Jenolan Caves

Wiburd on the Wireless

November 30, 2020

James WiburdIn November, one of Jenolan’s most well-known historical figures would have turned 154.  In 1886, after his doctor had given him only 3 weeks to live, James Carvosso Wiburd came to Jenolan, to see his brothers who were working there as carpenters.[i] Not only did the doctor’s prediction fail to come true, but Wiburd worked at Jenolan for 45 years, to 1931, including 29 years as manager. 

He was a legendary cave explorer.  Alongside Jack Edwards and Robert Bailey, Wiburd discovered Jenolan’s most fantastic caves – the River, Orient and Temple of Baal.  Tall, thin Wiburd was gifted with a gentlemanly elegance and demeanour. In his endless quest for knowledge, he gathered as much information as he could about the caves and surrounding area.  Wiburd was best known for his love and care for wildlife.

During his years at Jenolan, he showed thousands of people through the spectacular caves, from all walks of life, from the lowest, to royalty. At Jenolan, he married and raised a family. Wiburd saw innumerable changes in the Aussie way of life, even at isolated Jenolan, where Caves House grew from one small building to a 4-storey grand hotel, automobiles replaced horse and cart, electric lights (and Jenolan’s own hydroelectric generator) replaced candles, and radio became a major form of communication and entertainment. In fact, the miracle of ‘wireless’ was soon broadcasting the magic of Jenolan to the world.

On 23 November 1923, listeners gathered eagerly in their homes around pieces of wondrous new technology, to hear Australia’s first radio broadcast. Only Sydney’s most privileged would have possessed the means to hear the first broadcast. The radio station was 2BS, (later changed to 2BL). They had beaten their rival station, 2FC. 2FC did not achieve transmission for another two weeks, and officially went to air on 9 January 1924.[ii]

1926 display ad for radio 2fc broadcast from Jenolan CavesA licence was required to own a ‘wireless’. Between 1924 and 1929 the number of licensed listeners grew from over 1,200 licences to over 300,000 ,000.[iii]

1926 display ad for a 'wireless'

Jenolan Enjoys Rivalry of Sydney's First 2 Radio Stations

Only 2 years and 7 months later, 2FC achieved the first radio broadcast from Jenolan, as part of a series from unusual locations. It was a huge occasion. For 3 months prior, 2FC promoted the event, providing unprecedented publicity.

On the afternoon of 1 June 1926, a cast and crew of 20 arrived Jenolan. At 6 o'clock, during the children’s radio session, they broadcasted James Wiburd gaving a talk on natural history. Then from 8 o'clock, a continuous entertainment programme was broadcast. From inside the grand hotel, Jenolan Caves House, the Farmer's Dance Band played, and the artists included Gladys Finister, soprano, and Wally Baynes, comedian. Between performances, the transmission came from inside the caves.

The wires for the microphone were taken through the Lucas Cave, and Wiburd broadcast a description of the setup. In the Cathedral Chamber of the Lucas Cave, the Metropolitan Quartet, with organ accompaniment, sang traditional songs, including one specially written about Jenolan, by Rex Shaw. English entertainers, Raine and Powell, also sang from another area of the Lucas Cave. The transmission between Caves House hotel and the Caves went on throughout the evening until 11pm.

On Sunday morning the broadcast was from the Temple of Baal cave. The beauties of the cave were described, and music was provided by the combined artists.[iv] The signals were relayed to Sydney via telephone line.[v]

For many weeks after, 2FC presented Wiburd on their children’s show, “Hello Man” and on other segments about nature.

short article about Jenolan visit by Lord Stonehaven, the Governor General in 1926

Huge Publicity Brought VIPs to Jenolan

After such intense publicity in Sydney, it’s no wonder that Jenolan was almost immediately visited by the NSW Governor, Sir Dudley de Chair, his wife and family, on June 8[vi], and then by the Governor General, Lord Stonehaven and his mother-in-law Lady Kintore, on June 23[vii].

2BL Tries to Outdo 2FC at Jenolan

Not to be outdone, very soon after, Sydney radio station 2BL announced they were coming to Jenolan also, on July 24. A month before the event, 2BL started publicising their intention. The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, wrote, “a party of twelve will give a concert programme underground. Uncle Jack will tell the children’s bedtime stories from the caverns where the pixies, gnomes, and fairies dwell, and descriptions will be broadcast of the well-known caves, and some which have not yet been opened to the public.  Listeners will be able to compare the transmission of the two stations.”[viii]. 

The Daily Telegraphwrote, “Mr Wiburd, superintendent of the caves, will also talk to the children, telling them about the wallabies and the birds which live around the caves.  At 6:30 Broadcasters’ Trio will play instrumental selections, which will be received by a microphone high up in the coach-house cave, which is big enough to hold the G.P.O. Tower. Mr Wiburd will describe the Nettle and Arch Caves, after which Broadcasters transmission will be continued from Sydney to enable the usual sporting results of the afternoon to be broadcast. Various interesting features about the caves will be discussed on the air during the evening, and a musical programme will be given from the Lucas Cave and from the Caves House itself. 

“An ambitious attempt will be made at 9:10pm to pick up the interstate stations, in the interior of the Lucas Cave, and to rebroadcast them from Sydney, the gap between the Caves and broadcasting station being bridged by a land line.  On Sunday morning, the concert party and other guests at the Caves House will inspect the caves and some chat about those present will be broadcast as they enter.  At the social evening which is to be held at the caves house on Saturday night, the broadcasting party will themselves by entertained by music broadcast from Sydney and picked up by receiving sets in the caves house.”[ix]

2BL heralded their broadcast as a great success.  The Sun enthusiastically wrote, “To-night the human voice singing in the Devil's Coach House at the wonderful limestone caves went out by radio to listeners all over Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Ocean. The clear young voices of Miss Heather Kinnaird, Miss Margaret McKenzie, and Miss Marjorie Skill entering the microphone within the Caves; the playing of Broadcasters' Trio and a full concert programme, were carried 120 miles to station 2BL at Coogee. and there lifted on to the air. And so great is the speed of radio that not only listeners generally, but guests at the Caves House, also heard every word and every note played, the receiving set at the Caves House being used to pick up the programme as it spedthrough the ether.

“To-night's entertainment came through splendidly. Uncle George was in his best form, when telling the bed- time stories. Sitting on a rock in the Devil's Coach House, he and Mr Wiburd, superintendent of caves, talked to the children of goblins and fairies, and Mr. Wiburd also told many stories of the Caves.

“Perhaps the feature of the evening was the picking up of the stations at Brisbane and Melbourne within the Lucas Cave and the relaying of part of the programme by land line to Sydney, from where it was rebroadcast by 2BL. The managing director of Broadcasters, Ltd., Mr. Maclardy, had charge of the evening's arrangements, and a large number of persons prominent in the radio world were present.”[x]        

Staging this complex performance was not easy for 2BL.  The Armidale Chronicle reported, “It was amusing, wrote C. C. Faulkner, Director of the Radio Broadcasting Bureau, who accompanied the party, to see the artists struggling with their instruments along the rough passages at the caves. Instead of a grand piano, Mr. Vern Barnett and Miss Bertram, the pianists of the company, had to play, a little harmonium which was dragged up and down the steps in the caves with much painful effort. Mr. Bryce Carter's cello was also a problem and finally, when Broadcasters trio started to play, a trickle of water began to drip into Miss Dulcie Blair's violin. Two men were crouching on the floor of the cave trying to steady the little harmonium, which was precariously balanced upon a particularlyuneven floor. If a false note was struck—well, — what could you expect? Uncle George allowed himself five minutes to get from the Caves house, to the Devil's Coach' House, from where he told the bedtime stories. It was pitch dark, however, and George arrived with his shins well bruised and skin scraped from his hands, but in the nick of time.[xi]”  

Why Were These Broadcasts Significant?

The Jenolan broadcasting event was a benchmark experiment for radio communications, especially in regional areas.  On 26 July 1926, The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “the intention of both stations to transmit in future direct from country centres opens up a new and interesting era in the history of broadcasting to this state.  These country transmission do a great deal to get the people in the rural areas to take an interest in radio, and once they do so they will soon appreciate its importance in the home and public life of rural areas in the future”[xii]

The second half of 1926 must have been an incredibly busy time for staff in the caves and at Caves House hotel, but worthwhile for the publicity it brought.

In 1927, radio was also broadcast into the River Cave from Sydney.  On Feb 19 and 20, 1927, Broadcasters’ Engineer, Mr. R. Allsop, visited Jenolan, and The Sun wrote, “A small portable super hetrodyne set at the bottom of the River Cave brought the N.S.W. stations 2BL and 2FC at a volume twice as great as could be obtained outside the Caves. The large crowd during the morning inspections greatly enjoyed the choir singing at the Randwick Presbyterian Church, which was broadcast by 2BU.[xiii]   

Radio Stunts Brought Royalty to Jenolan

Next thing Wiburd knew, the Duke and Duchess of York were coming to Jenolan on March 31, and the Duke intended to make a radio broadcast from inside one of the caves at 8:30 pm.[xiv]

In preparation for the royal visit, 2BL installed microphones in various parts of the caves, so that listeners would hear a continuous description of the sights seen by the royal visitors, and hear some of their remarks.[xv]  Schools were urged to acquire wireless sets, in order to hear the thrilling words of the Duke.[xvi]

2BL sent a group of 14 to Jenolan for the royal visit.  They were able to transmit a description of the royal party arrival, the names of all the guests, descriptions of the decorations and dining menu. The Sun wrote, “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.[xvii]

But unfortunately, on the actual visit, the Duke said that their visit to Jenolan was to be a ‘private’ one – no broadcast.  The Daily Telegraph wrote “Some preparations had been made for broadcasting theprogress 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 sight seers about. They saw the wonders of Katie's Bower, the Madonna and Lucinda Caves, the Woolshed, and others.[xviii]”   

It was a major disappointment for 2BL and listeners. 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 Sydneytransmitting 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.”[xix]   

After these radio ‘stunts’, there was a bit of a backlash.  Some people thought that broadcasts from unique locations was an irresponsible use of radio, which should be used to report news, not ‘freak items’. ”[xx].

After Wiburd - Tradition of Cave Broadcasts Developed

Wiburd retired in 1932, but radio did not lose interest in Jenolan Caves.  In Sept 1932, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “A party of 180 school pupils recruited by Radio Station 2CH will go to Jenolan Caves to-day. The Caves Express will run as a special train at 10:35 am. …There will be a special broadcast of the departure of the train and a children's wireless session will be broadcast from JenolanCaves House to-night, to-morrow night, and Thurs- day night, at 6.20 o'clock. “[xxi]     

In Sept 1933, radio station 2GB broadcast a church service from the Cathedral Chamber of the Lucas Cave.  Around 220 people attended.[xxii] They brought a ‘portable’ organ weighing a considerable 48 lbs.  The broadcast was heardthroughout the State with remarkable clarity.[xxiii]

A Mother’s Day broadcast from Jenolan became a tradition for several years. In May 1935, the Lithgow Mercury reported, “Lithgow's State Mine Band achieved distinction yesterday, when it gained the honor of being the first band in Australasia (and possibly the world) to broadcast from an underground cave. The band took part in Station 2GB's Radio Sunday School sessionfrom the Cathedral Cave of the Jenolan Caves system. It was the fifth occasion on which 2GB has transmitted from the Caves, and the reception, in Sydney was declared to be the best of the series. Reception in other parts of the State was good.”[xxiv]

On Mother’s Day 1936, a radio station broadcast from the Cathedral cave again, this time featuring the Lithgow State Mine Band, the Lithgow Methodist Church Choir and 350 attendees![xxv] In May 1938, 2GB broadcast the Hoskins Memorial Presbyterian Church Choir from the Cathedral chamber. About 300 people attended and then enjoyed tea afterwards in Caves House.[xxvi]  Then in May 1949, The Sun reported, “For 15 years 2GB has been doing an annual choral broadcast from Jenolan Caves, under the auspices of the 2GB Community Chest. Next Sunday, at 4.30 pm, three choirs, totalling more than 100 voices, will be heard in a half-hour broadcast from thecaves.” [xxvii]

But the heyday of radio was coming to a close. Radio broadcasts from Jenolan continued, especially religious services from the Cathedral chamber, but they were considered less and less ‘newsworthy’, as radio was superseded by the popularity of TV.

[i] The Binoomea, issue 170, May 2017, article ‘Wiburd’s Commencement Date’ by Jenny Whitby

0 Comments (Reply)
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

Please Contact Me