Jenolan Caves

The Intrepid Webbs of Bathurst and Jenolan Caves

February 17, 2021

The Webb Building in Bathurst, NSW

One hundred and forty years ago this month (February), Katie’s Bower was discovered at the Fish River Caves, as Jenolan Caves was known back then.  Katie’s Bower is a huge cavern in the Left Imperial Cave, as the Chifley Cave was originally called. 

Katie's Bower in the early days

If you go on a tour of the Chifley Cave, Katie’s Bower is the last enormous cavern on the tour. You descend a long staircase, pass beneath an astonishing crystal formation called The Dragon’s Head, descend even more stairs and find yourself in a shadowy hall of cave formations of every shape and size, even a Wall of Noses!

Edmund Webb

What's the legend? How did it come to be called Katie’s Bower? Katie was the younger daughter of Edmund Webb, businessman and politician of Bathurst, NSW.

Edmund Webb, Bathurst entrepreneur

Originally a Cornishman, Edmund Webb arrived in New South Wales with his mother and 2 sisters, in 1847. He was 17 and very enterprising.[i] He settled in Bathurst where he worked as a draper. Frugality paid off for him, and by November 1851 he was able to set up his own business, “laying the foundation of one of the most successful businesses in the colony, outside Sydney.”[ii]

 Three years later he married Selina Jane Jones Tom. From 1855, they raised a family of 3 sons and 2 daughters. There was Edmund Tom Webb, Aubrey Webb (who died age 9), Selina Helen Webb, Sydney Webb and Catherine (Katie) Webb.

By 1862, Edmund had acquired his own building in the centre of Bathurst, the imposing Webb building, 169-181 George Street, opposite Machattie Park. The building was said to cover nearly two acres of ground.  You can still see the beautiful Webb building today.

Bathurst Post ad for Webb & Co, 1890Selina Webb, Edmund's wifeIn these days of online shopping, department stores might be feeling the strain, but up until very recently they were the mainstay of commercial life, in every major town. Webb and Co. were no exception. Their clothes, shoes and goods of every kind were sold all across the central west of NSW.  It is highly possible that Jeremiah Wilson, who managed the Fish River Caves (Jenolan), purchased clothing, boots and equipment from Webb and Co.

Edmund the Politician

A Methodist and a Freemason, Edmund Webb involved himself in civic affairs from the 1860's, becoming a member of the first Bathurst Borough Council in 1863, then Mayor in 1866, with further office in 1868 and 1875 to 1877.  His obituary said that as Mayor of Bathurst “He was regarded as exactly the stamp of a man required to direct the affairs of a progressive borough”.[iii]

Known for his philanthropy, both Newington College in Stanmore and the Methodist Ladies College in Burwood benefited from Edmund’s support, as well as the Bathurst Mechanics School of Arts, the Bathurst District Hospital, and the Bathurst Agricultural Horticultural and Pastoral Association.[iv]

A man of tremendous energy, Edmund still found time to become immersed in politics. He was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the member for West Macquarie from 1869 to 1874, then as the member for East Macquarie from 1878 to 1881.

example of riding dress stocked at Webb & Co

By that time, it is very likely that Edmund and his family were familiar faces at the caves.  There is a lengthy account in the Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser (1878) of Edmund, then Mayor of Bathurst, organising a trip to Jenolan for himself and approximately 50 other people, mainly Melbourne and Sydney Grammar School boy cricketers.[v]

Edmund, Jenolan’s benefactor

The following enigmatic statement appeared in The National Advocate, in which a gentleman, identified only as ‘L.W.’, wrote, “I might mention, the Webb family, of Bathurst, has done much in exploring the caves… Through them, indirectly, was the Imperial Cave first discovered.”[vi]

We can only guess what that actually means. The Imperial Cave was first discovered in 1878 by Henry Cambridge and Lamont Young, but Jeremiah Wilson claimed to have discovered it in 1879.  Perhaps the Webbs provided equipment that Jeremiah used in cave exploration, which led to his Imperial Cave discovery?

Other newspaper items confirm that Edmund donated equipment to the Fish River Caves (Jenolan).  The Sydney Morning Herald described Edmund as, “Hon. E. Webb, M.L.O., of Bathurst, who at various times has interested himself in regard to the caves… and who supplied ladders and ropes to the curator, and otherwise assisted him in his explorations.[vii]” That’s interesting.

And many years later, in 1926, the Corowa Free Press quoted Jenolan’s manager, James Wiburd, as saying “E. Webb was the name of the man who spent more money than any man in New South Wales to develop the Cave.”[viii]

Brave Katie Webb

So Edmund obviously became an extremely generous patron of the caves. In spite of his frantically busy life, he and his family still found time for caving. The National Advocate, in 1890, mentions that Katie and Selina Webb were 2 of only 3 ladies who had by that time been able to get into the Coral Cave (a small cavern off the Elder Cave). The article said, “We were informed that, hitherto only some female member of Mr. Wilson's family and a party of well-known and prominent Bathurst ladies (the Misses Webb) had seen this cave.”[ix]

Now, let’s return to the original question of how the spectacular Katie’s Bower came to be named after Edmund’s youngest daughter.

Katie age 27The generally accepted story is quite dramatic.  A party, including Edmund Webb and several family members, made their way through what was then called the left Imperial cave (now the Chifley), by candlelight, until they found a narrow passage that seemed to disappear deep into profound darkness.

The group consisted of several intrepid souls – Jeremiah Wilson (guide), Edmund Webb, Katie Webb (daughter), Edmund Tom Webb (eldest son), W.H. Webb (nephew) and J. Webb and Selena Webb (daughter). Aside from his own family members, Edmund also took H. Fulton, C. West, J. Bright, J. Thompson (son-in-law), W. Thompson, R. Thompson, E. Bowman (Katie’s future husband) and J. McPhillamy.[x]

As the smallest and lightest in the party, brave Katie went ahead, down the steep, narrow passageway, with a rope around her waist, holding only a candle, and was the first to set eyes on the newly discovered chamber. It was her 20th birthday. So it was named Katie’s Bower in her honour. 

Another cavern was named the Selina Cave, after Edmund’s wife.  Nellie’s Grotto is also thought to have been named for one of Edmund’s family[xi]. But which one?  Because Edmund’s wife and daughter were both named Selina, perhaps the daughter went by her middle name, Helen, which is sometimes shortened to Nellie. Possible?

Edmund died in 1899, aged 69. His obituary in the National Advocate said, “Mr. Webb was one of the pioneer captains of enterprise in the Western District and was known as a man of public spirit and generous impulse.[xii]” He certainly was all those things and much more.

Katie's Bower in the Chifley Cave at Jenolan Cave

Katie’s Bower, Chifley Cave, Today

So when today’s visitors explore Jenolan Caves, they follow in the footsteps of the Webb family, of Bathurst, people of enviable energy, in those pioneering days, who personified the spirit of enterprise, community, philanthropy – and adventure.

The Chifley Cave, featuring Katie’s Bower, is open for guided tours, and the story of Katie is one of our favourite stories that you might here on the tour. You can book the tour, and maybe high tea, accommodation, dinner or Chisolm’s weekend lunch.

After visiting Jenolan, Bathurst is a scenic hour’s drive, via Oberon. In Bathurst, you can view the old Webb building, check out one of several fascinating museums and historic homes or drive around the famous Mt Panorama racetrack. 

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