OK, so I get obsessed sometimes. Now that the internet has turned my dining room table (the kids own the desk) into the equivalent of the British Museum Reading room, I can go on endless wiki-walks when something pings my attention.
When some friends and I drove to South Gippsland to indulge two of my obsessions, Joe Pug and Henry Wagons, we drove south to Venus Bay to stay with an artist friend who has a house in the bush there. To get to Venus Bay, you drive south through Tarwin and Tarwin Lower. There, closer to the sea, the lush farmland becomes flat reclaimed swamp. In some lights and moods it can be a mournful country. At Venus Bay, over cold beers on the balcony, our friend told us a tale whose lightest word would harrow up our souls and freeze our not-so-young blood…
Recently, I was back there in search of Tullaree.
Someone asked me the other day if I’d watched the latest remake of Great Expectations. I replied that rather than watching Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham I’d rather spend my time reading up about Victoria’s real Miss Havisham. Well, there were two Miss Havishams, and then there were one. Then she disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
An enterprising immigrant called Peter the Packer made a fortune on the Walhalla Goldfields in the late nineteenth century. He ran a mobile grocery and stores business, and eventually struck it rich in mining shares (given mainly in contra deals when people couldn’t pay their accounts in cash, I think.) He had five daughters. The family had a farm in Gippsland, but they were also part of wealthy Toorak society. When I say wealthy, I mean seriously wealthy. Travelling all over Europe and to Japan before the days of cheap air fares wealthy. Being presented to the Queen wealthy.
Two daughters, Jeannie and Margaret, decided they wanted to return to country living and bought a property with a brick Victorian mansion called Tullaree near Tarwin Lower. Remember that the countryside there is reclaimed swamp. A man called Charlie Widdis had spent years digging drainage ditches (or, rather, employing Chinese labourers to dig them) to transform the Tarwin swamps into prime cattle grazing land. Unless these were maintained, the land would revert to swamp. Unfortunately, that’s what happened. The sisters continued to live the high life, travelling to the local towns in a shiny carriage and then in one of the first “motors”, and hosting large, expensive dinner parties. What they didn’t do was inspect the books or check up on what their employees, who they trusted entirely with the running of the farm, were doing. What they were doing was replacing the prime cattle with inferior stock, failing to maintain the drainage ditches, and cooking the books. By the time of the Great Depression, the sisters were broke and in serious trouble. By the 1940s, Tullaree was a decaying mansion in the middle of swampland.
By 1926 the Tullaree station was mortgaged to the limit.
Staff and servants went,the rich pastures fed no cattle, gradually the water from surrounding hills built up in the untended drains, transforming some of Victoria’s wealthiest fat stock land into a squalid swamp.
The sisters, with little money, could no longer properly care for the beautiful home and its fine furniture.
As the house deteriorated, the sisters withdrew more and more from public view.
The elder, Miss Jennie Swanston Clement, who died two years ago, was crippled.
After her death eight men waded through the swamp, the water up to their shoulders, to carry out the body.
Miss Margaret, until a year ago, used to wade through the waist-deep swamp and walk seven miles to Buffalo for stores -mainly tinned food.
She was a familiar figure as she trudged back along the Buffalo-Tullaree road with two sugarbags over her shoulders. At the swamp edge, she took off her shoes and stockings, tucked up her skirt,
and waded in.
Miss Margaret Clement elected to live alone in the eerie, memory-filled house. Birds flitted through the rooms, floors rotted, roofing fell. But the walls stood firm and true to the Chinese labourers who had made the bricks on the property.
(Sunday Herald, Sydney, Sunday 1 June 1952)
Those of you who live in Victoria would have an idea of how cold it must have been in winter. As I type this I’m looking out the window and thinking how cold it was walking the dogs today, and it’s only autumn. I can imagine how cold it would be if I had to wade through the creek. For a woman in her 60s and 70s to wade for miles through, in places, waist-high water every week just beggars belief. What a tough old thing she must have been.
In 1952, Margaret disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The police and virtually everyone else suspected she’d been killed, but the case has never been solved. There was a major search when she was reported missing, again through deep water. Searchers even had to rescue a horse which got bogged up to its withers. The historian John Lack writes in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
The mystery became a staple of press features and popular magazines, especially when human remains were discovered in the district. Police reopened the case when the buried skeleton of an elderly woman was found at Venus Bay in 1978. Ten years earlier a hammer and a spade had been discovered near the site, and a woman’s handbag and shawl were unearthed in 1979. Experts at the 1980 inquest could not agree whether the remains were Aboriginal or European. The coroner returned an open verdict, noting the unsatisfactory nature of evidence given by the Livingstones, who in 1986 issued a press statement alleging Clement’s abduction by her nephew, who had died in 1982. In 1997 the Melbourne coroner described the case as ‘one of the great unsolved mysteries, but not one beyond resolution’.
I’ve been devouring the only book I know of on this subject, Swamp by Richard Shears, which unfortunately – although it’s beautifully presented with interesting photographs of the period – is a True Crime book rather than a historical work. Read this review for more details of Margaret Clement’s life. My criticism of Swamp is the same as Kimbofo’s: Shears puts in a lot of invented dialogue for the majority of which there couldn’t possibly be any evidence. It does make the book move along as a ripping yarn, but read with caution to sift the historical details from the fiction.
The artist who first told us about the Margaret Clement story has a body of work inspired by her life. Heather Shimmen has a style of printmaking and works on paper reminiscent of nineteenth century scientific etchings, among other things. In the 1930s there was a major flood in South Gippsland, inundating the Tarwin Lower region. By then, The sisters were already isolated at Tullaree on its low rise in the middle of swampland. With the flood, they were completely surrounded by water, and every spider, snake, mouse, rat, chook and farm animal took refuge in and around the house. Shimmen’s exhibition The Swamp Maiden’s Tale captured the eerie environment the two sisters were living in around that time, taking refuge on beds – the only places not covered in water – shared with spiders, cats and chooks, surrounded by cobwebs and darkness.
This Easter, I drove out to Tarwin Lower with a relative who has, according to her family, a distant connection with the Clement sisters. The road to Tullaree is unsealed gravel, as it was back then. The paddocks are flat and cleared, with a thin strip of melaleuca scrub edging the road which is appropriately, spookily, twisted and tortured for the windy coastal area. There are even some swags of some kind of climbing weed which resembles Spanish Moss. At intervals there are unexpected plants, like flax, growing on the verge, which are probably escapees from those fabulous gardens. Finally, we found the driveway and we could see the roof of Tullaree from the road. We saw no ghosts, though, just heard the sad cries of water birds. We didn’t attempt to drive up to the house – the owners are well over having people come to look at the place.
Here are some more links to information on this story: The Argus again, 20 February 1953: The hunt for the missing Margaret Clement; A discussion on the Hi Riser blog; a photograph of Tullaree held by Heritage Victoria.
Just for the lulz, here is the dumbest photo reconstruction ever (scroll down to “Call off the Search – Margaret Clement”). Even dumber when you consider the fact that photographs of the real Margaret Clement exist, as you’ve seen above. Fail!
This PDF from the Traralgon Historical society has more historical detail as well as an account of a contemporary tour of Tullaree and a photograph of it as it is today.
I would love to see this story in film, whether as documentary, docudrama or simply a fictional dramatisation. I’d also love to see this cold case, like many in Victoria at the moment, being reopened. It’s a curious story, and the more you read about it the curiouser it gets. It’s true Gippsland Gothic.