Jenolan Caves

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men - The Royal Visit of 1927

March 29, 2021

Duke and Duchess of York getting ready to leave Jenolan Caves in 1927

The Duke and Duchess of YorkIt was unprecedented. At Jenolan Caves, 1926 had been incredibly busy, starting with a visit by Field Marshall Viscount Allenby, ‘Britain’s greatest living soldier’. Then, there was a visit by the NSW Governor, Sir Dudley de Chair and also by the Governor General, Lord Stonehaven, and his mother-in-law Lady Kintore. The fourth and final wing of Jenolan Caves House hotel was finally completed that year, including a huge extension to the grand dining room. And newfangled wireless was being broadcast from the caves, as competing radio stations 2BL and 2FC tried to outdo each other with underground broadcasting ‘stunts’.

After so much publicity, in the following year, 1927, Mr Wiburd, Jenolan’s manager was not surprised to hear that the Duke and Duchess of York (later known as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) intended to visit Jenolan, and that the Duke would be making a radio broadcast from deep underground.

So, in March 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York left Britain to sail to the other side of the world. Their main goal was to open the provisional Parliament House in Canberra, but it was also to thank the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand for sending so many of their young men to fight in the Great War, many of whom never returned.

The royal couple arrived in Sydney on March 26, to a tumultuous reception, from over a million Sydneysiders. In a letter written by the Duke to the Lord Mayor, he said:

“The Duchess and I desire to say how deeply touched we are at the warmth of the welcome we received from the citizens of Sydney during the tour through the city this morning. We shall never forget it as long as we live”[i]

Audacious Break with Protocol

The Duke and Duchess of York on the Governor General's train in 1927

Five days later, on March 31, the luxurious Governor-General’s[ii] train, drawn by two 36-class locomotives, steamed up the Great Western railway to Katoomba. After luncheon at the Carrington Hotel, the royal couple and their motorcade began driving away.

Suddenly the motorcade was forced to an unexpected stop. The Member for Bathurst and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Mr. James Dooley, had previously asked that the Duke and Duchess inspect the new ANZAC hospital. But he had been refused, as organisers didn’t want to tire the Duchess. So, Dooley, whose charm was legendary, boldly tossed protocol out the window, blocked their escaping vehicle, walked over and personally invited the Duchess to inspect the hospital. She agreed and the ‘authorities’ were outraged.

James Dooley“The Duke and the Earl of Cavan objected that this was contrary to arrangements, but Mr. Dooley appealed to the Duchess, who graciously intervened on his behalf “Seeing that is an Anzac memorial” she said softly. Officials in charge of the tour were furious with Mr. Dooley”[iii]

James Dooley’s actions were unheard-of – so audacious that famous Aussie poet, C.J. Dennis, was inspired to compose a poem about the incident, which concluded “Officials spluttered in despair, but off he took the Royal pair. He triumphed then, say what you may, and Mister Dooley won the day!”[iv]  (Lovers of C.J. Dennis’ poems can enjoy the whole 6 verses here.)

The Jenolan Caves Historical & Preservation Society has done quite a bit of research into this controvertial incident, which evidently caused such bad feeling that the Duke later regretted having agreed to it. It was considered an insult to the returned soldiers and bereaved families that they were excluded from the impromptu event. It is even possible that Dennis' little poem was a satirical reprimand.

Who Else was in the Royal party?

So after this unexpected diversion, the fleet of 15 [v] cars, including 12 Crossley cars [vi], especially imported and fitted out for the royal visit, left to view the lookout at Echo Point on their way to Jenolan Caves. 15 cars means a big retinue, so who else was in the huge group?  There was definitely the Duchess’ Lady-in-waiting, the Hon. Mrs Gilmour.  British Field Marshal, Rudolph Lambart, Tenth Earl of Cavan and his wife were present [vii], as was Sir Brudenell White who, as the chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, had organised the royal itinerary.

Other guests were Mr E. B. Harkness (Under-Secretary to the Chief Secretary’s Dept), Mr H. J. Lamble (Director of the Govt Tourist Bureau), Mr Lazzarini (Chief Secretary), Mr Flannery (Minister for Public Works), Surgeon-Commander White (Royal Physician), Mr C .H. Hay [viii] (Under-Secretary to the Premier’s Department). And it’s possible these men brought their wives.

The Duke’s Equerry, Baron Nugent, and the Duke’s private secretary, Mr P. Hodgson, are likely to have been there.  Chief Inspector Hay, of Scotland Yard, was probably there also, as he was charged with the personal safety of the Duke and Duchess.[ix]

Huge Underground Broadcast Preparations

The motorcade finally arrived at Jenolan Caves, where arrangements had been made for a night inspection of the Left Imperial Cave, (nowadays called the Chifley). A wireless broadcast of the Duke speaking from the cave was also scheduled, and was expected to be a world first and a technological coup for radio 2BL.

2BL was fully prepared, having sent a team of 14 to Jenolan, including technical staff and concert performers, to set up for the royal visit.  They had installed microphones in various parts of the caves, so that listeners would hear a continuous description of the sights seen by the royal visitors, when they arrived, and even hear some of their remarks.[x]  They planned for the broadcast to be picked up even in New Zealand.

The broadcast had been well publicised in the days leading up to the visit. The Sun had written, “Later, when the Royal party enters one of the caves, in charge of the  superintendent (Mr. Wiburd), the various points of interest will be described by the announcer. During the evening, concert items will be rendered by 2BL's party, and on Friday at 10 a.m. an account will be given of the royal departure.”[xi]

Even schools were urged to acquire wireless sets, in order to hear the words of the Duke.[xii]

Major Disappointment – No Underground Speech

When the royal party arrived, 2BL transmitted a description of the arrival, the names of all the guests, descriptions of the decorations and dining menu. Australia waited for the Duke's speech, with huge anticipation.

It is common knowledge that the Duke suffered from a stammer. Great progress had been made with therapy from Lionel Logue (the subject of the Film ‘The King’s Speech’).  But at the last minute, the Duke declined to do the broadcast.  Listeners sat patiently beside their wireless sets only to hear the announcement that the Duke and Duchess had returned to Caves House, followed by music. It was a major disappointment.

The Daily Telegraph wrote “Some preparations had been made for broadcasting the progress of the Royal visitors through the Caves. A certain amount of apparatus was installed. It was allowed to go back unused.

"Their Royal Highnesses entered the Left Imperial Cave, one of the five giants of the series, shortly after 7.20 p.m., when there were no curious sightseers about. They saw the wonders of Katie's Bower, the Madonna and Lucinda Caves, the Woolshed, and others.[xiii]”   

The National Advocate reported “Elaborate arrangements were made, for instance, for listeners to hear the Duke of York from Jenolan Caves. About a dozen microphones bad been placed in the Caves, and, as both the Duke and Duchess had expressed a wish to speak once more to the people of New Zealand, Station 2BL, which was carrying out the transmission, fully expected success.

"Listeners were disappointed, therefore, when at about 8 o'clock they heard the words, 'This is Station 2BL Sydney transmitting from the Caves House, Jenolan. The Duke and Duchess of York have just left to inspect the Caves. We regret to announce that the Duke has expressed a wish that there will be no broadcasting from the Caves during the inspection'.

“Listeners filled in the next two hours hearing a concert broadcasted from the Caves House. Then came the announcer's further statement, — 'The Royal Party have returned from the Caves, and have gone upstairs’. A couple more songs followed, and then, 'That completes our transmission from the Caves House.' That was the listeners' share of it.”[xiv]   

Success in Spite of Everything

Although the general public was disappointed, the Duke and Duchess were filled with both awe and trepidation when they toured the Left Imperial Cave.  The Newcastle Sun reported that the Duchess said, “Are they not marvellous? But they make me feel frightened.”

She fluttered a gloved hand close to the white wall and said, “One could almost write one’s name on it,” implying that she would like to. 

But putting graffiti in the caves was a punishable offense by then, so their guide, Mr Wiburd, diplomatically remonstrated, “If you put your initials there, it will mean a long holiday for me.”[xv]

Following their cave inspection, the Duke and Duchess sat down to a splendid 15-course dinner, in the newly completed grand dining room (now Chisolm's Restaurant), in Caves House, including such mouth-watering choices as lobster neuberg, roast turkey St. James and rum omelette. 

Then the entire party stayed overnight. We don’t know for sure which Caves House guestroom the Duke and Duchess stayed in, but many have speculated. An educated guess says room 303. Room 303 is in the 1926 wing and would have been newly finished at the time. It is on the top floor, with a lovely view of the Grand Arch. Tradition has it that the Duke and Duchess had an entire floor to themselves, and the rest of their party stayed on the floor below.

Did they have their own bathroom? No, they would have had to wander down the hall to the shared bathroom or use the royal chamber pot.  But in those days, the average Aussie considered it a modern marvel to have a toilet that was indoors rather than out in the backyard. 

The next day, a morning inspection of the Orient Cave had been scheduled. Then, as now, the Orient was thought to be one of the most beautiful caves in the world. But the Duchess, who privately declared her fatigue [xvi] could not countenance the 45-minute walk through the lowest section of the cave system, then up 122 steep stairs, and an iron ladder, merely to reach the cave, with a similar tiring journey on return.

So bidding goodbye to Mr. Wiburd outside Caves House, the Duke was presented with a “beautiful book of cave views prepared by the Government Printing Office.”[xvii] The Duchess was given a leather cushion, hand-painted with waratahs and Christmas bells. The Countess of Cavan and Mrs Gilmour received cushion covers, hand-painted with kookaburras and wildflowers.[xviii] Then they left for Mount Victoria and the royal train back to Sydney. Among the presents from the Duke of York was a silver matchbox, bearing the Duke's coat of arms and the initials of the Duke and Duchess in gold, to Mr. Wilburd, chief guide at Jenolan Caves.

Australia left a lasting impression on the Duke of York. As a much-loved king in the early 1950’s, he planned another much-anticipated visit, but, unfortunately, he died young, age only 57.

Soak Up the History and Romance

When the Duke and Duchess of York visited Jenolan 94 years ago, in 1927, they needed to keep to a tight schedule. But when you visit, you can take your time.  Have a proper getaway and stay for several days in an atmospheric guestroom – don’t worry, it will have its own bathroom. Enjoy the break from TV, and read a book. Write a postcard. Soak up the history and the romance.  Dine in elegant Chisolm’s Restaurant, and enjoy great food, wine and genuine 1927 ambience.

[xvi] Letter from the Duchess of York to Queen Mary 20/4/1927 From: ‘Counting One’s Blessings The selected letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ edit. William Shawcross Macmillan 2012

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