Jenolan Caves

William Blakely - His Lifelong Love Affair with Eucalypts

October 6, 2020

Eucalyptus blakelyi flowers

The Greater Blue Mountains covers over a million hectares and consists of 8 massive reserves, including the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve. Twenty years ago, on November 29, 2000, the whole area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for several outstanding reasons, but the main reason was the staggering number of eucalypt species, all represented in the one area. For such a thing to be of world-wide significance, worthy of being protected for all time, we can only imagine the years of field study, collecting and mapping. How did all this work even start?  Is it too big a stretch to suggest that it started in the late 1800s, at Jenolan Caves?

In 1866, the Fish River Caves Reserve was gazetted, six years before the declaration of the world’s first National Park.[i]  In 1884 the name of the caves changed officially to Jenolan.  In 1897, although a great distance from Sydney, the caves at Jenolan were gaining popularity, and the Blue Mountains were becoming a fashionable holiday destination for Sydney’s well-to-do. 

Just like today, government buildings were an ongoing cost.  But at Jenolan Caves, the government saw an opportunity to make money by building a grand hotel. So Civil Engineer, Ernest de Burgh was given the job of constructing a bridge into the Grand Arch. Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, had the task of designing and building a grand hotel. And since back then, grand hotels were expected to have gracious gardens, Joseph Henry Maiden, the Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens designed beautiful terraced gardens. 

Even before all this development took place, the Sydney Botanic Gardens had been working with Jenolan, sending 60 trees and 230 shrubs.[ii]  In 1898, at Jenolan, “in order to add to the beauty of the surroundings of the caves, Mr. Maiden, Curator of the Botanic Gardens, has been authorised to lay out new plantations.”[iii]  In August, the Botanic Gardens sent 500 more trees and 452 more shrubs to Jenolan Caves, and a further 20 trees and 96 miscellaneous plants were sent in September.[iv] 

The Lithgow Mercury reported “The director of the Botanical Gardens, Mr. J. H. Maiden, accompanied by two assistants, arrived here on Saturday. With the exception of about a dozen trees, they made a clean sweep of the gardens, cutting everything else out.”[v]

William BlakelyTo help, Jenolan Caves hired a 24-year-old gardener, William Faris Blakely. Born in Tenterfield, Blakely had spent much of his youth “in rural surroundings, giving him an appreciation of the problems of agriculture and pastoral work.”[vi] Blakely immediately got to work, alongside Harry Malthouse [vii] from the Botanic Gardens.

from Lithgow Mercury 9 June 1899In June, Journalists reported that, “Mr. J. H. Maiden, Director Botanical Gardens, paid a visit of inspection...  The gardener, Mr. W. Blakely, of Sydney, is indefatigable in his attention to his work, which reflects great credit on him.  He is now laying a fernery out in the entrance to the Grand Archway.”[viii]

In the same month, the Lithgow Mercury wrote, “From a scene of rugged grandeur, the place, after passing through the Grand Arch, has been converted into quite a sylvan beauty spot. … Around and in front of the house, gardens have been laid out and planted with shrubs and flowers in a manner which reflects the greatest credit on the taste of Mr. J. H. Maiden and Mr. W. Blakeley.”[ix] The impressive gardens were beautifully tended for many years.

But this article is not about Jenolan’s beautiful and exotic gardens of years ago.  It is about how Maiden and Blakely devoted their careers to studying native flora, especially eucalypts, and how they created the tools for identifying literally hundreds of eucalypts. Although others, for example, Myles Dunphy, in subsequent years, campaigned successfully to create National Parks, without Blakely and Maiden’s work and identification tools, the question is, could a Blue Mountains World Heritage application even have been contemplated 20 years ago?

From 1898 to 1900, Blakely was fascinated by the native flora of the Jenolan area. He and Jenolan Guide, James Wiburd, made the first significant attempt to catalogue the flora of the reserve, identifying 167 plant species.[x]

Blakely made many valuable collections, and soon brought himself to the notice of Mr Maiden.  Maiden was impressed with Blakely’s capacity as a collector and by his unusual ability to observe specific differences in plants, so he arranged Blakely’s transfer to the staff of the Gardens in 1900.[xi]  Blakely worked as a gardener in the Sydney Botanic Gardens for 12 years. In 1913, he was transferred to the National Herbarium as a botanical assistant.

description of Eucalyptus blakelyiCover of Blakely's Book, A Key to EucalyptsJoseph Maiden became the recognised authority on Eucalypts, and Blakely co-worked on Maiden’s monumental book [xii], A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus, in which 366 species were recognised. Maiden honoured Blakely by naming a eucalypt after him - Eucalyptus blakelyi [xiii].

Maiden died in 1925, but in 1934, Blakely published his own book, A Key to the Eucalypts.  It was the culmination of 28 years of study and research. The Key lists descriptions of all eucalypts species that had been discovered up to that time – 500 species - in one volume. With this work, Blakely devised an entirely new classification system for eucalypts, and to a large part, it forms the basis of modern infrageneric classification of the genus.[xiv] He wanted the Key to be a useful tool, not just for scientists, but for apiarists, seed collectors, foresters, entomologists, horticulturists, dendrologists, oil distillers and others.[xv]

Blakely was fascinated by the Blue Mountains flora, along with many others who campaigned for its protection. In 1933, Blakely wrote a series of articles, for the Katoomba Daily:

Blakely provided a report to Katoomba Council. He also made a few suggestions for improving the reserves, such as “the preservation of trees and plants, purchase of name-plates for trees, the surveying and measuring of the two giant Cut-tails in Federal Pass, the proposed moving of a fire-place from its dangerous position beneath one of the Cut-tails, the cutting out of the Rusty Mistletoe from trees in front of Katoomba Falls Reserve, the protection of the Blue Mountains Mallee and Dwarf She Oak, etc., etc.”[xvi]

Sydney Morning Herald 8 May 1940 - Retirement NoticeBlakely retired from the Botanic Gardens in May 1940. The Sydney Morning Herald announced his retirement, referring to him as a “Botanist and Eucalyptologist”. The article praised his considerable work on eucalypts. Because Blakely was so totally focussed on his work, it is hard to find any records that reveal anything about the man. So it was interesting to read that, “Genial and helpful, Mr Blakely is the antithesis of the accepted caricature of the botanist peering over specimens. An outdoors man who has tramped over mountains and valleys for thousands of miles on research work, he is also a student, self-taught and meticulous, and a man of science.”[xix] When you think about it, he could not have possibly done the breadth of research he did without also doing all the legwork.

The Australian Journal of Science (1941) described Blakely as “a born naturalist, the study of plants becoming his life's work and almost his sole interest. A man of simple tastes with little thought of personal gain. Equalling his profound knowledge of plant life was his readiness to pass on any information he had gained to other workers.”[xx]

In retirement, he was made Honorary custodian of the Eucalyptus collection at the Sydney Herbarium [xxi], and he continued to work on an update to his Key to Eucalypts, from his home in Hornsby, which back then, was still mostly farmland, bordering Kuring-Gai National Park.

Unfortunately, Blakely died little over a year later, on 1 September 1941. After his death, his Key to Eucalypts was republished in 1955, and again in 1965. For over 50 years, Blakely’s book was regarded as indispensable to anyone interested in eucalypts. 

Back to my original questions - is it too big a stretch to suggest that all this work started in the late 1800s, at Jenolan Caves? And without Blakely and Maiden’s work and identification tools, could a Blue Mountains World Heritage application even have been contemplated 20 years ago?

In the World Heritage Nomination, Blakely’s book, Key to the Eucalypts, was not directly used to show the huge range of eucalypt taxa in the Blue Mountains. However, at this 20th anniversary of the Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage inscription, we can take pride in the fact that Blakely started his career with us, at Jenolan Caves. He pursued a lifelong love affair with eucalypts, and his work became a vital step in describing the range of eucalypt variation. His work was later picked up and developed by other people, to show that the biodiversity of the Greater Blue Mountains was so valuable that it warranted protection for all time, as a World Heritage Area.

How can you find out how special the Blue Mountains are?  Peruse the easy-to-read Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage Nomination document. Prepare to be amazed.


[ii] - page 29

[iii] - page 33

[iv] - page 34

[v] - 1898 - Maiden arrives with plants and 2 assistants

[vi] Botanists of the Eucalypts, by Norman Hall, p21





[xi] Botanists of the Eucalypts, p 21

[xii] Botanists of the Eucalypts, p 21



[xv] Key to the Eucalypts by William Blakely, Preface to the 1st Edition


[xix] -

[xx] Botanists of the Eucalypts, p 21


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