Tag Archives: Katie Webb

Searching for signatures in the dark

IF YOU’VE ever been caving, even one of those walk-in-walk-out tours where you don’t have to get your feet too dirty, you’ll know the experience does something to the soul.

“I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’.”

Perhaps it’s primal, a DNA memory from millennia ago when our ancestors found shelter underground? Perhaps it’s all those fairy tales reminding us that once upon a time there might have been something more in the dark than our elders were letting on?

It’s a frisson that people across the globe subject ourselves to daily, as tourism cave operators everywhere will tell you.

I had the chance to work at a cave system, one of the world’s largest, when I was a cave guide at NSW’s Jenolan Caves. Taking people into the dark recesses of the mountain was always a thrill, and I was lucky enough to be guided on a very special tour recently that was a real highlight.

Jenolan’s Arch Cave has been closed to the public since the 1930s, but late in 2017 I was granted access during a scientific inspection in order to find one name written on the cave wall in the 19th century.

Finding J. Falls

As a guide, the most intriguing stories I came across in my time at Jenolan are those that tell the tales of the people who went into the dark long ago.

SIGNATURE SPOTTING Dr Anne Musser, paleontologist and Jenolan guide, reading names on the crystal.

The first people of the area, the Gundungurra and Dharug, had long traversed the passageways and underground rivers, and their Dreamtime mythology included several of the cave systems in the NSW Central West.

By the middle of the 1800s, local settlers were regularly visiting the caves under the guidance of the local Whalan family, whose property at Oberon was one of the closest ‘gateways’ to the valley. They started the tradition of leaving names to record visitation, and, on occasion, the discovery of caves.

Most of what Jenolan guides related at the time I worked there came from the surviving oral traditions handed down by generations of guides before them, and one of the strongest stories concerned the discovery of a major section of the cave system by a local woman, Katie Webb.

I explored as much of her story as I could find, but there was another name that interested me, that of Jane Falls, whose legend at Jenolan include the possibility that she was one of the explorers to discover the system’s largest publicly open cave, the world-famous Lucas Cave, in around 1860.

The name Jane Falls polarises Jenolan guides. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s been bit of a male-dominated place in its time. Women have only been officially guiding tours since the 1980s, and between Katie Webb’s exploration in the 1880s and the next discovery of a cave by a woman there is a gap of more than a century.

The very idea that a woman might have discovered the Lucas Cave is confronting for some, which is one reason I suspect the issue of where Jane Falls’s signatures are remains a bit of a muddle.

‘J. Falls’ is credited as being one of the first European visitors to enter the Lucas Cave in newspaper reports from January 1860, but if that was Jane, she presents a conundrum for researchers. As was common practice, many of the signatures on Jenolan’s walls are initials only, so any appearance of ‘J. Falls’ could be one of three people: Jane Falls, her mother (also Jane), or Jane’s brother James, all Irish emigrants in the 1850s.

Nevertheless, a former colleague came across one trace of the Falls family in the Arch Cave, and so we went to see it for ourselves.


What became quickly apparent in the Arch Cave is that it’s a signature-rich chamber. Situated high in the Jenolan limestone, it was one of the earliest caves entered by European settlers, since it was easily accessed from the surface.

Like all caves, the major formations were named. By the time we were standing at the Assyrian Lion, identified as such for its similarity to those in the British Museum, we were looking at signatures scrawled in every direction, on walls, on crystal, and on the ceiling.

People left their mark using graphite pencil, or charcoal, or even the smoke from their candle, and in some places the names have quickly deteriorated.

I was struck by the possibility that we’d never find Jane’s name in this mass of graffiti!

A couple of side chambers required us to squeeze through into a narrower space where 19th century explorers had gone before, and I immediately saw the name ‘Edwin Whalan’ written boldly on a promontory of rock.

It made me chuckle. The Whalans earned their place in Jenolan lore, no doubt, but compared to some tiny signatures, the size and passion of this lustily scrawled Whalan moniker smacked of ownership.

A sweep of the torch above revealed other familiar names, but once again there were just so many. The Arch is a small cave but even so it would take hours and hours to search them all.

Some visitors had inscribed more than just names, also. Short poems, or expressions of how they felt, were touching reminders of the mysteries of the underworld, begging that question again, about why we come to gather in the dark and remember those who were here before us?


I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’. I stepped up for a closer look, and a shadowy word came into sharper focus. Most definitely ‘Falls’… my heart thumped. Most definitely a ‘J’ and an ‘A’. This was it! But standing there in wonder I had to admit immediately, this could be ‘Jane’ or ‘James’ Falls.

JANE’S NAME? The elusive signature of Jane or James Falls in Jenolan’s Arch Cave.

I grumbled at myself, and at poor handwriting, and the passage of time, then got a bit hopeful at the possibility of another name starting with ‘J’ and ‘A’ slightly above. Could this be Jane and James Falls, siblings on an expedition?

We took plenty of pictures and mused over the curlicues of the Falls signature. Nobody wanted to dash my hopes, but as our tour concluded and we journeyed out, I had to admit that it was not a conclusive sighting of Jane, not yet.

My search for her goes on, and will feature in plenty of writing to come, but to have stood in the dark where the Falls name was written, I feel closer than ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


Katie Webb and the cave girls

THE CAVE GIRLS An image which may include Katie Webb, her sister and mother.
THE CAVE GIRLS An image which may include Katie Webb, her sister and mother.

A Writer’s day job leads to an encounter with a legend.

IN late 2008 when I trained as a guide at Jenolan Caves, probably Australia’s best-known cave system, I embarked on a fascinating journey.

Jenolan is a world of its own, with its own folklore, and within the network of caverns resides a collection of intriguing stories.

“I was enveloped in a dreadful skirt that made me look like some disreputable old charwoman.”

For a theatre worker, the task of taking tickets at the door, leading guests on adventures in the dark, retelling stories, playing with light and sound to enhance the experience, in underground chambers of acoustic perfection, often followed by a round of applause, felt like a return to the magic backstage world of a real theatre.

Jenolan guides, when I trained, were given little written material on the history of the place. We needed to glean the legends of the caves from our more experienced peers. I realised very quickly that the men and women who hold Jenolan’s stories were taught the same cycles by their peers, and that I was being given access to a unique oral history with a very immediate link to the past.

The story which intrigued me the most was that of Katie Webb, and her cave exploring sisters, long ago dubbed ‘The Cave Girls’.

This article was published in Blue Mountains Life (Vintage Press) in October-November 2010.

CAVE ART Possibly the earliest surviving image of the Grand Arch of Jenolan Caves, known in 1861 as Fish River Caves.
CAVE ART Possibly the earliest surviving image of the Grand Arch of Jenolan Caves, known in 1861 as Fish River Caves.

What Katie Did

The Legend of Katie Webb & Jenolan’s female explorers.

Of his visit to Katie’s Bower in Jenolan’s Left Imperial Cave during the 1880s, Samuel Cook wrote: “Descending 14 steps into the Bower there is a fountain full of lime-water, and a plate suitably inscribed conveys the information that Katie’s Bower was discovered on the 7th February, 1881, by Jeremiah Wilson (guide), C. Webb, H. Fulton, C. West, J. Bright, E. Webb, E. T. Webb, J. Thompson, W. H. Webb, E. Bowman, W. Thompson, J. M’Phillamy, R. Thompson, J. Webb, and S. Webb. The before-mentioned gentlemen were the first to enter the Bower after its discovery”.

Despite the placement given to Jeremiah Wilson, persistent legends credit the second name on the list – ‘C.Webb’ – with the discovery of the chamber.

This person was not a ‘before-mentioned gentleman’, but Catherine, or ‘Katie’ Webb.

For the 170 years that Jenolan has attracted tourists, there has been a hunger for guides to interpret their mysteries, and cave discovery tales rank amongst the most retold.

Years of tradition have made Jenolan’s guiding staff into the keepers of the Caves’ stories.

Rebecca Lewis has been a Jenolan guide since 2006, and has collected information about the first woman credited with the discovery of a Jenolan cave.

“This story is all oral history, and it varies depending on who you talk to,” Beck says.

“I believe Katie and her family were visiting the Left Imperial Cave (the original name of the Chifley) with Jeremiah Wilson, who had discovered the cave the year before. The group was admiring the beauty of the Lucinda Cave, named after Jeremiah’s wife. Jeremiah was about to lead the group out, but Katie, about 19 at the time, decreed that she did not wish to return the way they entered. Instead, she wished to continue down a large and steeply sloping passage that none had yet been down. Jeremiah, who was a curious man himself, decided to lower her down the passageway with a rope tied around her waist. With only a candle to light her way as she slid down the passage into the unknown, she found the largest chamber yet to be discovered in that area.”

Katie Webb was not the first female explorer at Jenolan. Thirty years before, legend tells of the caving exploits of Jane Falls.

“Everything we know about her is basically guesswork from piecing together the signatures she left behind in the caves,” Rebecca explains. “It was common practice for the visitors of her time to sign their names on the cave walls to prove they had been there, like leaving our names in a visitors’ book today”.

“The most talked-about signature of Jane is at a place called ‘Signature Rock’ in the Elder Cave (also referred to as ‘The Plughole’).

“The signature reads ‘J Falls 27th December 1854’,” Beck outlines.

“The interesting fact about this particular signature is that she did not sign her name ‘Jane’. She probably did this because she knew it might not remain on the rock if passing visitors realised it was a woman who wrote it. Writing ‘J. Falls’ leaves the assumption that the writer was a male. We know it is Jane’s signature because we have found her name in other caves and we can match dates and handwriting.”

One appearance of a ‘J. Falls’ signature has challenged the discovery of Jenolan’s popular Lucas Cave.

“A signature of hers remains in the original entrance of the Lucas Cave, known as the ‘Sole of the Boot’. It’s been sighted many times over the years, however, every time we mount an expedition to photograph it we cannot relocate it to do so!” Rebecca says.

According to some guides, the signature is dated 1858, predating the established discovery of the Lucas Cave by Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting by two years.

While researching for newspaper reports of the Lucas Cave’s discovery (which might clear up the mystery), Jenolan guide and historical researcher, David Hay, found that the originals in Sydney’s Mitchell Library have disappeared. “It’s almost as though someone pinched them,” he laughs.

Tantalising myths and very little evidence leaves us to explore the possibilities.

CAVE DISCOVERER Catherine 'Katie' Webb, the woman who discovered Jenolan's Chifley Cave in the 1880s.
CAVE DISCOVERER Rebecca Lewis as Catherine ‘Katie’ Webb, the woman who discovered Jenolan’s Chifley Cave in the 1880s.

“‘The Cave Girls’ is a name that was given to a group of women in an old photo and the name just kind of stuck!” Rebecca explains.

“The thing that we all find interesting is that they are all wearing men’s clothing! We don’t know for certain who any of the women are, but we believe Katie and her sister Selena are amongst them.

They must have been fairly influential women for their time not only to be wearing men’s clothing in the first place, but to also have a photo taken wearing them.”

Comparison with later photographs suggests Katie and Selena (known as Nellie) are the central figures seated on rocks, with their mother (also Selena) standing at the left.

Katie Webb’s father Edmund Webb accompanied his family to Jenolan on the day of Katie’s discovery – his name and those of Katie’s siblings Selena and Edmund Thomas Webb appeared on the plaque seen by Cook.

Webb was a prominent Bathurst businessman and politician, whose empire included the supply of clothing, footwear and millinery to the Central West. The uniform clothing of the three women at the top of the ‘The Cave Girls’ image might indicate they were supplied by Webb specifically for the purposes of cave exploration.

In her often humorous Letters from Samoa (1891-1895) Margaret Stevenson (mother of writer Robert Louis Stevenson) sheds light on how visiting female tourists were attired at Jenolan.

“We had to take off our good dresses and get the loan of dirty old clothes; Miss B- wore a pyjama suit, and made a very nice boy, but I absolutely declined to go to that length of juvenility. In consequence I was enveloped in a dreadful skirt that made me look like some disreputable old charwoman.”

Described as a “dedicated Wesleyan Methodist”, if Edmund Webb was anything like American Wesleyans, the rights of women would have been firmly entrenched in his family principles, enough for his daughter’s name to be forever linked with her discovery in the way Jane Falls’ may not have been.

The plaque observed by Cook in the 1880s is long gone, but a signature which may be Katie’s remains by the steep entranceway to her bower, reading ‘C. J. Webb’.

In what is now known as ‘Upper Katie’s Bower’, someone wrote ‘Katie’s Bower’ and the date matching the plaque. The original floor level below the writing was lowered in the 1920s to allow for a new exit from the cave. Allowing for this alteration, the writing would originally have been about the right height for a young woman to record her own name and the date of her discovery.

Jenolan guides’ oral histories vary on the approach Katie took from Lucinda’s Cave into the bower which still bears her name, with two possible routes.

One is the steep slope with a very deep chasm at the bottom (now followed by the stairs). The other is a hole below what is known as Lucinda’s Column, which requires a significant abseil.

The two dates recorded allow for the possibility that Katie’s discovery over more than one day’s exploration, and that both passageways were attempted.

And what did Katie do next?

Another name on the original plaque was ‘E’ or Ernest Bowman, the man Katie married just over a year after her discovery of Katie’s Bower. The two lived their married life in the Central West, and as Catherine Bowman, Katie was awarded an MBE in 1924 for “her many years of devoted service to the community”. In 1925 she and her daughter were presented to King George V at Buckingham Palace.

The next time a woman was credited with the discovery of a cave at Jenolan was almost 130 years after Katie.

“Deborah Johnson, a member of the Sydney University Speleological Society, discovered a cave in Jenolan’s Southern Limestone in January 2009,” Rebecca explains.

Within Jenolan’s Guides Office an honour board lists long serving guides back to Jeremiah Wilson. Both men and women are identified only by their first initial (the same as most signatures on cave walls), making it hard to identify the first female guides employed in the 1980s.

CAVE GUIDES Rebecca Lewis (top, middle) and a group of long-term female cave guides.

“It wasn’t until 2005 that the number of female and male employees reached equilibrium, with female staff undertaking all the same regular duties as male staff,” recalls Domino Houlbrook-Cove, who started as a guide in 1989 and is now manager of corporate, functions and events.

On occasion, visitors to Jenolan can still experience the courage of Katie Webb, played by Rebecca Lewis on a history tour.

“It’s so much fun! I get a great response from people who even today are amazed at what Katie did, especially for her time,” Beck enthuses. “People love stepping back in time to do a tour with someone from that era. I find I get asked more questions about the women cavers when I’m dressed as Katie than what I do when I’m guiding normally”.

“Jenolan has been a great place to work for a number of reasons. Mainly, though, it keeps you on your toes. It’s never like giving a speech where the words are there in front of you, you have to always be ready to answer any question that comes your way. It means you have to hold a huge store of information ranging from geology to history to everyday guiding and maintenance activities. You’re always learning and updating your information as a guide, not to mention ~the physical side of things.

“Of course the Cave Girls, whoever they were, would have all been great cavers, there is no doubt about that! Women make great cavers, and we have proof of that today.”


Thanks to Jenolan guides David Hay (cultural initiatives) and Keith Painter for historical information. Details about Catherine Bowman from ‘Written in Gold: The Story of Gulgong’ by Eileen Maxwell (1978).

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded