An Unknown Hand
An Unsolved Murder in Colonial Malaya
The biggest Christian cemetery on Penang Island is Western Road Cemetery and includes graves of Commonwealth servicemen and police officers killed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). Their headstones are a standard design but in the same section is the grander tomb of John St Maur Ramsden who:
DIED BY GUNSHOT FROM AN UNKNOWN HAND
AT CALEDONIA – PROVINCE WELLESLEY
JUNE 8th 1948
The coroner’s findings were:
‘Shot by an unknown person with a double barrel gun…There is no evidence against any particular person.’
Malaysia’s Penang state consists of Penang Island location of the capital George Town and Seberang Perai, formerly Province Wellesley, on the Malay Peninsula. By 1915 the Ramsden family controlled over 55,000 acres of rubber plantations in the Nibong Tebal area.
John Ramsden was the eldest son of Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as Chops. Chops’ father inherited his baronetcy, two Yorkshire country estates, virtually the whole of Huddersfield and in 1874 acquired title to a Malayan sugar plantation. Caledonia was one of the first plantations to shift from cultivation of sugar to rubber which became Malaya’s principal export crop.
Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as ‘Chops’. He had a strong attachment to his estates in Kenya but never visited Malaya entrusting John to oversee their reconstruction. Within a few years of John’s murder he liquidated all his Malayan companies.
The Big House, Caledonia plantation was built in 1917 for the General Manager at the time. It is often called the 99 doors mansion although this name was not in use at the time.
On the evening of June 8th 1948 John Ramsden, Managing Director of the Penang Rubber Estates Group, was shot twice in the back of his head as he walked upstairs. The Tamil estate watchman and three Malays heard a shot and found his body slumped behind the stairs. Hunter Crawford, manager of the neighbouring Byram Estate, also heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene. A fluent Malay speaker he took charge and immediately contacted Nibong Tebal police station.
Crawford was a pre-war rubber planter who had worked with John since 1946 to restore buildings and replant fields damaged during the Japanese occupation. Captured by the Japanese he had been interned on Sumatra and resumed his career after the war.
In England at 9.45am on June 9th a message was brought to Chops at Muncaster in Cumbria where the family seat had been moved from Yorkshire in 1917. The Associated Press had rung up with the news that John had had an accident and they wanted to speak to his wife. The story made the front page of the London evening newspapers describing the deceased as: ‘heir to Sir John Ramsden – England’s richest baronet’.
The main staircase. At the time of his death John Ramsden was living alone and it would have been easy for the murderer to enter and flee the scene.
In charge of the investigation was William Arthur Campion Haines, Chief Police Officer of Penang & Province Wellesley. Born in 1899, Haines joined the Malayan Police after service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force, captured by the Japanese, and interned in Changi. He retired in 1950 and before his death in 1991 submitted his memoirs: ‘A Time to Remember (1920-1950)’ to King’s College London.
For an old Malayan hand like Haines the Ramsden killing was straightforward albeit sensitive due to the victim’s background. Reporting directly to the Commissioner of Police in Kuala Lumpur he was under pressure to provide answers to Sir Edward Gent and the Colonial Office in London.
Search of the crime scene found two spent 16 bore shotgun cartridges under a hedge outside the house and the murder weapon was identified as belonging to a Malay who kept it in the victim’s bungalow. Finding his shotgun missing he reported the loss to police on the evening of the 9th. Whether the killing was pre-planned or in the heat of the moment was not established. At the coroner’s inquest Dr. Loudernernam gave evidence that Ramsden sustained the fatal injury from a pellet hitting the back of his skull.
The police moved quickly with six Malays and Javanese detained for questioning on June 9th. Regarding the motive Haines felt confident enough to brief the local press in time for their morning editions on the 10th:
‘We are satisfied that the murder is not connected with assassinations of employers in other parts of Malaya and does not come within that category of murder.’
He added that the motive was obscure but it was not connected with any recent trouble on the estate. The body was brought to Penang mortuary and on June 10th John Ramsden was buried at Penang’s Western Road Cemetery.
The Straits Times 10th June 1948 duly reported under the heading: ‘Director Killed at Home’:
‘Political motives are not suspected in the murder of Mr. J. St. M. Ramsden.’
When their 48 hours detention was up four of the suspects were released but police enquiries against the other two were ongoing. Granting bail ran the risk of them absconding so holding charges were laid and further detention ordered by the magistrate. Ramsden’s driver Embi Bin Hashim, 27, described in the press as his ‘Head Boy’, was charged with ‘Illegal Possession of Ammunition’. On 17th September he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment but immediately released, the sentence dating from his arrest on June 9th. He pleaded guilty and his counsel told the District Judge Mr. Fletcher Rogers in Nibong Tebal Court that Mr. Ramsden had given him the ammunition.
A charge of ‘Murder’ was laid against Mohammad Zain bin Ramjan, a local plantation worker. In the absence of a confession or eye witness any case against him relied on circumstantial evidence.
On August 28th he was discharged by Magistrate Mr. Tai Hooi Soo. Inspector Jagir Singh said his instructions were that the discharge was not an acquittal and he was ordered to be detained until after the coroner’s inquiry three days later.
On September 1st 1948 Zain bin Ramjan was asked to try on two pairs of shoes in court whilst giving evidence at the inquiry. They were produced by the head of Penang C.I.D. Mr P.H.D. Jackson who said one pair was found near the murder scene. He admitted the first pair belonged to him the other did not. The witness suggested his shoes had been planted there by someone who had a grudge against him. He denied he had been dismissed by Mr. Ramsden and on the night in question was at his cousin’s house in Bukit Mertajam. In evidence he said:
‘I do not know of anyone bearing sufficient grudge against Mr. Ramsden to shoot him.’
The inquest concluded on 3rd September 1948 and with it all legal proceedings regarding the death of John Ramsden.
Within a week after his funeral three European estate managers were murdered by Chinese gunmen at Sungei Siput in neighbouring Perak state. On the Elphil Estate two Chinese rode up on bicycles to Mr Walker’s office and shot him with pistols from a door and a window. At the Phin Soon Estate twelve Chinese armed with sten guns and revolvers tied up Mr. Allison and Mr. Christian before shooting them in a back office. In response The High Commissioner was forced to declare a nationwide state of emergency. Regarded as the start of the Malayan Emergency trouble had been brewing since 1945 with the growth of trade union movements and rise in communist party membership leading to widespread strikes between 1946-1948. Veterans of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army retrieved weapons from hiding and the decision for armed conflict had been taken before shots were fired at Sungei Siput on June 16th 1948.
Headline story on the Sungei Siput murders, Morning Tribune June 17th 1948.
The political situation in Malaya was tense and in a House of Commons statement on June 12th 1948 Mr David Rees-Williams, Under-Secretary for the Colonies said extremists were trying to upset the economy of Malaya. Commenting in parliament on the Ramsden murder he said that in recent weeks there had been at least 13 serious incidents including 10 murders and three attacks on European estate managers.
Despite the police discounting political motives John Ramsden’s murder became conflated with the communist insurgency.
In a House of Lords debate on June 16th Lord Ailwyn asked:
‘My Lords I beg leave to ask His Majesty’s Government the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper –
‘To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are now in position to make a full statement regarding the murder of Mr. John Ramsden in Malaya on June 8th?’
The Earl of Listowel replied in part:
‘A preliminary report from the High Commissioner.. stated that the police were satisfied that this murder was not connected with the recent wave of politically motivated crimes.’
‘May I ask the noble Earl if he is aware that in the broadcast news at one o’clock today there was a report that three more rubber planters in Malaya had been done to death?’
At the start of the ‘Emergency’ there were around a thousand European planters in Malaya, mainly British, who along with the police suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.
Murder is only a mystery if the motive and killer are unknown and John’s death was largely forgotten until recently. In footnotes and references it was noted that he had been gunned down by communist terrorists.
The diaries of Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, the conservative politician notes that he was:
‘killed in Penang during the Malayan Emergency.’
Internet genealogical sites including Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage record that he: ‘fought in the Malayan Emergency’ and was: ‘assassinated’.
No evidence was ever produced that John Ramsden was killed by communist terrorists.
Published in 2017 Meriel Buxton’s ‘Poverty is Relative’ tells the story of Sir John William Ramsden (1831-1914) his son Sir John Frecheville Ramsden and their relationship with Huddersfield. Related by marriage she was invited by Chops’ grandson Andrew Feilden to write the book.
John St Maur Ramsden was born in London on April 26th 1902 and educated at Eton and Cambridge. At university in the 1920s he was part of an aristocratic set dubbed ‘The Bright Young Things’ by the tabloid press. This group of young socialites including Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton and the Mitford sisters were famous for their fancy dress parties and scandalous stories of drinking and drug taking. The society photographer Cecil Beaton began his career documenting their activities.
Hugo Vickers in his ‘Cecil Beaton; The authorised Biography’ described one of Beaton’s parties:
‘On the last day of October 1925 he attended a wild fancy-dress party in Cambridge given by his Harrow friend Jack Gold. Jack had got into what Cecil thought a ‘select set’ including Sir Richard Sykes, Maurice Bridgeman, John Ramsden, Philip Dunn and Lord Charles Cavendish. For the party Cecil put on a pink chiffon and a bustle drinking champagne and cocktails.’
Vickers quotes from Beaton’s diaries:
‘If I had been sober I should have paid more attention to the silly Ramsden. He is so smart and dances with the Duchess of York. I was so tight and pleased with myself…I was in a state rushing with Philip Dunn and John Ramsden after me from one couch to another and then falling over a sofa and being smothered with kisses from Philip Dunn and John Ramsden saying, ‘Oh Philip, I shall never speak to you again. Oh Cecil, Oh Cecil I thought your shingle was too marvellous…’
‘All these men later married and most of them undertook respectable occupations…. John Ramsden…was assassinated in Malaya in June 1948.’
Buxton concludes that he was probably bisexual and found the pressures on him to marry and produce an heir deeply disturbing. In 1935 John Ramsden married Lady Catherine Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1906-1996) and their daughter Carola was born in 1938. They were divorced in 1947 and he had returned to Malaya from home leave in England three months before his murder.
John St. Maur Ramsden (Source: Ancestry.com). Photos provided by the family are included in Meriel Buxton’s book ‘Poverty is Relative’.
Buxton’s research didn’t include Malaysia but in the same year Lynn Hollen Lees Professor of History Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania published: ‘Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects, British Malaya, 1786-1941’. She describes the social hierarchy and working conditions with John Ramsden’s death and liquidation of the Penang Rubber Estates Group providing a dramatic conclusion.
Professor Lees conducted site visits and oral interviews with surviving plantation workers including one witness who remembered Ramsden. A Tamil lady Muniammah, who worked on the Caledonia plantation in the 1940s, was living in a corner of the abandoned mansion. She remembered John as a nice man who was kind to the estate children and described a private golf course and airfield adjoining the big house. She spoke of a Malay woman who lived as his mistress and a brother working as his driver who resented their liaison. Others said Ramsden was gay and only employed young, handsome Malay houseboys, the sort who had been arrested by the police.
To a modern reader John Ramsden’s sexual orientation would be irrelevant the emphasis more on colonial exploitation or abuse of position. In an age when homosexuality was illegal the threat of blackmail was enough to ensure family secrets were honoured. The inscriptions chosen by his parents for John’s tomb are telling; a son and heir cruelly gunned down for no reason with his honourable war service recorded on the other panel:
JOHN SAINT MAUR RAMSDEN
SERVED IN THE GREAT WAR 1939-1945
FIRST IN THE ROYAL AIR FORCE
LATER IN THE ROYAL NAVY
ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC PATROL
AND AFTERWARDS IN THE PACIFIC
PRESENT AT THE SURRENDER OF JAPAN
LIEUTENANT R.N.V.R ON BOARD
St. George’s Anglican church, George Town, Penang completed in 1818.
In addition to John’s grave there is also a large screen behind the altar of St. George’s Church in George Town. A tiny brass plaque in Latin at the bottom reads in translation:
‘To the greater glory of god and in memory of their beloved son cruelly murdered at Province Wellesley, John Ramsden Baronet and his wife Joan, his parents, have dedicated this monument 1952.’
The inconspicuous plaque, in a classical language only understood by a small number of colonial officials doesn’t even mention their son’s name. The church won’t allow viewing or photography of the plaque.
The Caledonia plantation was converted into a palm oil estate in the 1960s. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council have pushed for the mansion’s conservation but without success as it sits on private land. Most bloggers are interested in it only as a backdrop for haunted house stories.
Western Road Cemetery on Penang Island. The first time I learnt about the murder of John Saint Maur Ramsden was when visiting the grave of Charles Nevill Godwin, the most senior police officer killed in Malaya. The mysterious inscription caught my interest and before searching the internet I’d jumped to the obvious conclusions: aristocrat, remittance man, black sheep of the family, first European victim of the Malayan Emergency.
Poverty is Relative (2017) Meriel Buxton
Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941 (2017) Lynn Hollen Lees
Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (1985) Hugo Vickers
‘Director Killed at Home’ The Straits Times 10th June 1948
‘Estate Manager Shot Dead on Staircase’ Morning Tribune 10th June 1948
‘Funeral of Mr. Ramsden’ The Straits Times 11th June 1948
‘Murder Charge’ The Straits Times 10th July 1948
‘Mr. Ramsden: No Charge’ The Straits Times 28th August 1948
‘Ramsden Killing: Story of Bungalow Shot’ The Straits Times 31st August 1948
‘Witness Told To Try On Shoes In Court’ The Straits Times 1st September 1948
‘Ramsden Inquest Finishes’ The Straits Times 3rd September 1948
‘Head Boy Gaoled’ The Straits Times 17th September 1948
Penang Heritage Trust Newsletter Issue No. 101 / April 2012, ‘Mystery of Rubber Estate Manager’s Murder’, Leslie A.K. James