Jenolan Caves

Quiet People Have the Loudest Minds ~ Stephen Hawking

November 9, 2020

Fred Wilson exploring Jenolan Caves

One hundred and twenty-three years ago this week, Jenolan’s fabulous Aladdin Cave was discovered. This article pays tribute to the quiet and unassuming man who discovered it – Frederick John Wilson.

In 1854, William and Rebecca Wilson, with 7 children in tow, arrived by bullock wagon, at Oberon NSW. Soon after, on 15 May, Frederick John Wilson was born. Fred was the 8th of their 9 children.

Throughout most of his career, the reserved and quiet Fred lived very much in the shadow of his outgoing and charismatic older brother, Jeremiah (Jerry), who was Jenolan’s first ‘Keeper of the Caves’.  But as a ‘silent achiever’, Fred was a very important character in the sometimes quirky history of Jenolan Caves. He made significant cave discoveries and, more importantly, he made vital contributions to the protection of show caves in Australia. 

Back in the days when houses had names rather than numbers, Fred lived at ‘Melrose’ and later at ‘Lammer Muir’, in Oberon [i]. In a 1993 interview for the National Library, Fred’s daughter, Pearl, revealed that Fred had owned a small farm across from his parent’s property, but had lost it in a bank crash. With no job and nowhere to live, his older brother Jerry got Fred a job and accommodation at Jenolan in 1881, where he became Jerry’s assistant.

In 1885, Fred married South Bowenfels school teacher, Margaret Eliza Lobban.[ii] Over the next 19 years, they had 6 children.

Fred was a very practical man, accompanying Jerry on his expeditions into the black unknown - extremely dangerous work. The Australian Star, 29 March 1893, provides a long, detailed description, written by Jerry, which gives us an inkling of how extremely difficult and dangerous cave exploration was. For example, Jerry wrote, “I was assisted by my brother, Mr. Fred J. Wilson and my son, Mr E. J. Wilson. Just here we experienced some little excitement, through my son doing some exploring on his own account, at a distance from where we were engaged.  There was a hole just big enough to admit his body descending perpendicularly through which he entered easily, the outside edges on top being smooth and water-worn, but as the under edges of the opening had many limestone formations he found it trying to get out of the hole. He might as well try to crawl out of a stove-pipe lined with projecting nails, so after sundry unsuccessful attempts we had to go to his assistance. We had to extricate him by removing some of the stone and formation with hammers.” (Notice how Jerry made light of a near fatal predicament, by calling it ‘some little excitement’.)

They had to crawl and create some impossibly small holes and passages through which to squeeze.  In the same article Jerry wrote, “Not being able to get any further in this direction for the numerous stalactites in the way, I again returned to No. 6 chamber where I had reason to believe the main lead of the cave was, and commenced breaking a hole through 8in. by 9in.  After hard work for an hour and a half I succeeded in getting through into a small chamber 2ft. high and 5ft wide, and from which I could see through a hole 7in. by 14 in. with formations from the top to the floor, and which with hammer and chisel we worked at till 2 o’clock in the morning in order to make the space big enough to crawl through, but had to abandon the idea until the fourth day, when we eventually succeeded in making the passage 11in. high and 15 in wide and 3ft. long. After removing our coats and waist-costs, and having a desperate struggle to get through, we reached another chamber…”[iii]

Back in 1866, the caves were declared a reserve, and trespassing was not allowed, but no penalties were in place for vandalising. Without police, Jerry and Fred did what they could to protect the caves. But on Boxing Day 1896, when a young Sydney man wilfully broke off a stalactite [iv], Fred Wilson was sworn in as a special constable before the Police Magistrate at the Lithgow Court.

We know that Fred discovered the fabulous Aladdin Cave on November 10, 1897. But it is possible that he discovered more in earlier years, but his brother, Jerry, did not give him credit.  Basil Ralston, who wrote extensively about the exploration of Jenolan, noted “In 1897 Fred wrote to the Department of Mines that one ‘J. Wilson’ had not made known any discoveries made by him [Fred].” Again in 13th. Feb. 1897 Fred asked that "J. Wilson be instructed to point out new discoveries made by him".[v]

In 1896, the NSW government decided to build a substantial hotel at Jenolan, to attract more visitors to the caves. After the first stage of the hotel was completed in 1897, the government also built a 2 storey Caretakers Cottage. Fred became ‘Keeper of the Caves’ that year, so, Fred must have been the first occupant of the newly built ‘Caretakers Cottage’.

The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate said “Overlooking the Caves House, on the side of the mountains, is the pretty residence of the curator of the caves, Mr F. Wilson, a most obliging official, a younger brother of Mr. Jeremiah Wilson, the early explorer of these interesting caverns. His assistants are Mr. Wiberd, a most intelligent officer…”[vi]

Previously, Fred and his family lived in a small cottage in McKeown’s Valley somewhere above the playing fields[vii], possibly on what is now Burma Road.  

By 1898, Fred was earning £100 a year as caretaker, plus his accommodation cost 1s per week.[viii] It was a reasonable government salary for the time.

As previously mentioned, Fred was an extremely practical man - good with his hands.  He is said to have been responsible for installing all the protective mesh in the caves, all the cave lighting and all the handrails and paths.  The Lithgow Mercury reported that “through the efforts of Messrs Trickett and Fred Wilson, the caves themselves have undergone vast improvement and the most timid and nervous person in the world need not now be the least afraid of threading the underground mazes and mysterious passages. Everything tending to increase the comfort and easy transit of visitors from cave to cave has been carried out.  Inclines have been levelled, depressions filled up, proper concrete steps built in what were once dangerous places, thus ensuring perfect safety.  Added to this, all the passages have been completely enclosed with strong wire-netting overhead and down the two sides, so that no one can now touch the stalagmites and stalactites.”[ix]

In 1901, Fred Wilson discovered and developed a new way into the Lucas Cave.  Previously, visitors entered the Lucas from a high and hard-to-reach entrance. Just getting to the entrance was an expedition. Fred’s more convenient new entrance is still used today.[x]  A Lithgow Mercury article, from 16 Aug 1901, said, “One great improvement is the new entrance to the Lucas Cave, an exceedingly creditable piece of work carried out under the supervision of the caretaker, Mr. F. Wilson.”

The same article introduced Fred’s second major underground discovery, “The next addition to the many glorious sights is the new cave discovered on the day of the Relief of Mafeking, by Mr Wilson, and named 'Mafeking'. The work of opening up this new cave is, I understand, to start immediately.” 

Visitors often ask why this beautiful branch of the Lucas Cave was named The Mafeking.  The Siege of Mafeking was a 217-day siege battle for the town of Mafeking (now called Mahikeng) in South Africa, during the Second Boer War.  Fred’s daughter Pearl, said that they had relatives who went to the Boer War.[xi] The British media created an unprecedented amount of publicity around the world, about the Seige of Mafeking, because Lord Edward Cecil, the son of the British prime minister, was in the besieged town, along with Lady Sarah Wilson, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and aunt of Winston Churchill. The siege was lifted on 16 May 1900 – the Relief of Mafeking.[xii]  This happened to be the same day that Fred Wilson discovered a new branch in the Lucas Cave. So with all the rejoicing about the Relief of Mafeking, Fred named his new discovery the Mafeking Branch.

Fred and his family left Jenolan in May 1903, when Fred was loaned to the government of Western Australia, to work on the development of show caves. Professor Elery Hamilton-Smith who did considerable research into Jenolan’s history, discovered that “Frederick [went …] to Western Australia as caves manager for the new Caves Board. He found this a difficult position as the secretary of the Board was clearly jealous of his appointment." [xiii]

However, in Victoria, Lands Department District Surveyor, William Thorn, visited the Buchan Caves in East Gippsland. Mindful of the damage that visitors had already done to other caves in Buchan, Thorn recommended that the cave "be absolutely closed until the formations have been protected". He also recommended that "an experienced man be obtained from New South Wales" for this task.[xiv]

So, in 1907, Fred was invited to take the position of manager of the Buchan Caves. [xv]  At Buchan, Fred set about developing the Fairy Cave for tourism, in accordance with what was then accepted as best caves management practice, developed at Jenolan. Fred has been described as "a very shy man ... a very reticent and retiring man" but also as "a visionary with a great sensitivity to the natural world". Assisted by Buchan’s Frank Moon, Fred established pathways and handrails in the Fairy Cave which re-opened to tourists in December 1907.[xvi]

In 1909, Fred discovered a new cave at Buchan, later named the Royal Cave. He spent 1910 mapping this cave.[xvii] Fred supervised the installation of iron railings and wire netting, similar to his work at Jenolan, and in 1913 an artificial entrance was also constructed, enabling the Royal Cave to be opened for public tours. Fred’s design and installation of the protective netting in Royal Cave are amongst the finest examples of this type of work in the world.[xviii]

In March 1915, Fred found yet another cave at Buchan, with "one very fine chamber of rich formation", and decided that "It would be very easy to improve" for display as a tourist cave. In succeeding weeks Fred and others surveyed the 'new cave' which was named Federal Cave.[xix] Iron railings and wire netting were installed.[xx]

The quality of Fred’s work at Buchan Caves won universal respect and friendship. It was a very happy period of his life. When he retired in December 1921, he continued to live in Buchan for some time before returning to N.S.W.”[xxi]

On Aug 20, 1925, Fred Wilson died aged 71, at his home, Dudley Street, Bondi, and was buried in Waverley Cemetery.

We hope that soon, when all of our caves reopen after COVID-19, you will be able to tour Jenolan again.  Keep an eye out for evidence of the older handrails and original lighting, which were likely installed by Fred.  In fact, if you have the opportunity to do the Chifley Secret Chambers Tour, you will see some of the original wire that Fred hand-twisted into netting, to stop visitors reaching and snapping off crystal formations.  You will eventually be able to visit the Mafeking Branch, which Fred Discovered in the Lucas Cave.  And if you have a craving for real adventure, you may be able to do the Aladdin Adventure tour.

If you travel to Buchan Caves, in Victoria, you can wander along a bush trail named in honour of Fred, the FJ Wilson Interpreted Walk.  This walk begins about 100m east of the Buchan Visitor Centre, follows the exit track of the Royal Cave (discovered by Fred), and then ends near the Fairy Cave entrance. From here you can return along the main road through the reserve, to explore the Federal Cave (also discovered by Fred Wilson).[xxii]

[iv] The Binoomea, Feb 2015, issue 161, page 4

[viii] The Binoomea May 2017, page 8, issue 170

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