Two fabulously wealthy sisters, Jeanie and Margaret Clement, proprietors of a rich and prosperous farming estate called Tullaree, near Tarwin Lower, Victoria, fall into decline and ruin spanning the first half of the 20th Century.
Long after their property lapsed back to its natural state of marsh and swamp, the sisters continued eking out a meagre life in the squalor of their ruined homestead. Egress to the outside world was only possible by wading through treacherous swamp waters. The older sister, Jeanie, finally expired of old-age and neglect in 1950.
Only a couple of years later, Margaret mysteriously disappeared without trace, amid intrigues and hints of foul play. A quarter century later, skeletal remains now thought to be those of Margaret Clement were found in a shallow grave at Venus Bay, only a few kilometres to the east of Tullaree.
Such are the broad contours of the legend of the Lady of the Swamp, talk of which I’d first heard when in my teens in the early ’70s. By that time the lady in question had been dead at least 20 years, and oral tradition had it that the ghosts of Margaret Clement and her faithful dog, Dingo, may be encountered on any moonlit night wandering around near the old homestead.
A brief historical sketch of this strange saga is available online here; however, the definitive account may be found in Richard Shears’ book, Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?
I say ‘definitive’, but in fact Shears’ book is to my knowledge the only published study about the case. And, while the work contains much factual historical detail, it has to be said that it is in large part also a work of creative imagination, joining many disparate dots to spin a ripping yarn.
There is much in the story of the Clement sisters to stir popular fascination; a riches-to-rags saga with contrasts of pride and folly, gritty courage and fatal weakness, of deep wells of personal resilience mocked by almost comic ineptitude.
It’s almost certain that the mystery of Margaret Clement’s disappearance and presumed murder will never be solved. Virtually nothing is known with any precision about her movements in those final days and hours, and after more than 60 years all the principals are now dead.
Beyond that, arguably the popularisation of Margaret’s story, virtually to the status of legend, has tended to muddy the waters of factual appraisal. It began perhaps as imperceptibly as when the swamp first tentatively began its rise toward Tullaree’s threshold.
Barney Porter, the journalist for The Argus who in 1950 ‘broke’ the story of Margaret’s poor, lonely life following Jeanie’s death, wrote of how “staff photographer Len Drummond and I waded through three miles of swamps” to get the story. And yet he apparently failed to ascertain Jeanie’s name, which wasn’t mentioned at all in his article.
Again on the scene at Tullaree in 1952 after Margaret’s disappearance, Porter repeatedly referred to Jeanie as ‘Jenny’. To be fair, this seems to have been a common error in contemporary reportage across several newspapers. However, with his first-hand knowledge, one might have expected Porter to at least have nailed that basic detail.
Oddly, there even seems some confusion over the fate of Margaret Clement’s dog, Dingo. The animal is said by Shears to have been killed “in the autumn of 1952,” “on a cold day in May,” and was found by Margaret “dying on the verandah.”
Staring in horror at the clean, straight wound across his throat she knew that no animal had caused it.
Shears is quite explicit that “his throat had been cut” by human agency, and that Margaret had disappeared “not long after Dingo’s death.” The suggestion seems to be of a sinister connection between the killing of Dingo and Margaret’s fate.
That may well be, but elsewhere Shears quotes a very close friend of Margaret’s as saying, at the time of the search for the missing woman, that the dog’s “body was found months ago with his throat clawed and bitten.”
That quote is from Barney Porter’s article in The Argus of 27 May 1952, from which Shears has quoted verbatim and at length. The article suggests Dingo’s death may have occurred as early as March 1952, whereas Margaret disappeared mid- to late-May. Moreover, it states that the dog’s “body was found near the swamp,” as distinct from “on the veranda.”
So, those contemporary reports suggest a different scenario to that propounded by Shears. Perhaps poor Dingo died after a random encounter with another dog, perhaps a local feral, his death entirely unrelated to his mistress’s disappearance several months hence. The insistence by Shears on a tenuous sub-plot makes for a good yarn, perhaps, but is unhelpful if the object is to present a factual account of events.
All such ancillary detail aside, what does remain is a baffling mystery and probable crime. On the discovery of the skeletal remains at Venus Bay, the balance of circumstantial and hearsay evidence seemed to point to the guilt of one Stan Livingstone, a neighbour of Margaret’s.
With his wife, Esme, Livingstone is said to have cultivated a friendship with the bereaved Margaret, following Jeanie’s death, such that the old woman enabled the Livingstones to buy the once grand Tullaree property for the bargain price of ₤16,000 (of which, essentially, Margaret received ₤3,000 after discharge of mortgages on the property). After more than a decade of hard work to improve the homestead and lands, the Livingstones sold Tullaree in the mid-1960s for ₤96,500.
Yet even on that point the historical record presents conflicting material. An article in The Argus of 26 October 1956 reported that the Livingstones had then just sold the property for ₤67,500 to a Clarence Stewart of nearby Koonwarra. Presumably the sale did not proceed, for whatever reason; or perhaps the article misreported some other kind of transaction.
On a recent visit in the district, it so happened that the place in Venus Bay at which I was staying was only a brief walk from the site where Margaret’s presumed remains were found, now all built over with the holiday homes of the living.
Then one day, on a drive out Buffalo way, I spotted Tullaree’s edifice standing majestically about a kilometre off the dusty road across tranquil pasture. Thanks to the toil and sweat of successive owners since Margaret Clement’s disappearance, Tullaree has prevailed above the ravages of time and the elements; even if the facts – and justice – have not.