1 May 2012, Comments (23)

Gippsland Gothic

Author: Helen

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.

Tullaree Homestead

Tullaree Homestead - Heritage Victoria

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.

Waded Swamp
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)
Picture of Margaret Clement of Tullaree wading through the swamp with her dog, Dingo.
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’.


Searchers comb the Tarwin lower - Buffalo swamp in search of Margaret Clement

Searchers comb the swamp around Tullaree station in search of Margaret Clement

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.

Comments (23) »

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Sounds like a writing/research/screen play project for *you* methinks!

  • Helen says:

    Remember the Barista blog Kath? He is a documentary maker. This is the kind of story he would blog about using his “strangely compelling” category. (Sadly Barista got hacked at the same time as the last CIB and never got moved, so you’ll get the “attack site” message if you go there.}

  • Elisabeth says:

    This is a terrific tale made more poignant by the fact that presumably most of it is true. I suppose we can never get to all the ‘facts’ but I like the thought of Margaret’s ghost down there at Venus Bay. And I agree with Kath, someone who feels as passionate – as you sound here, Helen – might best write the screenplay. After all you’ve already done much of the hard research work

  • Helen says:

    No, I haven’t done any hard research work whatever! Some googling found the newspaper reports and the rest is courtesy of the Richard Shears book, which you should totally buy as it’s a ripping yarn.

    About the ghost: I think it’s people convincing themselves. But like I said, it’s a spooky area. Someone I discussed it with spoke of a child who’d chucked a sad in the car on that road because of a “scary old lady” and apparently this child wasn’t given to confabulation or wild excesses of imagination. Go figure.

  • boynton says:

    Wonderful post, Helen! (Have been meaning to comment for days – but tied up!) I have a long term interest in Gippsland history, and this is fascinating.

  • Sharon says:

    Quite a story of Margaret Clement. I live in Gippsland and understand the swamp of the area, the two sisters living down there at Tullaree would have been extremely cold over Winter. They appear to have had no life skills at all.

    The father seemed to work so hard in order to build his estate, only to have it frittered away by children who did not understand how to manage their finances.

    The importance of the area is drainage and without that, the pasture would have gone to weed and the area would have silted up and held the water.

    Look at the recent floodings that we have had in recent times around Longwarry, Koo Wee Rup and Tooradin.

    The mangroves at the mouth of the Bunyip River have not been cleared for many years and these coupled with the silt has severely slowed the drainage. The new housing estates that have gone up in the area have made the water run faster into small drains that will not cope with the amount of water. Some of the developers have actually covered in some of the seriously important drains – sheer madness on their behalf. The area will be in dire flood problems in the next few years and not necessarily put down to global warming, but rather lack of drainage and poor planning by money grabbing developers.

    This was the same problem that Tullaree has with the position and also the amount of water that enters that river system.

    It appears that the neighbor who bought the property, Stanley & Esme Livingstone did clear the silt and got the land up and running, but the lay of the land means that the area requires intense drainage which is on going.

    The question still remains as to who killed Margaret. Stanley Livingstone the acquised neighbor is buried in the Traralgon Cemetary, he wife passed over after living for some time in St Hillays nursing home near Traralgon. They lived in Queensland for some time after they sold Tullaree and made a handsome profit on it all.

    There seems to be three witnesses that came forward to say that Esme Livingstone said her husband killed Margaret, however these witnesses were not accepted and the killer remained free. Esme Livingstone said many times she was frightened of her husband, he even used to joke about “how to kill your wife”. I think he played football at some stage with Footscray. A powerful man, but with evil eyes when you see the photo of him being poured a cup of tea by his wife Esme in the dining room at Tullaree after they bought the property.

    The DNA has not been matched to other members of the family. Why not?

    Where is the remains of the skeleton anyway that was found at Venus Bay?

    All the Clement family were buried at Sale Cemetary, should this skeleton if it is Margaret go down there and be with the family?

    Many questions unanswered, not least the question of what happened to Clement Carnaghan, the Nephew who unsuccessfully contested his Auntie Margarets will.

    Who did kill Margaret….was it Stanley, or was it the Nephew Clement, or was it someone looking to steal something?

    My thoughts are that land is a valuable comodity, and that the neighbor is of interest in this question, but the quick tempered self serving neighbor is now 6 foot underground. Did he have any children? I cannot find any……….

    I hope you make a movie of this one day, it would be a marvellous story.


  • Helen says:

    Welcome Sharon!
    The artist mentioned in my post has a new nextdoor neighbour in Venus bay, who used to live on a property quite close to Tullaree and had some interesting stories to tell – his parents knew her.

    Look at the recent floodings that we have had in recent times around Longwarry, Koo Wee Rup and Tooradin.

    Yes, I found myself thinking a lot about Tullaree and wondering how the paddocks were looking then. The current owners seem to be efficient people and would probably take whatever steps were necessary to drain the place.

    The new housing estates that have gone up in the area have made the water run faster into small drains that will not cope with the amount of water. Some of the developers have actually covered in some of the seriously important drains – sheer madness on their behalf. The area will be in dire flood problems in the next few years and not necessarily put down to global warming, but rather lack of drainage and poor planning by money grabbing developers.

    Yes, sadly this scenario seems to be playing out all over Victoria under both this government and the previous one.

    The DNA has not been matched to other members of the family. Why not?
    Where is the remains of the skeleton anyway that was found at Venus Bay?

    I have since learned that the skeletal remains, and presumably everything that went with it like the handbag, were sent to the UK for analysis, and were LOST!!! How unbelievably frustrating! It would be so interesting to hear of the results of a DNA analysis. I so hope they turn up!

    Many questions unanswered, not least the question of what happened to Clement Carnaghan, the Nephew who unsuccessfully contested his Auntie Margarets will.

    According to Shears’ book he died in a nursing home with Parkinson’s. The disease was already pretty far advanced when Shears interviewed him.

    As far as I know the Livingstones had no children. As someone else suggested to me, why were the properties they bought and renovated in such wildly distant areas? (Gippsland, then Yea, then an island in Queensland). It seemed to her to suggest that they were wanting to leave previous lives behind. But that’s conjecture.

  • Jane-Louise says:

    Hi Helen,
    I’ve been researching the Clement sisters for a couple of years now and as a result I’ve been writing (nearly completed) a play based on the story. It’s to be staged next year in Wonthaggi – the town as you would know that hosted the inquest into whether skeletal remains found were those of Margaret Clement. As I mentioned I have been researching and re-reading as much information that I could get my hands on. And do you know that right up until now I am still discovering small morsels that I had overlooked and every now and then I will come across something written that I hadn’t seen before, or hear a local recount tales of Tullaree. And so my mind takes another turn in trying to imagine what may have befallen Margaret Clement. As a result the play too has taken many turns on the road to its completion! It is not far from being finished and will be produced in the second half of next year, Like so many of us, I too have been obssessed with this compelling riches to rags story. By the way I really like your Blog. Thanks for the opportunity to tell you about my little project. Cheers!

  • Jane-Louise says:

    I must apologize Helen for the glaring errors in some of the text I have written above. Doesn’t look too good for the fledgling playwright now does it! Too late, bad light, but an excellent wine! Jane-Louise

  • Helen says:

    Welcome to the balcony Jane-Louise! Typos fixed – You’re not the first to fall victim to wine and blogging/tweeting and won’t be the last.
    If you’re not too busy could you please drop in once the play is scheduled and tickets are selling so I can help publicise it? (And buy tickets for it myself)

  • Sharon says:

    Dear Helen,

    It would be interesting to see the play about Margaret Clement, plenty of vibe from down that area.

    I got hold of the book and had a read, which only brings up more questions. The book describes the dog for example, found with his neck slashed, I wonder if Stanley Livingstone poisoned the dog and then slashed him? I have a friend who used to drink with Stanley Livingstone at the Glenburn pub before it burnt down. His wife said that Stanley was an aggressive man and that his wife Esme was in the pub drinking heavily and would talk about her fear of being murdered. The book also makes mention of that fact. The friend also said Stanley was always after cheap land, would cut it up and sell it off for a lot of money. All that money is not doing him any good laying in the Traralgon cemetary, I have the exact site, but I think the bad vibes of this man makes him best avoided.

    This friend has the original court documents of the whole thing, that the Melbourne solicitor had. She said I can have a read of them all, about 150 pages and it includes Margarets will.Esme Livingston was originally Esme Grubb from Traralgon, thats why they are buried in the area.

    The book says that the police sent the skeleton up to Canberra for carbon dating and was lost. This is not the first time that the police have lost vital evidence.

  • Sharon says:

    Dear Helen,

    I also meant to mention that if they dug the dog up, he could be tested to see what he actually died of.

    I believe the skeleton that was found at Venus Bay is that of Margaret Clement, I also belive she is such a lost soul because of the loss of the remains that she will never settle and will touch the lives of all of us that have read or know anything about this.

    It can never be settled because Stanley Livingston is dead and buried, however until those remains are found and returned to the family buriel place at Sale, this saga will never find peace.

    Did anyone attend the meeting with Richard Shears the author at the recent book club meeting at Korumburra?



  • Helen says:

    No, I didn’t know about the book club meeting, Sharon. THat would have been really interesting! I’m in Melbourne western suburbs, not a local of Tarwin or Gippsland. Shears describes as you do the way Esme reported Stanley’s violence and there was plenty of corroboration, but when it came down to it she clammed up and denied it. We now know that that is fairly standard in cases of intimate partner violence.

    There’s been a suggestion from one quarter that Esme was the local abortionist and used Tullaree as a base for that. But another person’s opinion on that is that the “local abortionist” story is a bit of a stock standard myth in many out of the way places like that. I haven’t read anything that touches on that idea but it was an intriguing what-if.

  • Julianne says:

    I have read all the comments and i am very interested in seeing the play when it comes out, I am a distant relative of Margaret Clement through her sister Flora and husband George. Please let me know when it is available to see.

  • Helen says:

    Good point Julianne – I’ll email Jane-Louise to see if there is a timetable yet for her play.

  • Jane-Louise says:

    Hi Helen.
    Happy newness of the year to you. Hope it’s a fulfilling one for you. The play is happening late August. Have had a meeting with Wonthaggi theatre group and they have all ratified the decision to produce it in late August. Interested to know how Julianne is related to Margaret. I have spoken to Margaret’s neice who lives in Ballarat, discovered that my Mother knew her [I myself grew up in Ballarat] but alas she has slight dementia. She did however tell me that her Mother – Flora would not talk about Margaret or Jeanie at all. Would love to know what original court documents Sharon may have access to? Would also be happy for you to read some of the play and give me some critiical appraisal.

  • Sharon says:

    Hi Helen,

    Is there a date on when the play will be held at Wonthaggi?

    Also several issues arise that have not been solved, for example at the inquest at Wonthaggi they talk about the shocking smell down the well near the old dairy and one witness said she asked Esme if that smell was Margaret down the well and Esme said Margaret was buried far from the house. Perhaps there should be some investigation into the well and dig it all up.


  • Helen says:

    It will be late August Sharon. I’ll do an update closer to that time to give Jane-Louise’s publicity a bit of a signal boost.

  • Sharon says:

    Hi Helen,
    Thanks for the update.
    You have to wonder about all the things that Margaret had. What happened to her car, her horses, her furniture? Did Stan and Esme take the lot?
    Did Clement the nephew take anything? Why did Margaret learn how to ride a horse, and take the horse into town when she required shopping instead of wading through the swamp?

    I drove down to Weshpool last week looking at a pasture seeder and drove past the Tarwin Lower/Venus Bay turn off.
    The area is quite coastal and all a bit creepy, I got lost up a backroad off the Port Welshpool road, looking for the farmer who had the seeder machine.

    No I didnt buy the seeder, he turned out to be a dealer and the machine was in poor condition. I have had floods three times the past 18 months and need to resow much of the farm, so I dont need equipment that is not going to work.

    I must say, the South Gippsland Highway is in dangerous condition. Large pot holes the size 1 yard by 1 yard and 4 inces deep, driving conditions down to 40Km in many spots. Large holes every km or so. Vic Roads really need to repair this immedietly. Seriously bad. I phoned them up and lodged a concern. They say there is no money to repair the highway, and yet they keep sending workers out to put up the 40Km sign…..are we going to get down to 20km per hour and all need 4 wheel drives?


  • Lyndon says:

    I recently had the opportunity to read the Shears book on this subject.
    I found it a fascinating read.

    I took a more personal interest because my late father (George Armstrong, a local farmer near Mt Larcom since 1949) bought 3 blocks of land (total 360 acres) from Esme Livingstone in June 1993, after Stanley passed away on 13 Oct 1992, and I have time now in retirement to write up my family history.
    (I was brought up on my father’s farm and did a fair amount of work on his land, particularly in 2011/12 when I was executor of my father’s estate!)

    I know the Livingstones angle in Qld may not be so important in this saga, but I am wondering whether anyone can give me more details on the activities of the Livingstones from when they sold “Spadeleigh”, their cattle property on Curtis Island, in 1984, to when Stanley passed away in 1992?
    I am especially interested whether there is a link to the land my father purchased from Esme on Taylor Lane (or it may have been called Latham’s Lane in the 1980s), about 5kms west of Mt Larcom?
    If I can quote: “He (Stanley Livingstone) had a heart attack while fighting a bushfire on his small property near Mt Larcom” – does anyone know if that was the above land on Taylor Lane?

    And does anyone know when the Livingstones purchased this land?

    By the way, when I lived on the family farm in 2011-12 to execute the estate, several local people remembered the Livingstones, and could recount stories of his feats of physical strength.

  • Helen says:

    Lyndon, I am so sorry. I haven’t visited the blog admin page for literally weeks. I apologise for the length of time your comment languished in moderation.

    Anyone know the Mt Larcom area and can shed some light on Lyndon’s question?

  • Sharon says:

    Hi Lyndon,

    Do you have someone in the family that could help find the name of the Lane that you are seeking?
    I had a look to see where Mt Larcom is and found it to be about 70Km from Rockhampton.
    Rockhampton is the capital for cattle country and Stan would have sold livestock from both Curtis Island and Mt Larcom through the Rockhampton Saleyards.

    He would have made a bit of money from the cattle, but the main income would have been derived from all the wheeling and dealing of property that he had. Buying lots of land and then subdividing and making millions of dollars from it all.

    Interesting your father bought the land from Esme in June 1993. Interesting that Esme died in 1993, the next year after Stan passed, so I wonder if the Mt Larcom property was the last property.

    Sometimes you can backtrack on details.
    Stan passed on the 13.10.92 and was buried in the Traralgon Cemetary on 23.10.92. There was 10 days after he passed before he was buried, I guess there was the delay in distance. I doubt many family members would have attended, but maybe they did.
    From the records Stan is No 3867 and he is buried in P-F011 which I think from memory is the lawn section in the old cemetary.

    It is a creepy cemetary out the back of Traralgon in the bush. Margaret Clement would be seeing the overgrowth of weeds on his grave and I doubt anyone would be tending his site.

    I think Esme is buried there as well when she passed in 1993 at St Hillarys Nursing Home at Morwell. Esme came from Traraglgon and was originally from the large Grubb family.

    A lady that I was discussing the Margaret Clement story with said Esme conducted abortions at Tullaree. Everyone has a story to tell that knew them.

    My friend from Yea said when Stan bought land up there, they would both drink at the Glenburn Hotel (sadly this burnt down with the bushfires a few years ago) Esme was always saying Stan killed Margaret.

    I think Both Stan and Esme were tarred with the same brush, and what for. They are not remembered for their community service work or anything. Just remembered for being the killers of an old lady who was lonely and and easy target. Disgraceful.

    For all the land that they owned and did dodgy dealings to acquire the land, who inherited the wealth?

    Where is the money?

    Lyndon, I hope you can find the details you seek. If you have a friend in Real Estate, they can access all records from a few details via computer access in Real Estate title.


  • Lyndon says:

    Thanks Sharon for your input. Some very interesting background there. I have since moved back from living at Mt Larcom (while executing my father’s estate) to our home in Brisbane. I have given myself a BIG project in my retirement to write up the family history, so I will want to find out more about the activities of the Livingstones when they owned the 3 blocks of land on Taylor Lane (or Latham Lane)near Mt Larcom. A search of title deeds will show the length of time they owned that land but I haven’t got to that task yet.
    Thanks again Sharon.
    If anyone else has information on this period of the Livingstone’s life (1980s to 1993) then I would be happy to hear/see it.

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