently filled with satisfaction to everyone.”[iii]

Jerry’s salary started at £25 a year, but he was also granted £50 for “preservation and improvements”.[iv] So, from his rough camp, Jerry became responsible for protecting the caves and for showing people through them, although stories indicate that he was showing people around the caves long before he was employed by the government to do so.

Visiting the caves was not for the faint-hearted. This fascinating story, by Ron Newbould, lets you envisage how adventurous visitors used to tour the caves in 1862.  “In the year 1854, Sarah Elizabeth Parsons was born at Yetholme, that being the year after the convicts finished the Bathurst Road. Then a small child, she remembered travellers passing through on their way to Bathurst, talking about the wonderful caves they had seen. Then in the year l862 when she was eight years old, her parents decided to form a party and see the caves themselves. Traveling in buggies and sulkies, they cut down saplings to tie behind the buggies to act as brakes to help them down the steep incline. When they arrived at the caves, Jeremiah Wilson who was then living at the Caves, in a very primitive fashion, took them through the caves that had been explored at that time. To go through the caves they used the reins and bridles tied together around their waists in case of an accident. They used the lamps placing one on a ledge and carried the other to light the way.”[v] 

On 10 Jan 1869, at O’Connell, Jerry married Lucinda Beattie, who also came from Enniskillen.  They made their home at his farm, Lucindale, on the Fish River. [vi]

Although Jenolan was still completely undeveloped, visitors could camp in the Grand Arch – and even enjoy lively entertainment.  Here is a colourful account, “Early visitors to the caves made good use of the Grand Arch. Its far reaches were used for accommodation for almost forty years. Gentlemen retired to the northern side and ladies to the south.  In 1869 a raised dancing platform was erected in the Arch. Dances were held by firelight, flickering candles and lantern light. Music was provided by accordion, fiddles and even a brass band which came from Bathurst. At midnight the Keeper of the Caves, Jeremiah Wilson, would end revelries by cracking his stockwhip. It was found that by tying a canvas from the side of the dance floor a rough tent could be formed. This procedure was often carried out by the more timid visitors.”[vii]  Jerry erected rough benches and seats in the Grand Arch, and he also constructed a concrete cricket pitch in the area now known as ‘The Old Playing Fields’[viii].

ad for Binda CavesThe enterprising Jerry was very serious about attracting more visitors to see the caves. It was in his interests. His government salary was very small, and he had a growing family.  Although he was devoted to Jenolan, the caves were not his only focus. His farming business continued to grow. He raised sheep, cattle and horses, and as time went by, he was able to buy, sell and lease large properties for his livestock. For example, he bought and later sold nearly 2,000 acres near Wellington (Black Rock Station).  He owned Glyndwr Station in Oberon [ix]. Also, he ran a thriving business, carrying visitors from Tarana train station, by horse and cart, to and from the caves – a very long and difficult journey. He and Lucinda often put visitors up for the night, at their own farm. For many years, the government refused to charge visitors to see the caves, but visitors had to pay Jerry to get there and back, and they had to pay for food and lodgings.  And to view the caves, they had to pay for candles.

Fish River Caves adFor 19 years after the Lucas Cave, there were no further cave discoveries, until the Imperial, which Jerry claimed to discover in 1879.[x] These days, we think it more likely that the cave now known as the Imperial was actually discovered in the previous year, by Henry Cambridge and Lamont Young. However, there is no doubt that Jeremiah explored this cave extensively, discovering its many branches.

In 1878, Jerry was granted a government lease, for 2 acres, a short stroll from the caves, for £1 a year [xi]. On it, in 1879, he built a small slab kitchen.

In December, the Department of Mines suggested improvements to protect the caves, such as limiting the size of groups going into the caves and making provision for the Keeper to have an assistant. So, Jerry’s brother Fred was appointed assistant, and tenders were called for all improvements to be completed by March, 1880.[xii]

Jenolan's first accommodation buildingsThe next thing that Jerry did was to build Jenolan's first accommodation. Made of wood, with an iron roof, it measured 14 feet wide and 40 feet long. It had a small verandah and five bedrooms. The kitchen and dining room were separate from the main building.[xiii] Dinners would have been very casual, convivial affairs. Joseph Rowe was the cook, and Lucinda managed the accommodation.[xiv]

Jerry provided meat for his guests (another lucrative sideline) by herding some of his cattle into the Grand Arch and selecting one to be shot. He liked to tell a story about how he once had to “run for his life” when an enraged bull chased him right across the top of Carlotta Arch, and then fell to its death through an opening at the top of the Devils Coach House.[xv]

A pillar of the community by 1879, Jerry took on some civic duties. He was appointed to the local public school board, and the following year, he was named as a ‘Forest Ranger’. A bit later, in 1887, he was appointed a trustee of the Oberon Cemetery.[xvi]

In 1880, Jerry discovered the ‘Left Imperial Cave’ (now called the Chifley Cave), and during the next three years he discovered several extensions to it.[xvii]

Then, in 1882, there was a court case. The newspapers ran a rather confusing story of Jerry being accused of stealing 240 sheep, including 70 or 80 ewes in lamb. Jerry insisted he had bought the sheep from Durack. He ended up having to pay £33 5s to the plaintiff, Thomas Slattery, plus £3 5s legal costs and the expenses of 8 witnesses.[xviii]

From February,1882, regulations for managing the caves came into effect, along with a list of food and accommodation charges, to which Jerry had to adhere.  The fee table gives us some insight into Aussie culture back then, with different fees for ‘First-class’ and ‘Second-class’. The regulations strictly prohibited vandalism and entering the caves without a guide, and alcohol was strictly forbidden.”

In 1882, Jerry discovered what is now known as the ‘Mammoth Cave’. It was a staggering discovery, and a great tribute to his courage.  One journalist wrote, “He has been exploring the present caves for 25 years, be he states that in penetrating this one, he never experienced so narrow an escape from losing his life, for he went too far, and, as a result, nearly ran out of candles.”[xix]

In 1884, Jerry obtained a lease for 152 acres in the Parish of Duckmaloi, for £1 per year [xx], and he had another in the Parish of Norway. While working at Jenolan, managing and exploring, he was still tending to his agricultural business, and still ferrying visitors back and forth from Tarana train station.

By 1886, the cave and accommodation business was prospering.  A journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald said of Jerry, “…proper consideration must be paid to the interests of the present curator Mr. Jeremiah Wilson, to whose lifelong services and heroic devotion to subterranean exploration, the public owe a debt of gratitude which it would be difficult to repay.”[xxi]

Business was going so well that more accommodation was needed.  So in 1887, Jerry erected a large two-storied wooden building with wide verandahs, to accommodate 30 more guests.[xxii]

It was a great year.  Electric lighting was installed in several of the caves [xxiii], and Vice Regal Lord and Lady Carrington paid a visit to Jenolan, staying overnight – Jenolan’s first VIP visit. [xxiv] After their overnight stay, Jerry took Lord and Lady Carrington to Oberon ‘during a blinding snow storm’, where he drove them about the showground, to a local ploughing match, gave a speech in their honour, in front of a crowd of townsfolk, and then drove them to Tarana train station.  It is clear that by this time, Jerry was the most important man in the whole district, the leader of the community.

In a freak cold snap in December 1888, many farmers in the Oberon area lost sheep, including Jerry, who lost 100 sheep at his Fish River property. [xxv] It was a setback, one that he didn’t need, after building the new accommodation at Jenolan, at his own expense.

The next couple of years were triumphant.  Jerry was elected an officer of the Free Trade Association in Bathurst.[xxvi] The Earl and Countess of Onslow visited Jenolan, accompanied by Lord Carrington [xxvii]. Lord and Lady Kintore also visited in 1891. Lord Kintore was Governor of South Australia. [xxviii]

There was an interesting item in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal , 25 Nov 1890, describing how Jerry took a group of 31 visitors and residents to see the Kanangra Walls, camp the night and visit the Kanangra Falls in the morning.  The article describes the adventure, the dramatic scenery and the prospects for hunting[xxix].  Was Jerry looking for new business opportunities? 

The next 3 years started splendidly, with another Vice Regal visit.  The Earl and Duchess of Jersey visited Jenolan, stayed the night. The Earl was the Governor of NSW. They were accompanied by the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos, and servants. For Lucinda and Jerry, it was a doubly special, as it was also their silver wedding anniversary.  The Wilsons pulled out all stops for the visit, which included an overnight stay. 

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jan 1893 article said that the VIPs “…were met by the keeper and received with cheers by numbers of visitors at the entrance to the Grand Arch.  The Oberon band played the National Anthem, and the party proceeded to the cave house, where they congratulated Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, whose silver wedding-day it was.  Afterwards they partook of refreshments.  In the evening the vice-regal party visited the Devils Coach House which was beautifully illuminated by Mr Wilson with coloured lights and the magnesium lamps, the band enlivening proceedings with various selections.  His Excellency and Lady Jersey were delighted with the grandeur of the caves.”[xxx]

Jerry discovered the Jubilee Cave.  In an article for the Town & Country Journal, 11 March 1893, Jerry wrote, “In this chamber I had a most unpleasant experience. My candle burned out, and I could find no matches.  When almost in despair, I happily found a couple, to my unbounded satisfaction. In consequence of this adventure, I have named this chamber ‘Wilson’s Despair’.”[xxxi]

The next year brough more discoveries in the Jubilee cave.[xxxii] And then, at the start of 1895, Jenolan was visited by his Highness Prince Francis Joseph of Battenburg, who stayed for 2 nights [xxxiii].  

Jerry must have felt a great deal of pride in all his achievements. Yet it never changed the way he treated people.  Years later, it was said, “All the time Jerry held the position of caretaker here, he never tried to show his authority. He always treated the poor class that came to caves with the same respect as he did the Governor and party.”[xxxiv]

Less than 2 weeks after the Prince's visit, a terrible disaster struck.  Shortly after midnight on 14 March, fire destroyed the buildings that Jerry had built, including the first and second class dining rooms, sitting and billiards rooms, 12 bedrooms, kitchen and pantry. All the household effects were lost. The new building was saved after two hours of exertion. [xxxv]

Jeremiah wrote to the Premier: “... as I am not in a position to rebuild, I have made application to the Department of Mines asking them to resume and compensate me for all buildings on and adjoining my special lease ... to rebuild, and I will furnish the buildings ... I may say that I have been keeper of these caves for 28 (twenty-eight) years, and I have erected all the buildings ... at my own expense.” [xxxvi]

Jeremiah estimated that he had spent a huge sum, about £8000, over the years, in buildings and improvements, out of his own pocket.” [xxxvii]

The government did resume the lease, and built the Caves House hotel, that today is a Blue Mountains icon.  Was Jerry compensated? We don’t know.

As a result of a depression in the 1890s, many government staff were made redundant that year. A Sydney Morning Herald article on 16 July 1896 announced Jerry’s retirement, which would save the government £175 a year. [xxxviii]

But Jerry didn’t give up without a fight. One newspaper described him as “a very deaf old man who was very fond of an argument.” [xxxix] Another said, “To go to the ‘Caves’ and not find ‘Jerry Wilson’ there would be like going to church when there was no clergyman.” [xl] The following month, he was reinstated, not as manager, but as ‘Explorer’, on a much lower salary of £130 a year. [xli]

The indefatigable Jerry soon discovered another cave at Jenolan, [xlii] and then went to Abercrombie Caves, where he also made discoveries. [xliii] He hoped to explore Bungonia Caves, which at that time, were almost entirely unexplored. [xliv] However, newspapers don’t mention further discoveries. Possibly he decided to stay closer to home because his daughter, Maude, had fallen ill with ‘consumption’. [xlv]

By 1898, Jerry was a celebrity. Everything he did was mentioned in the newspapers.  He contributed prizes to the Oberon Show - for ladies horse riding [xlvi], he was thrown from a trotting sulky, and luckily was uninjured [xlvii].  There was even a sniff of scandal, when he and a ‘young lady’ were lost in total darkness, in a cave, for 3 hours, after their supply of matches ran out. [xlviii] But, it seems that not everyone liked him, and the police were called when someone shot one of his pigs. [xlix]

He continued to explore caves. One one occasion, he was lowered down 230 feet into a cave [l]. On another, he discovered more chambers in the Jubilee Cave [li]. On yet another, he found the fossil of something that was reported as “an extinct flesh-eating marsupial”. [lii]

Then something happened that no one has ever been able to fully explain. Jerry was arrested for horse stealing.  It was alleged that on the evening of the 3 August, Jerry, by himself, transported 5 horses (3 of them stolen from Robert Wilson, William Reeves and Ernest Whalan) across flooded rivers, to Mount Victoria, where he put them on a train to Sydney, to be auctioned. A very long, confusing account from the Oberon Police Court was published in the Lithgow Mercury.

No one saw Jerry steal the horses. The horses all carried brands, over which there was much confusion. It wasn’t even clear whether the horses that were retrieved from the Sydney saleyards were the same horses that were alleged to have been stolen.

On 11 October, 1900, at the Bathurst Circuit Court, he was charged with 2 counts. The first was for stealing the 3 horses.  The second count was for receiving property, knowing it to be stolen. Because he pled guilty to the second count, the Crown Prosecutor decided to not proceed with the first count.

Jerry’s lawyer pleaded for leniency, as Jerry was 60 years old, of unblemished character, had shown regret by pleading guilty, and should be allowed the benefit of the First Offenders Act. Numerous witnesses attested to Jerry’s good character. John Vaughan, Rector of St Andrew’s Summer Hill, wrote that having known "... for more than 30 years Jeremiah Wilson and his family - having been the CE Clergyman in the Fish River district and that for 15 years saw a great deal of him - [he found Jeremiah] a man of unblemished reputation; indeed I doubt if there was a man in the vicinity of Oberon and its surroundings who was more highly and generally respected than he was. Further I may add, it has never been my lot to this day to hear even a whisper against his uprighteousness, honesty and integrity." [liii]

Perhaps the judge would have been more lenient, if the case had not been so public. But he seemed to want to make an example of Jerry, saying that the First Offenders Act was much abused, that Jerry’s crime was no minor offence, and that “People of mature years who committed crime – not acting under sudden temptation – must expect to undergo punishment. The better educated and more favoured persons deserved severer punishment when they lapsed into crime than those who had no education and were placed in unfavourable positions.” He added that “the main object of punishment was to deter others from crime.” [liv]

So on Oct 12, Jerry was sentenced to “15 months hard labour in Bathurst gaol”, although actually served his term at Goulburn Gaol.[lv]

While Jerry was incarcerated, the NSW government officially sacked him, his daughter Maude died after her long illness [lvi], Jerry was declared bankrupt [lvii], his property east of Oberon had to be sold in bankruptcy [lviii] .

By October 1901, Jerry was free again [lix], but his ordeal affected him badly. It was said that he had gone into the gaol "a fine strong man and came out broken physically and mentally, ready to die". He never regained his self-esteem, usually sitting silently with head bowed withdrawn from company. [lx]

He and Lucinda retired to a house in Woollahra. Unfortunately, many details of Jeremiah's last years were later burnt by his daughter Sarah. [lxi]

Jerry died on 3 November 1907, 68 years of age, and was buried in Waverley Cemetery.  Lucinda, who bore him 8 children and supported him in all his endeavours for 38 years, went to live with their daughter Maggie at Centennial Park, and died in 1920.

After Jerry left Jenolan, other determined explorers went on to discover even more fabulous caves and to build even more comfortable facilities.  But it must be remembered that in 1867, when Jerry assumed the role, the caves were totally isolated, hidden in rugged mountains, almost inaccessible and completely undeveloped. But Jerry had optimism, boldness, ambition, strength and energy to spare. He was not afraid to take risks. His charisma and confidence made him a natural leader. As he got older, his eccentricities became part of his charm. And by the time he left Jenolan, after 33 years, it was a highly organised tourist resort. Accommodation had been built. The caves were easily accessible, safe and easy to inspect. Their precious contents were protected. Wilson devoted his life and energies towards bringing about these changes. [lxii]

[iv]Binoomea Issue 42, Sept 1984 page 6&7

[v]Binoomea Issue 11, April 1976, page 2

[vii]Binoomea Issue 10, Jan 1976 page 4

[viii]Binoomea Issue 42, Sept 1984 page 6&7

[xii]Binoomea Issue 42, Sept 1984 page 6&7

[xiii]Binoomea Issue 10, Jan 1976 page 4

[xiv]Binoomea issue 148, Nov 2011, page 2 (from an article by Kath Bellamy)

[xvii]Binoomea Issue 42, Sept 1984 page 6&7

[xxii]Binoomea Issue 10, Jan 1976 page 4

[xxxv]Binoomea Issue 10, Jan 1976 page 4

[lxii]Helictite, April 1967, page 56

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