sjhstrangetales

THE LADY IN THE SWAMP

Posted on: May 8, 2017

When an eccentric recluse, Margaret Clement, disappeared without trace in 1952 she became one of Australia’s most enduring, unsolved mysteries.  At first sight her story appears almost impossibly sad, a classic case of riches-to-rags, and yet was it?  Could it be that in her own way she achieved a strange sort of happiness?  Whatever the truth, her final fate remains a mystery to tantalise armchair detectives to this day.

Margaret Clement was born on 8 March 1881, in Prospect, Victoria, the third of 6 children. She was the daughter of a self-made man, Peter Clement, who had emigrated from Scotland at the height of the mid-19th century Australian gold-rush.  Peter Snr went from being a bullock-driver to one of the richest men in Australia, accruing a fortune of £50,000, not exactly an inconsiderable sum in those days.

Peter Clement died in 1890, and for several years his family were able to enjoy the fruits of his labours.  Margaret, her sisters, and their mother Jane embarked on a European tour.   It is said they were even introduced to royalty at Buckingham Palace.  They also travelled in the Far East.

In 1907 Margaret and one of her sisters, Jeannie, bought the 17-room Tullaree Mansion in South Gippsland, using their inheritance from their father.  Set amongst 2000 acres of reclaimed swampland, the property already had a reputation for being difficult to manage.   It had been abandoned by a previous owner at the end of the 19th century.  For a few years the estate was managed by their brother Peter Jnr, who seems to have made a competent job of it.   For a short time they were also joined by their by their youngest sister Anna.  Anna was notoriously spoilt, with what we would call these days, a huge sense of entitlement.   She once held up the departure of a steamer because she couldn’t be bothered to go up on deck for inspection!  When she was told she was holding everybody up, Anna retorted along the lines of “to the Devil with it, I’ll come when I’m ready!”  Fortunately Anna married and moved out.  It is said that her husband deserted her, and she would subsequently describe herself as a widow.

The family lived in quite some style.  They employed a staff of 10 people, and would drive into town in a horse-and-gig, which later became a car-and-chauffeur, where they would be treated like royalty.  Store-keepers would bring out their goods, so that the sisters could examine them without all the hassle of having to leave their vehicle.  The girls must have lapped all this up.   Reality was about to come crashing in on them with a vengeance though.

Things took a marked decline when Peter Jnr went off to fight in World War One.  The estate was left in the hands of unscrupulous farm managers who took the girls for a ride. In their innocence they were prime targets.  Oblivious, the women carried on living the high life as before, blissfully unaware that their fortune was being dramatically eroded. Things came to a head in 1916 when a bank statement alerted them to the truth of the matter.  Panicking, the sisters sold off some of the land, and sacked their staff, but flatly refused to move out of the mansion.

Peter Jnr came back from the War a changed man, possibly suffering with shell-shock.  He was never to fully recover.  He went to live on a farm at Wurruk, where, in 1944 he was found injured, suffering a gunshot wound to the head.  He died in hospital without ever regaining consciousness.

The sisters meanwhile became something of a local legend.  The house slowly decayed around them.  They became increasingly reclusive, except for 3 times a week, when they would hitch up their skirts and wade through the cold swamp water to get to the shops, where they would stock up on bread and tins of baked beans, which they ate cold (ugh). They had no electricity, no running water and no sewage.   They couldn’t afford to pay anyone to work the land, so it fell out of use, and was reclaimed by the swamp.  The house often became infested with snakes and rats.  They were heavily reliant on the occasional pound note and box of groceries sent by Anna, now living, with her son Clem, in a flat in Melbourne.   The women were intensely proud.  They refused help from the locals so often that people simply stopped offering.

Inevitably, the women, once known for their beauty, fell into decay as much as their house did.  They hacked off their now greying auburn hair with blunt scissors.  Some of Margaret’s teeth had broken from their stumps, and she walked with a noticeable stoop.  Jeannie’s legs were swollen, and her eyesight became so faded that Margaret had to read to her.

They lived this way for decades, cocooned in their own gothic little swamp world.  When devastating bush fires hit the area in January 1939, the women at least were safe, surrounded as they were by water.  They sat out on their veranda, watching the orange glow from the fires in the sky.   I can’t help thinking of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which showed the reclusive squalor of the Beale women, who were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Jeannie died in 1950, and it was then that the full impact of the sisters poverty was seen by the outside world.  Police and undertakers had to wade through the swamp to remove her body.  The mansion was surrounded by house-high blackberry bushes, and the house was full of old discarded food tins.   Margaret mourned the loss of her “dear companion”, but stubbornly refused to leave her home.

It was around this time that Margaret was befriended by her new neighbours, Stanley and Esme Livingstone.  They offered to buy the mansion, and said they would build her a small cottage on the estate.  Margaret seemed to acquiesce to this idea.  “I will stay in my house with my books and my dog for the rest of my life”, she told a reporter.  Her little dog was called Dingo.  She had rescued him when she had seen a cattleman at a neighbouring house, kicking him.  Dingo had followed her home, wading through the cold swamp water.  Margaret now occupied her time, accompanied by Dingo, reading mystery novels by the light of a kerosene lamp.

In March 1952 Dingo died in appalling circumstances.  He had been found bitten, with his throat cut out.  His devoted mistress would soon meet an equally puzzling fate.  Margaret was last seen on Thursday 22 May.   Her neighbour, Stanley Livingstone, was the last person to see her alive.  When he hadn’t seen her for 3 days, he alerted the authorities on 25 May.    The local rumour-mill immediately went into operation, and the Livingstones became the prime suspects.  Stanley, a former footballer, was well-known for his physical strength.  His wife Esme, who was known to have suffered beatings at his hands, claimed that Stanley would intimidate Margaret by standing over her as she signed documents.

The house and surrounding area were scoured and searched for months afterwards, but no trace of Margaret was ever found.  All that was left behind was her walking-stick.  Margaret never left the house without it.  It seemed as though Margaret had vanished into thin air.  Without any shred of proof as to what had happened to her, there was nothing that could be used to charge Stanley or anyone else.

Stanley Livingstone restored the mansion, and sold it a few years later, in 1964, at 10 times the price he had acquired for it.  He became a millionaire, and died from a heart-attack in 1993.

Perhaps Margaret, who got so much pleasure from mystery novels, might have darkly enjoyed the fact that her fate became one of Australia’s most puzzling unsolved crimes.  She never seems to have courted sympathy – she was probably horrified by the idea – and in fact claimed that she was happy to live the way she did.  She said: “A person has but one life and I am living and enjoying mine.  It is the way I want to live.  Whether other people agree with it or not doesn’t matter”.

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