Jenolan Caves

Wilson's Delight - Absurdly Vulgar

March 24, 2021


“I discovered yesterday a very grand series of caves…The chambers are numerous, and beyond description. I thought it would not be possible to excel the Imperial in beauty, but this discovery excels any I have yet made. I intend further exploring."[i]

The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate was quoting Jeremiah (Jerry) Wilson, on Feb 22, 1893. During the following weeks, the report of Jerry’s discovery would be reprinted by hundreds of newspapers all over Australia.

Jeremiah WilsonJerry was the caretaker at Jenolan Caves, officially, the ‘Keeper of the Caves’, since 1866. Over 2 days, he had crawled, squeezed, slid and climbed, by candlelight, through 18 new chambers of his newly discovered cave.  He was so amazed with the enormity and significance of his discovery that he immediately named the entire cave ‘Wilson’s Delight’[ii]. Then, he documented every chamber and sent his exciting descriptions to the newspapers.  Jerry was a prolific writer, and he knew how to tell a story. 

Brushes with Death

In fact, one of Jerry’s most well-known tales comes from his discovery of the 10th chamber, and his subsequent brush with death, “This is the chamber where I had the misfortune to be left in the dark, and, as I thought at the time, had very little hopes of ever seeing daylight again. My candle had burnt out, and I had replaced another in my candlestick and was intending to light it, when to my horror I could find no matches.

“When on these exploring expeditions I usually put a few loose matches in each of three or four pockets, which I had done on this occasion. I could find none, and they must have fallen out when scrambling through the narrow passages in different attitudes, and on searching several times without success I began to realise my awful position. My thoughts and confusion for a time are indescribable, for I was fully a mile from the entrance and alone, out of hearing, and no one had the remotest idea where to commence a search. The thoughts uppermost in my mind now were of my wife and children.

“I grew excited, and the perspiration streamed down my face and started from all parts of my body, completely soaking my clothes. I slapped my hands down on my thighs in despair, when lo! one of my wrists fell on a matchbox in my trousers pocket. With the greatest care I drew it forth, and to my unbounded surprise it contained five matches. I had no recollection of putting them there, and it was quite irregular to my usual custom.

“I have been exploring about Jenolan for about 38 years, but never had such a dreadful experience before, and pray that I never shall again. In consequence of this incident I have named this particular chamber " Wilson's Despair."[iii]

Jerry had another near miss in the 14th chamber. He wrote, “In trying to remove some smaller pieces a little further on, so that I could make another opening big enough to get through, I had to use the hammer pretty freely, and as I had almost succeeded down came about 20 tons of rock just in front of me, only giving me sufficient warning to jump back under shelter of a huge but secure looking rock, thus postponing an early departure for the happy hunting grounds.”[iv]

Thrilling Descriptions

Jerry’s made his descriptions as seductive as possible. Of the 2nd chamber, he wrote, “The walls are beautifully covered with stalactites and the floor with corresponding stalagmites of the purest white, beyond the description of my pen.”[v]

Jerry saw that his new cave has been inhabited by many bats, for a long time. To make his readers shiver with dread, of the 5th chamber, he wrote, “on the floor of this chamber there is bat guano about a foot deep.”[vi]

And about the 10th chamber, he said “This chamber presents a most enchanting spectacle, the formations are in endless variety, and of every imaginable shape, and wonderfully clear. Some are as fine as threads and straws, while thousands of fine pieces are lying about the floor, presumably broken off by bats which have infested the place ages ago, as there are many remains of bats and a quantity of bat guano nearly all through from the start.”[vii]

On March 29, in his article published by the Australian Star, Jerry wrote, “This finishes the outline of a description of the new cave discovered on February 20, 1893, and I may add that, it is far more beautiful and possesses many more geological studies for the scientific and curious than any of the other caves in this locality, or, in fact, in any part of the world.”[viii]    

'Wilson’s Delight' and Chamber Names

Although an extremely busy man, Jeremiah Wilson still made time for his greatest passion, exploring the vast underworld, frequently risking his life.  Many would agree that he was totally justified in christening his discovery ‘Wilson’s Delight’. 

However, on March 11, a highly offensive item appeared in the Wagga Wagga Express. It read, “perhaps there has been no more striking instance of absurdly vulgar and inappropriate naming than the calling one of the beautiful caves recently discovered in the Jenolan series 'Wilson's Delight.' … Preserve us from such a, to say the least of it, snobbish name.”[ix]

The arrogant writer went on to say that if a paid caretaker makes a discovery, he is only doing his job and his name is of no importance. Others must have felt the same, because by 1895, Jerry’s glorious discovery was called the Slattery Cave.  Later it was named The Jubilee Cave, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  It’s easy to imagine how bitterly disappointed Jerry must have been. It’s not recorded anywhere, but we can assume that the tenacious Irishman would have had something to say. The NSW government tried to retire him in 1896, but Jerry refused to go and went on to discover more caves at Jenolan and elsewhere.

But back to the names of the Jubilee Cave’s many chambers.  Today we call some of them the Alabaster Hall, Victoria Bower, the Whales Throat and the Marble Arch.

But there are others which are less well known. For example, 1895, Prince Franz Joseph of Battenberg visited Jenolan and Jerry showed him through all the caves that had been discovered up to that date, and he dubbed one of the new cave’s chambers the Prince’s Chamber.

In 1900, an item in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal reveals that some of the Jubilee’s chambers were named during a ministerial visit. “The following are the names given: Cook's Cavern (in honour of Mr. J. Cook, member for Hartley); Ethel's Grotto (in honour of Miss McLachlan); Matilda's Retreat (in honour of Mrs. McLachlan); Edie's Bower (in honour of Mrs. J. L. Fegan); Lyne Cave (in honour of the Premier); Sydney Smith Cave (in honour of Mr. Sydney Smith).”[x]

Although tin plaques were made, to immortalise these politically chosen names, only 3 plaques remain. It is ironic that the name of one section in particular is always remembered – Wilson’s Despair.

We hope to reopen the Jubilee Cave sometime this year or next.  During its long closure, it was updated with new lighting, stainless steel handrails and mesh to protect the precious formations.  New experiences are on the drawing board, so that in the not-too-distant future, you can once again experience the magical Jubilee Cave.

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