Born in 1881, Margaret Clement was the daughter of the very wealthy director and large shareholder of the Victorian gold mining company, Peter Scott Clement. Considering at the time their father was one of the wealthiest men in Australia, Margaret and her family lived a life of opulence most could only dream of. Theirs was a fantasy world of luxurious vacations, shopping trips, expensive clothes, and high society, and even when Peter Clement died during World War I, their substantial inheritance meant they were essentially set for life, and Margaret and her sister Jeannie continued to live a life of luxury, travelling around Europe from their home in Melbourne. They had the perfect life, but dark days were ahead, and they were about to descend into one of the most mysterious missing person cases in Australian history.
In 1907 the two sisters eventually moved into a sprawling property on the Lower Tarwin River in Gippsland that their father had owned, where they planned to raise cattle and sheep in the rural beauty of the area. The homestead was called Tullaree, and the central focus was the grand, 17-room mansion that sat there amid more than 2,000 acres of prime ranching land, which was mostly reclaimed swampland but which was now immaculate. Here they continued their life of luxury, helped by their brother Peter and a full staff of servants, as well as a chauffeur who took them everywhere they desired. They continued to live a charmed life, but dark clouds were ahead.
However, the two sisters had problems not long after their brother moved away. They had trouble finding a new property manager, and as they lacked enough help it soon became more than they could handle, as they began to fall into debt and destitution. Without money to pay their servants the staff evaporated and the two sisters were left alone. The magnificent mansion lost its sheen, crumbling into disrepair even as drainage failures turned what was once some of the best grazing land in Gippsland into the murky swamps it had originally been. The house continued to turn into a feral, rotted out, weed choked place that was a husk of its former glory and looked more like a haunted house than anything else, all surrounded by dank muck. The two sisters themselves remained, and took to dressing in tattered clothes, seemingly given up hope and squandering their inheritance, selling their cattle for more money which they quickly wasted, and they became recluses that locals and the media referred to as “The Old Ladies of the Swamp.”
Their fall from high society and privilege into poverty and living in a rat-infested hovel was rather shocking, and to make ends meet they took to leasing out portions of the property. As this was happening, Jeannie suffered poor health, and it was up to Margaret to provide for them, often slogging for miles through the dim, desolate swamps to go get food and supplies. When Jeannie died in 1950, her body stayed there at the house rotting away because it was so difficult for help to access the property through the swamp and take it away, and by the time it was removed, Jeannie’s corpse was a putrefied mass. Margaret stayed there alone, only kept company by her dog, Dingo, and she became even more of a recluse than ever before. She would once say to a reporter:
I will stay in my house with my books and my dog for the rest of my life. We were happy in our loneliness. We bothered nobody and nobody bothered us. I am alone now, except for my dog Dingo. Maybe I will be lonely now my sister is done, I have no regrets and no fears. 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.
Indeed, the only ones who ever saw her or even knew she was alive were some neighbors by the names of Stan Livingstone and his wife Esme, who moved into a modest shack not far away about 1 year after Jeannie died. Indeed, perhaps out of sheer loneliness Margaret would strike up a friendship with the Livingstones, sometimes dining together. Margaret would end up offering them Tullaree, on the condition that they make a cottage for her to live in, and the Livingtones began making plans to bring the house and its land back to its former glory. However, a strange series of events was about to make sure this never happened. First Dingo died under mysterious circumstances with his throat torn out, and then towards the end of May of 1952, Margaret just suddenly and without warning stepped off the face of the earth.
It began on the morning of May 21, 1952, when the Livingstones called Margaret but got no answer. This was odd, because the “old lady of the swamp” was always there, and making it odder was that Livingstone’s own dogs had been acting up the night before for no apparent reason. Police made their way out to the property to check it out, but there was no sign of the missing woman, who by that time was 72 years old and never went far from her decrepit old mansion. Margaret had also left behind her trusty walking stick, which she was never without, and her bed had not been slept in the night before. Authorities launched an extensive search of the surrounding swamp, scouring the muck for over a week without finding any trace of the woman, and soon it was hitting the media in a major way. The old lady of the swamp had been swallowed up by her home, and theories began to fly.
One of the main ideas at first was that the elderly woman had simply gone off on a walk and fallen into the swamp to drown, but there was no body found, and Margaret had known the area like the back of her hand. She also never went anywhere without her walking stick, so this seems unlikely. Even months later there was still no sign of a body, and so other ideas cropped up. One ominous tip that came forward was that some locals claimed that a group of men in a black car had been reportedly asking around for the “Swamp Lady” shortly before her disappearance, but there was no evidence that this has any connection at all. There was also the prevalent theory that Stan Livingstone himself had killed her, in order to expedite the transfer of the land, but again there was no evidence. Police would pursue it, and Esme was seen as holding the key to the puzzle.
One Detective Senior Sergeant Bill Townsend had questioned her in 1978 and came away with the impression that she knew something that she was afraid to talk about, and this was supported by claims by many who knew him that Stan had been a rough and violent man. Another promising lead came up that same year, when in 1978 some human remains were found in the swamp at nearby Venus Bay, followed by the discovery of a lady’s shawl, handbag, and some coins in the same vicinity, but none of them could be proven to have belonged to Margaret Clement. Unfortunately, Stan would die not long after this, and then finally his wife in 1993, and so any secrets they had were taken to the grave with them. Townsend would nevertheless pursue this line, convinced that Livingstone had had some part to play in it all. After all, Livingstone was seen as hot-tempered, a man who others in the area feared, and a friend of the family would even claim that at one point Stan had forced Margaret to sign some papers at gunpoint. This friend, Jean Lesley Sharp, would even name the supposed hitmen that were hired to carry it out, saying they were two men from Melbourne named Bradley and Bradshaw. There are others who believe Livingstone to be the mastermind as well, and one former Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner and ex-homicide squad head Paul Delianis has said of this:
I’m quite convinced that he was the culprit. He had the motive to do it — he wanted to take over the property. There was a lot of argument and legal cases going on involving Ms. Clement. We obviously didn’t have concrete evidence because we would have charged him. He was a very violent man and a very strong individual. There was an incident where he was seen to lift a 44-gallon drum full of liquid and put it on the back of a truck. It would have been nice to have cleared it up. When you know somebody’s involved and you just can’t quite pin it on them. He was a devious old coot.
Another theory is that she was targeted by her own nephew, Clement Carnaghan, who had been disgruntled that he had been left off Margaret’s will and had always been upset that she had inherited the estate. Yet another idea is that she met her end due to the gold that had long been rumored to have been buried under the estate, but if there was ever any gold, the destitute Margaret had apparently never found it. Although Margret Clement was officially declared dead in 1954, the vanishing has never been solved, no one has been charged, and it remains a confounding unsolved mystery.