Jenolan Caves

Lord Fat Jack - A Legacy of Triumph and Tragedy

September 29, 2020

In 1902, a bushfire destroyed one of the staff cottages at Jenolan. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The occupants moved, and the bush slowly concealed the only clue that a house had ever stood there – a lone chimney.  Recently, staff rediscovered the ruin, exposed by last year’s bushfires. We realised that it must be a piece of long-lost history – Jack Edwards’ cottage.  

John Charles Edwards, always known as ‘Jack’, was born in the village of Flimby, in Cumberland, England, on 14 January 1866. [i]  According to the UK census of 1871, his father Richard was an ‘engine driver’, and Jack was one of 8 children. 

The Edwards family migrated to Australia in 1878.[ii] And Jack came to work at Jenolan in 1886, as a cave tour guide. In recent years, Jenolan has had up to 110 staff or more on the payroll at one time. But back then, things were very different. The 1897 Public Service Lists shows only 5 staff at Jenolan: John Brown, the ‘engine-driver’; Jeremiah Wilson ‘Explorer of Caves’; Fred Wilson, ‘Keeper’; James Wiburd, ‘Guide’; and John Edwards, ‘Guide’. 

So Jack, although he was employed as a guide, would have worked on anything that needed to be done.  He would have been at Jenolan for the opening of the Six Foot Track, and subsequent visit by Lord and Lady Carrington, the first of many VIP and Vice-Regal visits for which he would have helped prepare.

He would have lent a hand to install electric lighting in the caves, and perhaps provided muscle for the installation of the hydroelectric systems. He would have helped on the numerous building projects at Jenolan and was there when fire destroyed them in 1896. He was there when the new Caves House hotel was built. 

In 1893, he married Alice Adams at Jenolan, and they had their first child, Stanley, soon after. In 1895, Olive was born, and later in 1904, they had Cecil. They lived in a cottage near the Jenolan Caves Road.

Jack was not a skilled tradesman, and this was reflected in his salary. The Public Service List of 1897 shows that he earned only £50 a year, and he had to pay for his own accommodation. Even for 123 years ago ago, £50 was a low wage.  James Wiburd, also employed as a ‘guide’ was earning £75.  Jack’s wage was approximately the same as that of an office cleaner, at a time when clerical staff in other government departments were earning as much as £320.  But his salary increased over time. By 1908, he was earning £110 with free accommodation. It was enough for a family to get by, but unfortunately not enough to buy a house or accumulate any savings.

Legend describes Jack as ‘nuggety’. He was actually a very fit, exceedingly strong and active man, who liked to join in everything.  He played the concertina [iii], at Jenolan dances and social occasions.  He was on the Jenolan cricket team [iv], and he is best known for exploring the caves at night, in the company of fellow adventurers, James Wiburd and Robert Bailey. 

In fact there is great story of when, in the darkest depths of the River Cave, the Pool of Reflections was discovered, but they could not see what lay on the far side of the deep subterranean pool.

The story from 1903 goes, “Many nights were spent in constructing a species of raft - a frail, box-like structure, supported by empty oil drums.  When completed, the raft was taken to the river side, where Edwards embarked and launched himself out upon the mysterious river. 

“Unfortunately, the result of this first and rather reckless experiment was disheartening in the extreme, and might have resulted seriously, if not fatally, had not Edwards been a man of cool courage and strong physique.  For being faultily and hastily constructed, the raft promptly capsized and left him struggling in the black and icy water.  Without losing his presence of mind, Edwards swam safely to shore. But the raft was useless, and other methods had evidently to be adopted. 

“Accordingly, Edwards, of whose pluck it is difficult to speak too highly, seized a plank and plunged into the stream again. Helped by this support, and guided by his companion’s lamp, he ultimately reached the farther shore successfully. It was a swim of only 40 or 50 yards, but under such circumstances, it might well have tried the nerves of any man.  Being wet through, and without a light, Edwards could not do much, but he ascertained that several large caverns lay before him... “[v]

Short and stocky, Jack’s nickname ‘Fat Jack’ became legendary, after an incident which landed him in trouble. The story goes that “an English Lord, holding a special permit from the Government to explore the caves, persisted in touching and breaking the finest formations.  When the guide, Jack Edwards, at last remonstrated with him, the Lord turned upon the latter with the thundering words, 'Do you know who I am? I am Lord D.'

"But Jack was equal to the occasion and retorted, ‘I don’t care a d____ who you are, but here, I am Lord Fat Jack, and if you persist in your conduct you will jolly soon be kicked out.’”

Unfortunately, the Lord complained to Jack’s boss, Jeremiah Wilson, who had to report the incident. An enquiry was held, but luckily Jack was found to be in the right, and was officially complimented on his conduct. [vi]

By all accounts, ‘Fat Jack’ was light-hearted, genial and good natured.  But he is remembered for something much more momentous and life-changing - the cave discoveries that he shared with Wiburd (and also Bailey). These discoveries have made Jenolan what it is today! 

In company with Wiburd, Edwards discovered the Pool of Cerberus Cave (originally called the Skeleton Cave) in 1903, the Temple of Baal Cave in 1904 and The Ribbon Cave, also in 1904.  Along with Wiburd and Bailey, Edwards discovered the River Cave in 1903 and one of the world’s most stunning caves, The Orient, in 1904.  Imagine the the elation they must have felt when they found those awe-inspiring caves.

In 1899, the cottage in which Jack Edwards and his family lived was saved from bushfire. [vii] But then, in 1902, their cottage was completely destroyed, when a grassfire got out of control, leaving nothing but the chimney that stands today.[viii] Jack and his family were OK.

Tragedy did not strike, until 9 December 1908.  Jack had been “on duty all day from 8.30 a.m. till 9 p.m., guiding parties through the caves and constructing concrete steps, besides making three journeys to his home, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile,” 

Jack “was returning home with Mr. Janson, after a visit to the workmen's hut, about 11.45 p.m. When about twenty or thirty paces along his track he called out to Mr. Janson, who was then walking along the main road, that he would sit-down and have a smoke. Mr. Janson saw a light as if matches were being struck, but beyond this nothing is known.

"Mr. George Spencer, of Gingkin, while returning home about one and a half hours later, found Mr. Edwards lying unconscious on the main road...” [ix]

He had fallen 35 feet from the path into the Jenolan Caves road below.  They tried to give first aid, for which they had recently been trained.[x]  They fetched his dear friend, James Wiburd, but Jack died without regaining consciousness. He was buried in the Church of England section of Oberon cemetery.

Jack Edwards was 43 years old and had worked at Jenolan for 22 years. His family - Alice, Stanley, Olive and Cecil - were left penniless.  Because he had died while off-duty, no government aid was payable for the family. The Widows Pension was not introduced until 1942. An appeal was launched by his friends, and it would be interesting to know how much money was raised.

Jack Edwards. Fat Jack. He was a man we all would have liked and admired, even envied for his vitality, his energy, for his daring underground adventures and for gifting us a legacy of both triumph and tragedy to cherish, guaranteed to live forever in the quirky history of Jenolan Caves. 

[iv] Binoomea issue 175

2 Comments (Reply)
Mukul Sharma (Reply)
What a great write up and story, Jack an inspiration for us all. The tenacity and sacrifices that were made by so many in our past is mind boggling. The struggle to arrange simple things that in today’s day and age we take for granted. Well this was one Jack of all trades and I will definitely be keeping a flower on that Chimney. Honouring a man and remember him for all his triumphs at Jenolan.
Carolyn Melbourne (Reply)
Yes, as I researched, I was more and more surprised, because Wiburd overshadowed Edwards. I'm sure it was not intentional, but I think maybe because Wiburd worked at Jenolan for so much longer.

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