Jenolan Caves

The Pest of Bathurst

July 31, 2020

Jenolan is known for Australia’s most spectacular caves.  But Jenolan’s pristine mountain bushwalks are less well known.  One of Jenolan’s best tracks takes you along the McKeown’s Valley. The path is mostly level and gives you the best chance of spotting native wildlife, especially rare brush-tailed Rock Wallabies and lyre birds.  If you access the Jenolan App on your smartphone while you are strolling along the McKeown’s Valley Track, choose the Healing Waters Walk, to find out how the ancient indigenous people used the area around the caves.  It is a lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon.

But why was that beautiful, wild mountain valley named McKeown’s Valley?  It was named after a scoundrel named James McKeown. Scanty facts about him have lead to fanciful stories of his crimes and capture in the valley that now bears his name.  Everyone loves a good bushranger story.

However, in 2008 Dr Dan Catchpoole did the most extensive research yet, into the identity and life of James McKeown, and produced an excellent series of articles which were published in 5 parts in the Australian Caves and Karst Management Association Journal from 2008 to 2014. So we have him to thank for most of the following information, which comes from his comprehensive and insightful research. 

James McKeown (sometimes spelled McKeon) was born in 1793 in Downpatrick[i], a small town about 21 miles south of Belfast in County Down, Northern Ireland. Five feet, nine and a half inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes, [ii]he was Catholic and unmarried. We may assume that he had worked on farms, as his trade was listed as ploughing and shearing. In 1824, at age 31, after being convicted of “robbing houses of worship”, he was sentenced to 7 years transportation. He arrived in NSW in 1825 on the ‘Asia’.[iii]

McKeown was assigned to work, for ‘G S W Marsden, Melville’ – the Reverend Samuel Marsden, official and cleric of early NSW history.  Marsden assigned him to Robert Smith at South Creek, an area between Richmond and Riverstone NSW. Smith also owned land at Bathurst, to which McKeown was sent, and that explains how McKeown came to be in a region not too far away from Oberon and the Jenolan valley.[iv]

For “breaking out of gaol twice and being at large in the bush”, he was sent to Sydney in 1827, and from there to Moreton Bay. By that time his description included “spear wound under left eye, another on left jaw bone. Large scar on left leg.”[v]

His removal from Bathurst must have been a relief to the townsfolk, because the occasion warranted a mention in The monitor (a Sydney paper) on 29 Oct 1827, in which he was described as “A desperate ruffian named McKeon who has for some time past been the pest of Bathurst”[vi].

After a cruel 3-year stint in Moreton Bay, in 1830, McKeown was returned to Sydney and sent back to Bathurst, to his original assignment under Robert Smith[vii]

He must have stayed out of trouble until 1834, when he gained his freedom. On his 1834 Ticket of Leave, his complexion was described as “dark sallow and slightly pock pitted”.[viii] Ill health was evident by the pale or yellowish condition of his skin.

We don’t know why he was living in the bush. But we know that he was surviving by theft and possibly growing a few vegetables, in the valley near the caves.  The caves were very special to the local indigenous people, but the white settlers knew nothing about them.

How the caves would have appeared in early 1800sIn 1899, Jeremiah Wilson wrote his account of Jenolan’s discovery.  (Wilson was the ‘Keeper of the Caves’ and an avid cave explorer.)  In his letter to the editor of the Lithgow Mercury on 7 April 1899, he said that in 1836 McKeown had stolen bullock bows, chains and a steel wheat grinder – all things of value at the time - from Coogie Flat, near Gingkin, a property belonging to local grazier, James Whalan.  It doesn’t sound like much, but evidently, McKeown also stole Whalan’s horses (plural) in order to transport the stolen goods. It was alleged that McKeown then killed the horses so that the authorities could not track them back and find him.[ix] We don’t know what McKeown intended to do with 6 bullock bows, but the horses – maybe he ate them in order to survive. Unfortunately for McKeown, he was tracked to his hidden mountain valley near the caves. His trackers spotted the smoke from his fire and in 1837 he was arrested, tried at Bathurst and sentenced to 15 years.[x] Later, when James Whalan returned to search for his stolen goods, he found the enormous caves, now called Jenolan Caves.

All this happened shortly before Jeremiah Wilson was born.  However he had reason to believe what he said was true. He wrote, “I was told this by Whalan's stockman, James Campbell, after-wards in 1855, so that James Whalan was the real discoverer of Jenolan Caves, in 1841, and the first man to enter them. When he returned he told people that he had been at the end of the world in the Devil's Coach-house, so that is how it got its name. Jerh Beale, who tracked McEwen, told me all they had done from starting to track. They did not see the caves until after the capture of McEwen. Mr. J. Whalan searched several times for his bullock harness and his horses. When I heard that McEwen took the bullock bows and chains I did not believe he carried them so far, but when exploring about fourteen years ago I found the bullock bows, six bows, two pairs of iron hinges, and two harrow pins, planted in a cave. There are scores of people who have seen them in the cave since I discovered it. This is the true account of the discovery of Jenolan Caves”[xi].

Unfortunately, the anthropological evidence has long since disappeared. So today it is not certain which of several small caves McKeown lived in, but it is thought to have been several miles along the valley, well and truly off the tourist trail. There are small caves in that location, which for the caves' protection, are never shown to tourists. The so-called 'Bushrangers Cave' has a large entrance with a good view of the valley, from which McKeown would have been able to see anyone approaching, without them seeing him. There is photographic evidence from 1900, of a set of bullock bows in the 'Bushrangers Cave'. However, nearby, there is another cave called 'McKeowns Hole' which has four hard-to-reach entrances, between which he could have moved without a light. The theory is that in this cave McKeown could escape anyone chasing him, by running into one entrance then exiting through another. However, there is no evidence at all to back this theory.

example of what a bullock bow looked likeAfter his lair was discovered, James McKeown now faced his worst punishment yet - transportation to the dreaded penal colony of Norfolk Island.  Next, records show that in 1844, McKeown was moved to Van Diemans Land, on the Lady Franklin, to begin several years of probation. There, he progressed through 10 different Probation Stations from 1844 to 1847.[xii]

In 1846, his was finally given his ticket of leave, which granted him freedom to work and live within a given district of the colony before his sentence expired. Then, in 1848, he received a conditional pardon, but was never allowed to return to England or Ireland. The census of 1851 records McKeown living in a bark hut in Spring Hill Bottom, in the middle of the Tasmanian midlands. Presumable that is where he died in 1854, aged 61.[xiii] More fanciful stories say that McKeown visited Jenolan again before he died, but Catchpoole’s research shows why that was quite unlikely.

When we read about convict James McKeown’s hard life, what sort of man do we picture? Sad? Tough? Stubborn? Independent? Unprincipled? Resourceful?  Penal system records provide superficial facts only, but we do know that he grew up near Belfast in the early 1800s. Bad life choices saw him ripped away from family and everything he knew and landed him in NSW, in the earliest days of Bathurst, where war between settlers and Aboriginals had only recently abated. He interacted with the pioneering families. McKeown saw the founding of Brisbane, experienced life in early Sydney cove, was in the midst of the convict colonies on Norfolk Island, Port Arthur and inland Tasmania. Although most convicts did well once they attained their freedom, unfortunately McKeown did not.  Although we cannot call him a hero, “to tease out the life of James McKeown finds us learning of our own origins as a nation – real experiences by real people in real situations.”[xiv]

So as you quietly wander the shady path along McKeown’s Valley, spotting shy wallabies and smiling at the lyrebird’s loud repertoire, try to imagine McKeown stealing to survive, hunted and desperate, his sad capture and arrest. Imagine James Whalan fruitlessly searching the valley afterwards, looking for his stolen goods and horses that were worth more than a man’s future, 183 years ago.


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