Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clement, Margaret (1881–1952)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Margaret Clement (1881-1952?), missing person, was born on 8 March 1881 at Prospect, Victoria, third of six children of Peter Clement, a grazier from Perthshire, Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Jane, née Thomson. Margaret's father had worked as a bullocky, invested in quartz mining and was a large shareholder in the rich Long Tunnel mine. He bought Prospect station in 1886, but died in 1890 leaving a young widow with five children under 12, another on the way and reputedly a fortune of £50,000.

The family moved to Melbourne, entertained lavishly and toured Britain and Europe. After their two sisters married, Margaret and Jeanie travelled in Europe and the Far East. In 1907 with their brother Peter's assistance they bought Tullaree at Tarwin Lower, Gippsland, a difficult property that had been selected, developed in 1884-93 and then abandoned by Francis Longmore. Whether they attempted to farm seriously or (as journalists later alleged) simply aped high society, the sisters depended on hired help when Peter left after marrying in 1912. Personal extravagance, poor judgement, employee chicanery and expensive litigation compounded their problems. By the early 1920s the Clements were in serious financial trouble and Tullaree was heavily mortgaged, only a timely caveat on the title in 1926 preventing their eviction. Impoverished, dependent on relations for food and clothing, Margaret and Jeanie sank into near destitution and became reclusive.

Their situation came to public notice on the death of Jeanie in 1950, when police waded through miles of swamp to retrieve her body from a crumbling mansion lacking basic amenities such as tank water and surrounded by dense scrub, house-high blackberries and piles of rusting food tins. Newspapermen interviewed Margaret and fashioned the story of the 'Lady of the Swamp', an eccentric gentlewoman with only a dog as her companion, who carried provisions home in a sugar bag, read detective stories by kerosene lamp, and lived on memories of past social glories. When she disappeared toward the end of May 1952 and a week of extensive searches in appalling conditions failed to find her, Margaret became the central figure in a media-sensationalized 'whodunit'. The police could uncover no motive for foul play, but the press, dismissing prosaic explanations, fashioned a Gothic tale of fallen splendour, buried stolen gold, skulduggery, abduction and murder. Suspicion fell on neighbours Stanley and Esme Livingstone who had befriended Clement, promised her life-tenancy of an on-site cottage and in 1951 bought Tullaree, which they improved and sold twelve years later at a handsome profit. Accusations and counter accusations flew when Margaret's nephew Clement Carnaghan, whom she had disinherited in 1951, unsuccessfully contested her will in 1955.

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'. Although she was declared legally dead in 1954, the fate of Margaret Clement, more certainly the victim of media frenzy than of any murderer, remains one of Australia's most baffling missing person cases.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Shears, The Lady of the Swamp (Melb, 1981)
  • Gippsland Times, 27 July 1950, p 1
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 28 July 1950, p 1, 31 Dec 1985, p 3, 1 Jan 1986, p 6, 21 May 1988, p 14
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 May 1952, p 1, 27 May 1952, p 1, 28 May 1952, p 1, 29 May 1952, p 1, 30 May 1952, p 1, 31 May 1952, p 1, 2 June 1952, p 7
  • Truth (Melbourne), 31 May 1952, p 1
  • People (Sydney), 30 July 1952, p 14
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1980, p 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Feb 1985
  • Herald-Sun (Melbourne), 30 Mar 1997, p 76, 6 Apr 1997, p 22
  • VPRS 24/P1, unit 317, file 801699 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

John Lack, 'Clement, Margaret (1881–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clement-margaret-12845/text23189, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lady of the Swamp
Birth

8 March 1881
Prospect, Victoria, Australia

Death

1952

Occupation