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Karen Laura-lee-Lee Wilson

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Violet Tasma Cleary: a Tragic and Short Life
By Karen Laura-lee-Lee Wilson
Last edited: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2011

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My maternal grandmother, Violet Tasma was always a mystery to me while I was growing up. It was only when I conducted many many months of family research in 2007 did I discover what a troubled and turbulent life she led.

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Violet Tasma Cleary: A Tragic and Short Life


Karen Laura Lee Wilson (Member No 6475)



I have I have a sepia photograph of my maternal grandmother, Violet Tasma Lee (neé Cleary).  It shows the head and shoulders of a beautiful young woman wearing a ballroom gown.  Encircling her dark, curly hair are three strands of pearls and a light-coloured ribbon by her left ear. She wears an elaborate amethyst necklace. Her light-coloured gown hugs her broad shoulders and is gathered at the centre of her bosom by a posy of fresh daisies. There is a wistful expression in her soft, dark eyes. Her lips are full and generous, with just a touch of a smile lifting the corners of her mouth.


For the last thirty years the photograph has sat on the top of my piano.  Each morning I glance at my grandmother’s lovely face and note the sad expression showing in her eyes. I have always been intrigued by the beauty and sadness of this photograph. Over the years I have asked my mother, now 94 years old, about Violet Tasma. My mother remembers very little of her – just a few tantalising memories: that she was a good mother; that her mother always dressed her in nice clothes; she got sick when her daughter Violet May was about six years old; around that time she was then sent to a boarding school run by catholic nuns; she was 12 when her mother died from tuberculosis. She could not remember the name of the school where she boarded and did not remember seeing her mother in the four years before she died.  She also recalled that she had a happy childhood, her Aunty Lee had looked after her. Her father John Lee was greatly saddened by his wife’s death and took to the bottle in sufficient quantities to cause his death four years later.  That was all the information that was forthcoming from my mother about Violet Tasma.  She couldn’t even recall her mother’s maiden name.


To find information about Violet Tasma I searched the NSW BDM on-line sites for details.  I was lucky that the family resided in New South Wales at the time of her birth. Her parents’ names were William James and Rose Helena Cleary. They were married according to the rights of the Church of England at the Church of Saint Matthias, Paddington on the 1 June 18911.  Rose’s parents were born in Tasmania.  Once I had her parents’ full names I began to get information about her family.  Her parents were the children of two Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land.  A number of their grand children were born in Sydney.   William James and Rose Helena Cleary had six children born from their union: James Robert in June 1889 (out of wedlock); Myee Carrington on 4 May 1892; Violet Tasma, 20 December1894; Aphra Roselle in 1897; Aurora Australis on 14 April 1900 and Arthur Stanley in 19032.


At the time of Violet Tasma’s parents’ marriage, her father lived in Alexandria and he was a carpenter. When Violet Tasma was born in 1894 the address written on the birth certificate was 26 Victoria Street, Alexandria3.  In 1900 when Aurora arrived the family resided at 476 Victoria Street. On Aurora’s death certificate in 1901 the address was 31 Victoria Street4.


Violet Tasma married John Joseph Lee on 28 January 1914 in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church at Erskineville5.  Violet’s mother Rose H. Cleary gave consent to the marriage as her father was stated as ‘absent from the State’ at the time.  John Joseph was 26 years old, a grocer by occupation and his place of residence was Alexandria. Violet Tasma was 19 and described as a ‘machinist’ at Erskineville.  John’s parents, John and Bridget Lee (nee O’Brien) were born in Ireland and arrived in Sydney by assisted passage. Bridget O’Brien  (21 years old) and her sister Margaret (19 years old) arrived on the Spitfire on the 24 August 18606.  John Lee arrived on the Samuel Plimsoll 10 October 18747.  He was 17 years old and his occupation was labourer. On 6 May 1885 John Lee married Bridget O’Brien at St. Joseph’s Church, Woollahra8.  When their son, John Joseph was born on 31 January 1887 his father’s occupation was that of publican9. Their only child was born prematurely and according to my mother was wrapped up in cotton wool for the first few weeks of his life.  Bridget Lee had contracted tuberculosis and died from its effects on 23 December 189710.  Care of the young John Joseph was placed in the hands of his aunt, Margaret O’Brien, a housekeeper for John Lee until her marriage to him in 190211.  


A full-length sepia marriage photograph of Violet Tasma Lee and John Joseph Lee has survived.  It shows the bride standing in formal bridal dress, complete with a lace-edged train, sheer veil, and white, medium heeled shoes. A chaise longue behind the bride is draped with her veil. She holds an enormous bouquet of flowers in her left hand to cover her stomach, while her right hand tentatively touches the left sleeve of her husband’s dinner jacket. Underneath his jacket he wears a white waistcoat decorated with a chain with two gold medals.  His shirt and bow tie are white. In his lapel is a small posy of white flowers.  He is sitting by his bride’s side, with both arms resting on an elegant chair.  The couple are semi smiling in the portrait.


On the 2 May 1914 their first and only child Violet May was born12.  The family’s residence listed on the birth certificate was 155 Railway Parade, Erskineville.  My mother has told me that Violet Tasma experienced a difficult labour and required a hysterectomy after the birth.


I do not have any records of Violet May’s christening.  My mother told me that she was baptised in the Catholic Church.  When the priest asked, “What shall this child be named?”  John Joseph’s stepmother, Margaret Lee interjected  -  “She shall be named Margaret Therese.” “No” said Violet Tasma,  “she shall be named Violet May.”  From this very dramatic public disagreement I presume the mother-in-law did not get along with her daughter-in-law, especially as the marriage was a “shot gun” with the bride visibly pregnant at the wedding. If Margaret Lee had known of the convict heritage in the Cleary family, I suspect that she would have considered her stepson’s choice of wife even more unacceptable.


When I tried to find out details of Violet Tasma Lee’s death I was initially unsuccessful. Then I left an e-mail message at the Rookewood Cemetery asking if there were any details of a grave for her.  A woman, Dorne Saunders replied and asked had I ever considered that my grandmother may have remarried? Dorne had found a marriage listed for a Violet Tasma to a man named Arthur Edward Clarke.  I searched the N.S.W. BMD records and found a record for their marriage on 28 October 1922 which took place in the District Registry Office in Redfern, Sydney13. The groom was 28 years of age; he was a fettler and lived in Mary Street, Surry Hills. Violet Tasma was 26, her occupation was ‘home duties’, and she lived at 13 Cooper Street, Waterloo. Witnesses to the marriage were Henriettie Clarke and the bride’s sister, Myee Hyland.


Violet’s second husband, Arthur Edward Clarke, was a returned soldier from the First World War.   He enlisted in the Australian Army on the 23 August 1915 at which time he was 21 years old. Arthur lived in the parish of Lismore and his occupation was listed as ‘coach driver’. Private A.E. Clarke was trained as a gunner. He was transferred to 25th Field Artillery Brigade on 8 July 1916.  As a result of action in the Battle of the Somme, he was admitted to the 1st Western General Hospital, Liverpool England on 1 November 1917 having experienced mild suffocation due to gas.  He survived an attack of influenza and was returned to Australia on 30 March 1919.  On his discharge he was awarded three military medals14.  During his war experience in France he met Violet Tasma’s brother Jim Cleary and her brother-in-law Ted Hyland. On his return to Sydney he was probably introduced to his wife-to-be by Ted, by Ted’s wife Myee (elder sister of Violet Tasma), or by Jim Cleary.


My next step was to research the New South Wales Divorce index for information on Violet Tasma Lee and her husband, John Joseph Lee.  I was forwarded an enormous file containing 94 pages of information regarding the divorce, which was filed on the 9 April 1920 between John Joseph Lee Petitioner, Violet Tasma Lee, Respondent and Ernest Gustaf Wanquist, Co-respondent15.  The first legal evidence of trouble in the marriage is revealed in the following included document - a request for Maintenance - Minute of Order of Court - Violet Tasma Lee (Complainant) versus John Joseph Lee (Defendant) - dated 18 December 1916 in which John Joseph Lee is to provide his “wife Violet Tasma the sum of one pound, together with 5/- a week for the child of the marriage, Violet May, born 3rd of May, 1915 and I order that the first of such weekly payments shall be made on the twenty-fifth day of December 1916.  It is further ordered that the said Defendant do pay the said Complainant the sum of two pounds eight shillings for her costs and in default of payment on or before the first day of January 1917, that he be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the Gaol at Long Bay for the space of seven days unless the said amount shall sooner be paid.  The complainant is to have the custody of the child.” A typewritten note appended at the bottom of the page is dated 9 April 1920 and states: “Order varied by reducing amount of One pound per week to 10/- per week, all payments in respect of child to cease, and legal custody of child given to John J. Lee.”


In documentation dated 30 April, 1920, Violet denied adultery with Ernest Gustaf Wanquist; she stated that “the Petitioner had been guilty of cruelty to her; the Petitioner had deserted or otherwise wilfully separated from her before the alleged adultery…and had left her so continuously deserted during two years and upwards and there was no collusion or connivance existing between any person whomsoever and her this deponent”.  Her husband hired a private detective who followed his wife around, taking five photos of her in group situations and submitted the photos to court. I am pleased to notice that in the photographs Violet Tasma looks happy. The detective lodged a handwritten note dated 10 April 1920 that he had caught the respondent in a compromising situation with another man on 23 March 1920. He provided explicit details in his notes which I consider too graphic to describe in this article.


On 27 May 1921 the divorce documents cite that on hearing “the oral evidence of the Respondent, and of Mrs Rose Cleary, Miss A. Cleary and Mr Cleary…his honour reserved judgment and found not proved whether the petitioner deserted or wilfully separated himself before the adultery…whether the Petitioner has without just cause or excuse wilfully deserted the Respondent and without any such cause or excuse left her continuously so deserted during two years and upwards?  Whether the Petitioner has been guilty of cruelty towards the Respondent?” The court ordered the marriage from the above date to be dissolved and legally binding with an extra six months leeway should further evidence be proved. No further evidence was offered.


On 10 August 1922 the Petitioner, John Joseph Lee swore that “ My said child is at present attending the George Street, Redfern Public School under the name of May Cleary”.  The mother of the child is given as Rose Cleary, that is the respondent’s mother.  The Respondent was recently before the Court in connection with a Raid that was made at the Freshwater Camps.  She called her employer to give evidence that she was working for her own living, and the Magistrate discharged her.  The Respondent is a Barmaid in Elizabeth Street, Sydney ...I have frequently see the Respondent and her mother Rose Cleary under the influence of drink in Redfern.  The Respondent, when drunk has a very violent temper.”


Finally the divorce settlement took place on the 26th September 1922 with both parties agreeing to the following:

“(1)    THE child May Violet Lee (note the name change) be placed at St. Mary’s convent at Erskineville as a boarder as on and from Tuesday third day of October one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two the petitioner paying all school fees and other expenses of education and maintenance.

(2)              THE child to spend alternate week-ends with her father and then with her mother the child’s school holidays being shared equally by the parents and while the child is with her mother the father making a reasonable allowance for her maintenance, the mother entitled to visit the child as and when she wishes subject to the regulations of the Convent school.” I can imagine how little support Violet Tasma received from her ex husband, his stepmother, and the nuns at the convent to give her regular access to her daughter, Violet May.  It is no wonder that Violet Tasma married as soon as she could after those long, stressful years of fighting to gain custody of her daughter.


There was more sorrow for her when her mother, Rose Cleary died in July 1925 from a malignant bowel16.  Rose Cleary was a great support to her daughter and granddaughter Violet May during those turbulent years of separation and family distress prior to her daughter’s divorce. Tragically, Violet Tasma Clarke was diagnosed with tuberculosis the year she married her second husband, Arthur Edward. She finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis and died on 8 September 192617. The following day she was buried at the Sanatorium Cemetery at Waterfall in the Bulli Shire.  On the death certificate her daughter’s name was given as ‘May’ and her age was incorrectly recorded as 10.


In 1928 Violet Tasma’s ‘wicked’ mother-in-law Margaret Lee died of a stroke at the age of sixty18.  On 15 May 1930 her first husband John Joseph Lee died of alcoholism at the age of 4219.  It was his daughter, ‘May’ who found him dead in bed: she had never been told of her mother’s second marriage or met her mother’s second husband.  Arthur Edward Clarke lived to be 73 and died from carcinoma of the stomach at the Repatriation Hospital, Concord on the 6 October 196720. On his death certificate it states that there is no information about his first marriage. He had remarried 9 July1927, to a widow Grace Constance Bell21. The couple had two daughters, Constance (known as June) and Edna.


Now I know why Violet Tasma looked so wistful in that beautiful photograph taken of her at a Ball around 90 years ago.


End notes

  1 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate 6381/1891

  2 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1925/011830

  3 N.S.W. Birth Certificate 1895/001908

  4 N.S.W. Birth Certificate 1900/017809

  5 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate 1914/000949

  6 N.S.W. State Records Authority. Assisted Immigrants Arriving in Sydney, 1860-79.

Reel 2139, 2481

 7 N.S.W. State Records Authority. Assisted Immigrants Arriving in Sydney, 1860-79.

Reel 2140, 2486

 8 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate  1885/003191

 9 N.S.W. Birth Certificate 1887/000660

10 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1897/010659

11 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate 1902/004587

12 N.S.W. Birth Certificate 13931/1914

13 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate 1922/013984

14 National Archives of Australia. Australian Military Records.

15 N.S.W. Divorce Index. Divorce Number 0384. Year 1920. Papers

16 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1925/011830

17 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1926/014031

18 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1928/005651

19 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1930/010176

20 N.S.W. Death Certificate 1967/038768

21 N.S.W. Marriage Certificate 1927/01275



(Word Count is 2493 excluding Title, Name and End Note references)









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