K031 : Explorers Tree and Environs | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

Culture and heritage


K031 : Explorers Tree and Environs

Item details

Name of item: K031 : Explorers Tree and Environs
Other name/s: Marked Tree; Explorer's Tree; Explorers' Tree; Lawson's Tree
Primary address: 386 Great Western Highway, Katoomba, NSW 2780
Local govt. area: Blue Mountains
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
386 Great Western HighwayKatoombaBlue Mountains   Primary Address

Statement of significance:

This tree was reputed to have been marked by the explorers Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth during the First Crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. The available evidence indicates that there was a marked tree of some kind on Pulpit Hill during the last century. Marked by whom, when, why, and with what, is far less certain. Although the historical authenticity of the tree is uncertain, since at least the 1870s the tree has been viewed by visitors to the mountains since as a surviving relic from the 1813 expedition and as a memorial to the early explorers.

The presumed association of this tree with the three explorers of 1813 meant that the preserved stump has been publicly accepted as a historic focal point to commemorate the Colonial enterprise of exploration. The recognition and role of the tree has changed during the past 30 years with considerable doubts about its authenticity. Nevertheless the transformation of the Marked Tree from a supposedly authentic relic to a broader symbol is also of significance precisely because of both its former place in a central explanatory historical narrative of national achievement and its now marginal status due to the rapid decline and replacement of the sustaining myths about national origins. The Marked Tree is typical of many sites or relics where dramatically changing national narratives leave
previously venerated sites marooned and their messages marginalised.
Date significance updated: 03 Jul 09
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Physical description: The Explorers' Marked Tree is situated beside the Great Western Highway at the base of Pulpit Hill two kilometres west of Katoomba, in a prominent position beside the current main road the Great Western Highway from Sydney to Bathurst. The remains of a large Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus oreades) are enclosed by an octagonal stone wall constructed of squared and coursed random rubble masonry. The stump Is approximately 4 metres tall and about 1 metre in diameter. The hollow central section of the stump has been filled with concrete and concrete has also been poured around the base, between the stump and the surrounding masonry wall. The cement cap installed in 1930 has sunk and partly collapsed into the void
inside the stump. Two remaining steel bands are still evident around the stump - these almost hold a few strips of dead wood around the concrete core. There is evidence of active termite activity and decomposing wood which can be seen through cracks that have formed in the timber. The stump is enclosed by painted steel fencing. A protective roof structure supported on timber posts with steel cross-ties has been built above the stump. The roof was replaced in March 2004. The marble tablet installed c.1905 is positioned at the base of the stump on the car-park (west) side.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
See Further Comments.
Date condition updated:03 Jul 09
Further information: Physically the tree stump is in decline. Active agents of decay such as termites are present and less than 50 per cent of the surviving fabric of the stump is from the original tree. Historically the fabric of the original tree has been lost and relocated over time. Periodic working bees or renovations have attempted measures to preserve the stump. The stonework of the surrounding walling appears to have recently been cleaned but the marble tablet is becoming illegible. The roof of the canopy above the stump was recently replaced (March 2004). There appears to be no clear strategy for treatment of the remains of the tree or for its surrounding curtilage and setting. In May 2005, the tree also suffered deliberate damage by fire.
Current use: Monument
Former use: Marked tree


Historical notes: For over a century the tree was a well-known Blue Mountains landmark described as a relic directly associated with the successful crossing attempt by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813. Despite this recognition, the authenticity of the tree has been openly questioned on several occasions. Some have claimed the tree was a deliberate fake created in the 1880s to deceive visitors during the first phase of tourism in the local area.

This site is not well documented. The three explorers, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, were in the vicinity of Pulpit Hill on Tuesday 25 May 1813, when they camped beside a swamp. No explicit tree marking was noted in any of the exploration journals. No mention of a specific marked tree was made in the Journal kept by William Cox during the construction of the road through the Blue Mountains in 1814-5. According to Major Antill, Pulpit Hill was named for a 'large rock on its summit resembling a pulpit' when Governor Macquarie's party passed there on 28 April 1815 en route to Bathurst.

Travellers' accounts of the 1820s did not mention the presence of a marked tree. The road itineraries in some of the 1830s Directories which described the Western Road noted Pulpit Hill as being 64 miles from Sydney and stated that land there was reserved as a resting place.

During the 1860s a marked tree on Pulpit Hill first came to public attention. A letter which discussed the 'Genus eucalyptus' was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 August 1867. Written from Parramatta and signed 'W.W.' the author was the Reverend William Woolls, PhD, FLS, botanist and school teacher. In support of comments made about the growth rate of various trees, the footnote to the article stated that:
To show how little some of our trees alter in the course of half a century, I may mention that the blackbut on which the late Mr W Lawson cut his Initials with a tomahawk in 1813 still presents the initials as legible as ever. This interesting tree, so intimately connected with the first expedition over the Blue Mountains, is standing on the side of the Bathurst Road at the summit of Pulpit Hill.

This article and its statement about a tree marked by one of the three explorers of 1813 was the first mention of a living link to the explorers of 1813 in the form of a marked tree. Although several people later claimed personal knowledge and memories of the Marked Tree from the 1860s or early 1870s, the next public mention of the tree occurred in 1876. An article in the supplement to the Sydney Mail of 22 July 1876 included an Illustration of the tree by R. J. Campbell titled 'The Marked Tree, Blue Mountains' and a description published under the heading 'The W L Tree, Blue Mountains'. This description stated in part:
The tree is situated about one mile south easterly from the old Pulpit Hill public house, and sixty five miles from Sydney. It stands directly on the side of the old Blue Mountain Road; and although thousands of travellers have passed by without noticing it, it still stands a living memento of the first attempt at inland colonization, and the letters W L are plainly observable within the blaze marked sixty-three years ago.

The next historic record of the Marked Tree occurred In 1884. From March to May 1884 a party of government surveyors was sent to report upon a possible horseback route from Katoomba to the Jenolan Caves. It appears that this was the result of lobbying of the NSW Prime Minister (Premier) Sir Alexander Stuart, who frequently stayed at the recently completed Great Western Hotel in Katoomba (now the Carrington Hotel). An account of the trip by one of the junior surveyors was published. No mention of the marked Tree was made in the written account, but a sketch of the tree, showing the W L initials, was included in the fieldbook of Surveyor W. M. Cooper. This field sketch was the basis for another illustration of
the Marked Tree included with articles about the new bridle track (MG 006) published in the Town and Country Journal on 27 September and 4 October, 1884. Although the sketch did not show the new wall which had been erected around the tree, it was referred to in the accompanying text:

The tree is fenced round and buttressed with masonry, and bears the following inscription affixed thereto :-
This wall and fence has [sic] been erected by the Hon. J S FARNELL, Esq., Minister for Lands, to preserve this tree marked by
being the farthest distance reached in their first attempt to cross the Blue Mountains in the month of May, A.D. 1813

Tenders had been called for the erection of the wall and fence by Mr Kirkpatrick, architect, of Pitt Street, Sydney, in March 1884. The successful tenderer for the work was Mr George Donald, the Lithgow stonemason. The work was completed in May 1884.

From the 1880s there were an increasing number of references to the tree. In addition to sketches and illustrations, photographic evidence about the appearance of the Marked Tree became available. Many photographs were taken of the tree in the years following the construction of the surrounding wall and examples survive in many collections. They show the squared and coursed random rubble masonry walling which is still present around the remains of the tree, surmounted by a squared timber post and two-railed fence with decorative detail including turned sphere finials on the posts and turned spindles between the horizontal rails.

By late 1903, in less than twenty years, the wall which had been erected in 1884 to identify and protect the Marked Tree had killed it. The upper section was sawn off and lay beside the highway until 1904 when it was removed by Mr Mark Foy to the Hydro Majestic, his recently established tourist hotel at Medlow Bath. There it was erected as an 'historic relic' on a pedestal in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic, and visitors were encouraged to pin their calling or business cards on it. That section of the tree was later destroyed in a bushfire which swept through the grounds of the hotel in 1922, but a piece remains in the collection of the Australasian Pioneers' Club.

Comments about the incorrect wording of the inscription on the tablet appeared in the local Blue Mountains press and the Sydney press during the 1880s and 1890s. In 1905 the matter of the Marked Tree and of the erroneous inscription, which implied that it was the farthest point reached by the three explorers and that their crossing attempt had been unsuccessful, finally resulted in some official action. Sir Francis B. Suttor and Mr C. R. Blaxland had brought the matter of the misleading inscription to the attention of the Minister for Lands. Several letters to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald appeared over the next three months where correspondents offered their recollections of various facts about the tree, often straying widely from relevant matters. After this flurry of correspondence, in which
writers seemed unable to agree on what markings the tree actually had, when they were first noted, or whose idea it was to memorialise the tree, nothing further appeared in the Herald.

By about 1908, the offending tablet had been replaced. The second tablet of white marble, with inlaid lead lettering, is still present at the Marked Tree. The plaque reads:

This Wall and Fence Were Erected by
The Minister for Lands
(The Hon. J. S. Farnell) in the year 1884
To Preserve This Tree
Which Was Marked by the Explorers
Gregory Blaxland William Lawson
And William Charles Wentworth,
Who Discovered a Way Over These Mountains
In the Month of May A. D. 1813.

By the 1920s the Marked Tree, first killed by the surrounding wall and then lopped down to a stump, was noticeably deteriorating. Local newspapers reported concern about the state of the remnant of the tree and raised proposals to protect it and/or to relocate it. In June 1929 Mr Ward Havard, from the Royal Australian Historical Society, inspected the Marked Tree. Mr Havard stated that the tree should not be moved from its present site and that 'as it was one of the principal historical relics in the whole of Australia ...it was Council's duty to see that it received proper treatment.'

Renovation of the tree was completed by May 1930. Katoomba Council restored the tree under a guarantee from Mr Leo Buring that the cost would be met by him and anyone else prepared to contribute to the costs. As part of the renovations the stump had been fitted with a concrete cap and steel bands to hold the remaining bark shell around a concrete core which had been poured into the hollow centre of the stump. The tree retained a place in the historic re-enactments and other celebrations throughout most of the twentieth century, including the major celebrations in 1951 and 1963.

Physically, however, the venerated historic stump continued to decline. In June 1971, a tree was planted nearby to replace the original stump as it 'would need to be removed' whenever highway widening was undertaken. In the 1976 National Estate Grant Programme funded by the (Federal) Australian Heritage Commission, but administered by the then (State) Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development, Blue Mountains City Council received a $10,000 grant to allow purchase of additional land around the Marked Tree. Funding was also used for improvements to the road access from the Great Western Highway, new steel fencing around the tree, and preservative treatment on the stump itself.

National Estate funding required that items funded had to be nominated for inclusion in the Register of the National Estate. As a result, a nomination for the 'Explorers Tree' was prepared and advertised in 1978. Objections were received stating that the connections between the tree and the three explorers were tenuous and the nomination did not proceed. The 'Explorers Tree' was eventually listed in the National Estate Register in 1987, with an amended statement of significance.

In 1981 Blue Mountains City Council completed further works on the Marked Tree involving erection of a gazebo-type canopy roof over the remains of the stump with three incandescent light fittings in order that the tree might be lit at night. Shortly afterwards the plaque on the wall beside the Great Western Highway was relocated to the car-park side of the tree owing to concerns about visitor safety.

In June 1983, a local Blue Mountains newspaper ran two front-page headlines in successive weeks: 'Explorers Tree a Gigantic Tourist Hoax' and 'Experts Agree: We're Barking up Wrong Tree'. Several 'local experts' were quoted as stating that the Marked Tree was a part of a deliberate attempt to manufacture interesting tourist attractions during the late nineteenth century. Controversy raged in the local press over the next few weeks, with disagreements about the merits of the surviving stump as a genuine historic relic. Once the debate subsided, further work was completed at the Marked Tree precinct by the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers in 1985. Blue Mountains Council also sought advice on possible preservative measures for the stump from several consultants. None of the advice
received was implemented.

A week before Australia Day 1988 an Aboriginal Flag was painted on part of the Marked Tree and it was vandalised with sections of timber pulled away. The flag was removed by Council workers within a few hours of its discovery. The choice of the Marked Tree for this treatment was undoubtedly prompted by its role as a symbol for the colonial enterprise of exploration and also by its prominent position beside the main road.

In the 1990s the remains of the stump continued to decay with no remedial measures undertaken. Problems and possible choices about treatment of the site in the long term, which had been present for much of the twentieth century and on which specialist advice had been obtained since the 1970s, remained unresolved. The Roads and Traffic Authority has been unable or unwilling to supply any information relevant to future Highway widening in the vicinity of the stump and as a result local Council officers have been reluctant to commit funds (even in yearly estimates) to any projects concerning the Marked Tree in case it is subsequently removed by roadworks. Council's file also shows that much of the money expended on works on or around the site of the tree has been financed from sources other than Blue Mountains City Council.

The stump was further vandalised in 1995 after a section of the surrounding fence was removed. The missing fence section was replaced in 1996 after a unanimous resolution was passed by Blue Mountains City Council that the Marked Tree should be made secure until the future of both it and the surrounding area was determined. There is ongoing debate about what is the most appropriate action to safeguard the tree. Suggestions range from moving the stump elsewhere, or casting a replica out of bronze or other materials, to encasing the present stump in fibreglass or another protective material. In March 2004 the timber shingled roof installed in 1981 was replaced with colorbond steel roof sheeting.

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Marked Tree is associated with the early history of the Blue Mountains. The 'Explorers' Marked Tree' was so named because it was presumed to have been marked in May, 1813, during the epic crossing by Lawson, Blaxland and Wentworth.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The Explorers' Marked Tree demonstrates the process of place creation, recognition and acceptance, and also the role of place as a marker of national and local identity. The tree was a relic associated with the development of local historic folklore during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century. For over a century it was associated in popular imagination with the 1813 First Crossing and highly valued as a relic surviving from an early phase of European exploration of the interior. The Marked Tree has been prominent in various tourist literature such as brochures and for over a century it has been a well known local attraction conveniently located beside the Great Western Highway.
Integrity/Intactness: Poor
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

Threats include vandalism and road-widening. Passive recreation uses are appropriate. Better interpretative information (e.g. signage) is desirable.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental PlanLEP1991K03127 Dec 91 183 
Heritage study K031   

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Blue Mountains Heritage Study1983K031Croft & Associates Pty Ltd & Meredith Walker  Yes
Heritage Study Review, Blue Mountains1992K031Tropman and Tropman  Yes
Blue Mountains Heritage Review2003K031Jack, Hubert, Lavelle, Morris  Yes
Technical Audit BM Heritage Register2008K031Blue Mountains City CouncilCity Planning Branch No

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenD McKay Barnett1884A trip with the Government Surveying Party in search of a horse track from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves
WrittenSiobhan Lavelle2004Founding Fathers and Foundering Myths: Monuments to Explorers in the Blue Mountains, NSW, PhD thesis, University of Newcastle
WrittenSiobhan Lavelle2003A Tree and a Legend: The Making of Past and Place in the Blue Mountains NSW, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Volume 89, part 1, June
WrittenW M Cooper1884Survey of Track from Katoomba to the Binda Caves, Counties of Cook and Westmoreland

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 1170812

Every effort has been made to ensure that information contained in the State Heritage Inventory is correct. If you find any errors or omissions please send your comments to the Database Manager.

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