Jenolan Caves

The RW Mystery

June 18, 2015

Early tourists at Jenolan Caves were in the unfortunate habit of leaving their names behind, as well as breaking off and stealing crystal specimens as souvenirs. That would be unthinkable now. But back in 1872, there was so much cave vandalism that the local MP, John Lucas, pushed for regulations to stop it – the first ever conservation measures in Australia.

The regulations, punishable by fine, lessened the occurrence of stalactite breakage. But some staff and visitors continued chiselling their names or initials, or writing them in candle smoke or pencil, along with the date of their visit, directly onto the beautiful and irreplaceable calcite crystal formations for which the caves are so famous today. What were they thinking?! Ironically, although it is now illegal to deface the caves, this old graffiti has become part of Jenolan’s quirky history and provides clues about the people who worked or visited in the caves long ago.

One particularly noticeable set of initials, ‘RW’ written large, in pitch or tar, near the 1880 bridge in the Lucas Cave, often attracts the attention of visitors. The initials, this time as ’RTW’, appear again in the Imperial Cave, chiselled into the wall, near where the jawbone of a Tasmanian Devil is displayed. Who was this ‘RW’ or ‘RTW’? The answer lies in a tiny, almost inaccessible grotto in the Madonna Cave, where the full name appears: Ralph Wilson.

Ralph Terry Wilson was born in Windsor, New South Wales in 1855. He married in 1883. He and his wife, Emma, lived with their children in the region of Oberon. He was a blacksmith who worked with a portable forge and made a great deal of the early cave infrastructure, which can still be seen at Jenolan today.

The posts that hold up protective fencing, just before The Shambles, in the Chifley Cave, are his handiwork. He also made the supports for the stairs leading down to the Imperial River and up to the Jersey Cave. These supports are well over a hundred years old and are still used daily.

When Ralph painted his initials in the Lucas Cave in 1893, he must have been working on the installation of the electric lighting, because the pitch or tar which he used for paint was the favoured material to seal the joints in the electrical cabling. (This is not as primitive as it sounds, because any power overload was quickly identified when the sealant started bubbling with the heat.)

By August 1915, Ralph was employed in his trade on The Great Western Railway, between Tarana Quarry and Gemalla, converting the single track to an up and down line. It was the very first Anzac Day, Tuesday April 25, and sometime between 7 and 8 am, Ralph was walking between the up and down lines, when the ballast train arrived. The engine driver sounded a warning, but Ralph did not appear to hear it. Perhaps he suffered from industrial deafness after so many years of hammering hot metal.

A newspaper report described the tragic sequence of events,

“When near mileage 123m. 65ch. he was overtaken by the light engine used on the ballast train. The whistle was blown, but the deceased looking hastily around, stepped in front of the oncoming engine.”

Another report said what happened next, 

“The body was terribly mangled, both feet and one arm being severed and severe injuries being inflicted to the head also.”

Mercifully, with such terrible wounds, death would have been instantaneous. An inquest the following day, at the Tarana Hotel, returned a verdict of accidental death.

His remains were brought back to Oberon the same day for burial in the Anglican section of the cemetery, as

“Quite a gloom was cast over the town and district……… He has left a wife and grown up family, to whom the deepest sympathy of this community is extended.”

Today, if you visit the idyllic region around Tarana, the scene is one of peaceful rural contemplation. Nothing disturbs the tranquility except birdsong, the lowing of cattle, the occasional goods train and the early evening thunder of the XPT as is muscles its way towards Sydney.

There is no memento of the tragic events of Anzac Day 99 years ago, beyond Ralph Wilson’s initials painted on the walls of Jenolan Caves, and his grave in Oberon Cemetery with these poignant words, 

“He has left a wife and three daughters to mourn their loss as well as a wide circle of friends and acquaintances”

Today’s cave visitors are much more environmentally aware. They know that they can look but not touch. Even natural skin oils can cause permanent damage to the precious crystal formations. Breaking and defacing cave formations can lead to arrest plus a large fine, so don’t leave any graffiti of your own at Jenolan. But, you are welcome to ask your tour guide about any historical graffiti that you might see at Jenolan, because their mysteries, once solved, are precious windows to the past. 

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