” With all my heart I still love the man I killed….” Bette Davis in ‘The Letter’, Warner Bros. Pictures 1940 (Source: Getty Photos)
Colonial Malaya’s most shocking murder case
In 2003 Hong Kong’s ‘Milkshake Murder’ was a brief distraction from the SARS outbreak that dominated the news. Sixteen years later COVID-19, a more deadly respiratory illness, escalated to the level of a global pandemic. For Malaysians lockdowns, curfews, Movement Control Orders (MCO), Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and social distancing became part of their daily vocabulary. Domestic travel was restricted and jogging, walking and cycling the only recreational activities allowed. It was the perfect opportunity to explore Kuala Lumpur on foot, from the modern city centre defined by the PETRONAS twin towers to the old city centre.
The signposted colonial walk taking in the historic buildings around Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) was a good starting point and reminded me of a more famous murder case.
The Sultan Abdul Samad Building constructed entirely of brick was completed in 1897 and formerly known as Government Offices. The clock tower first chimed to coincide with Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Parade in June 1897.
Map of Kuala Lumpur in 1895 that could be used to navigate the heritage centre today. The Malay quarter developed at the confluence of the two rivers, the Chinese quarter to the south around the market area and British residences and government offices on the left bank. Victoria Institution was located within the bend of the river but re-located in 1929 due to frequent flooding. The course of the river was then straightened. (Source: Old Kuala Lumpur, J.M. Gullick)
The Jamek Mosque built in 1909 at the Y shaped confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers from which Kuala Lumpur (‘muddy confluence’) got its name.
Established in 1893 the Victoria Institution is the oldest secondary school in Kuala Lumpur and until 1929 was located in a loop of the Klang River facing High Street (now Jalan Tun H.S. Lee). The school’s first headmaster, serving for 28 years, was Mr. Bennett Eyre Shaw. In January 1911 he went on leave to England and appointed William Proudlock as acting headmaster. Proudlock, his wife Ethel and their three-year-old daughter moved from the Brickfields area (now Little India) to the headmaster’s bungalow in the school grounds.
The headmaster’s bungalow prone to flooding was demolished during redevelopment. The block (above) was destroyed by a fire in 1999.
William Proudlock born in 1880 was the son of a millwright and educated at a state school in Cambridgeshire. After being awarded his teacher’s certificate he was recruited by the Victoria Institution in 1900. Proudlock a hardworking teacher enjoyed a full program of extra-curricular activities; he was a gymnastics instructor, choirmaster at St Mary’s, president of the Selangor State Band, Lieutenant in the fire brigade, member of the Malay States Volunteer Rifles and played football and rugby for the school.
In the early years some teachers kept rifles in their classrooms overlooking the river taking shots at crocodiles lounging on the banks whilst pupils liked to throw stones at them. Even in 2017 the public were advised to be cautious fishing in the Klang River after the sighting of a two metre long crocodile near Kota bridge.
William Proudlock (second row centre) with members of the school’s First Eleven. (Source: Syndics of Cambridge University)
Eric Lawlor in his book ‘Murder on the Verandah’ stated that Ethel was probably Eurasian, the illegitimate daughter of Robert Charter and pregnant when aged 19 she married William. Their wedding on April 25th 1907 was a hurried affair, her father was absent and the couple left immediately for Penang to catch a ship to England. Lawlor suggested Robert disliked Proudlock feeling his daughter had wed beneath her station. It’s also possible he was glad to see her married off and distanced from his legitimate family.
The Singapore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser 2nd May 1907 – ‘Kuala Lumpur Notes 25th April 1907’
THE SOCIAL ROUND
On the boat home Ethel had been very ill suffering from anaemia and neuralgia and after a difficult birth didn’t return to Malaya until October 1908. She settled into a comfortable middle class lifestyle amongst Kuala Lumpur’s small British community. Apart from visits to the club and shopping trips to John Little’s department store she spent most of her time at home engaged in needlework, writing letters and reading Punch. In 1909 she qualified for the annual tennis tournament at the club. She was also a member of the Selangor Ladies Rifle Association, the amateur dramatic society and worked as a teaching assistant at the Methodist Girl’s School.
In early 1910 Ethel gave up most of her interests and disappeared from Kuala Lumpur’s social scene. In fact she was involved in a clandestine affair and her health problems were a convenient cover.
Little is known about William Crozier Steward. He was originally from Whitehaven in Cumberland, around 34 years old and working as a mining engineer. He kept to himself, occasionally drank in the club, played rugby and was acquainted with William Proudlock. Until 1910 Steward ran Salak South mine about 10km from the city centre. When the ore ran out he was appointed consulting engineer with a Singapore firm F.W. Barker and Co.. In this new role he kept his bungalow in Salak South but spent most of his time on the road trouble shooting for mines and rubber estates in Selangor.
On the 23rd April 1911 Ethel shot and killed Steward. She was the only European woman tried for murder and sentenced to death in British Malaya.
William Crozier Steward probably on the steps of his bungalow. (Source: Topham Picturepoint)
THE CROWN V MRS PROUDLOCK
The trial of Ethel Mabel Proudlock charged with the murder of William Crozier Steward opened at Kuala Lumpur’s Supreme Court on June 7th before Mr. Justice Sercombe Smith who was assisted by Messrs P.F. Wise and Kindersley as assessors. Mr. Hastings Rhodes (Legal Adviser Federated Malay States) and Mr. Hereford (D.P.P.) appeared for the prosecution. Mr. Pooley and Mr. Wagner appeared for the defence. Jury trials had been abolished in Malaya because the pool of available jurors, confined to Britons, was too small.
Contemporary postcard showing the Supreme Court overlooking the present Chinatown area. Ethel first appeared in Court on Monday 24th April 1911 when she was formally charged with causing the death of William Steward. Following a preliminary hearing on May 1st she was remanded in Pudu Jail.
The prosecution presented evidence that the Proudlocks were on friendly terms with the deceased and that on April 23rd Steward went to visit Mrs Proudlock at nine o’clock. They asked the Court to draw an inference this was due to prior arrangement with Mrs Proudlock on three grounds:
- Steward was the consulting engineer for Sione Estate near the Batu Caves 15km from Kuala Lumpur. On the Sunday morning he went there around 11am leaving at 310pm. Steward declined an invitation to stay for dinner saying he had an appointment in town.
- Steward was present in the Selangor Club reading room at 630pm. The church service concluded at 645pm and the Proudlocks went directly to the club.
- After leaving the club he crossed the road to dine with friends at the Empire hotel but left abruptly when he realised it was 9pm.
There was no evidence of any conversation between accused and deceased in the club:
Mr. Pooley: “Is there any truth in the suggestion that you made an appointment with Steward to come round that night?”
Mrs Proudlock: “There is not.”
Looking across Merdeka Square to the Royal Selangor Club (1884) and on the right St Mary’s Cathedral (1894) where the Proudlocks were married. The Empire Hotel was directly behind the club. Steward and the Proudlocks went separately to the club after church on the 23rd April.
The former Loke Hall operated as the Empire Hotel from 1910 to 1919, now gazetted as a heritage building. On the night of his death William Steward was dining there with Mr. D.W. Gilmour of the Chartered Bank and Mr. Keer of the Planters Stores. While the pudding was being served the clock on the Government Secretariat building struck nine. Steward excused himself saying he had an appointment and took a rickshaw to the Victoria Institution. On foot it is an easy 20 minutes walk but it was raining heavily that evening. (Source: myheritagebuildings.blogspot.com)
TAM Ng-tee, the rickshaw puller who conveyed Steward to the Proudlock’s bungalow was a key eyewitness for the prosecution:
Regarding the murder weapon evidence was given that Ethel bought a webley revolver from the Federal Dispensary on April 18th as a birthday present for her husband. The gun was for self-defence as their previous home in Brickfields had been burgled but William also enjoyed taking pot shots at the crocodiles.
On the Saturday evening they stayed home and William told his wife that he would be dining with his colleague Goodman Ambler the following night. Next day she was not well. She had expected to be unwell but was well enough to join William for taget practice with the revolver. The revolver was re-loaded but looking at his watch he saw it was 525pm and time for church so he handed the revolver to his wife. She placed it on the bookshelf where it remained as she was distracted by the sound of cats from the nursery.
Mrs Proudlock stated that she was writing letters on the verandah and not expecting any visitors. Assuming Steward had come to see her husband she told him he was dining in Brickfields a mile and a half away. Noticing that Steward was reluctant to leave she invited him to sit and making small talk asked whether he had attended church that evening. He replied that he rarely attended and Mrs Proudlock went to fetch a book that she thought might interest him:
William Steward’s “frightful injuries were a testimony to the terrible execution of the Webley revolver.” Dr. Cooper who carried out the postmortem examination said: “One bullet entered the skull above the right ear, a second bullet entered the skull behind the left ear. A third entered the nape of the neck, a fourth entered at the angle of the left jaw and there was a fifth wound an eigth of an inch below the last. The last bullet entered the right breast.”
William Proudlock was summoned by his cook and returning home quickly he met his wife staggering across the grounds muttering “Blood, blood. I’ve shot a man.” The only signs of struggle were an overturned table and chair and some displaced books. He then ran to the police station and summoned Inspector Wyatt.
Mr. Pooley outlined the defence saying he referred the Court to one exception in the murder section of the criminal code that said culpable homicide was not murder if a person was deprived of self control by grave and sudden provocation and caused the death of another person by accident.
The provocation was indeed grave: ‘the most serious a lady could receive at a man’s hands’. If they believed this there would be no shadow of a doubt the accused was entitled to acquittal on the charge of murder.
The defence therefore relied on medical evidence showing the accused was an emotional, hysterical woman and that shock might have caused loss of knowledge of her actions. The press reported that she looked very white and pathetic when she entered the box, her hands were trembling and she answered in a weak, tearful voice. Dr. McGregor described her as a virtual invalid, a delicate girl racked by pain and often confined to bed.
‘But she plays tennis,’ Hastings Rhodes reminded him.
The prosecution countered that it was for the accused to convince the Court beyond reasonable doubt that she was justified in acting the way she did. Mr. Rhodes said the Court would have to be convinced that the attempted rape story was true. It seemed to counsel there was considerable doubt about it. The question was: “was the accused justified following the deceased up, after shooting him on the verandah, and doing him to death when her sole object was the defence of her person?”
Steward was fully clothed when his body was discovered and there was no medical evidence of rape or attempted rape after examination of both the accused and deceased.
The Judge appeared to make much of the fact that Mrs Proudlock had changed into a low cut, green, tea gown but according to her husband she always dressed like this in the evening even when dining alone.
The defence sought to introduce evidence of the deceased’s moral character but this was struck down by the Judge:
The Judge concluded there was not a ‘tittle’ of evidence to prove a liaison between the accused and the deceased. He then finished his summing up by quoting authority to the effect that an accused person could be convicted of murder without the necessity of proving a motive.
Public opinion was now sharply divided with many of Mrs Proudlock’s supporters aware of the rumours that she had killed Steward in a jealous rage when he sought to end their affair.
The Court considered in public for three minutes and then the Judge asked Mr. Wise:
“Have you considered your verdict on the charge of murder?” Mr. Wise: “My verdict is that she is guilty”.
Mr. Kindersley and the Judge concurred. The accused had nothing to say.
“The sentence of the Court upon you is that you hang by the neck until you be dead, and God Almighty have mercy on your soul”.
The Judge announced that a strong recommendation for mercy would be conveyed to his Highness the Sultan of Selangor.
Pudu Jail completed in 1895 and demolished in 2012. Part of the exterior wall and main gate were preserved and incorporated into the Mitsui Lalaport Mall. On July 8th 1911 Ethel was released at 9pm and met outside by her husband, mother and father. The Malay Mail reported: ‘She was in a highly nervous condition, and to avoid the possibility of a breakdown was advised to retire at once on her arrival at her destination.’
In June Mrs Proudlock announced that she was abandoning her appeal against conviction and would seek clemency from the Sultan of Selangor. The Sultan sitting in council together with the acting British Resident and Sercombe Smith granted his pardon on condition that Mrs Proudlock leave Malaya. Sercombe Smith opposed the decision arguing that her conduct pointed to revenge rather than human frailty and stated that the court had ‘utterly disbelieved her evidence’. He was overruled and Mrs Proudlock was released on July 8th. She boarded a Japanese ship in Penang reaching England on August 22nd.
William Proudlock whether from genuine conviction, compassion or to protect his own good name steadfastly stood by his wife throughout her trial and continued to protest her innocence.
On October 10th Bennett Shaw returned to Kuala Lumpur and was met on the station platform by Proudlock. He was fully aware of the ‘the murder on the verandah’ case and Proudlock’s continued presence at the school had clearly become an embarrassment. On 24th October Victoria Institution announced he had resigned his post. One month later William left Malaya to join his wife and never returned. Unable to secure a suitable appointment they moved to Canada before splitting up; Ethel moving to the USA with her daughter Dorothy whilst William settled in Argentina working at St George’s School in Quilmes where he died in 1958. Ethel died in 1974.
William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) one of the most popular writers of his era was to Anthony Burgess the creator of some of the best short stories ever written. ‘The Casuarina Tree’ published in 1926 was a collection of six, including ‘The Letter’, all set in the Federated Malay States of the 1920s. They were inspired whilst travelling in the Far East for six months in 1921 and four months in 1925. The British community in Malaya were outraged at his scandalous depiction of their lives and felt he had betrayed their hospitality. Victor Purcell in his ‘Memoirs of a Malayan Official’ wrote that even in the 1960s mention of his name enraged some old Malayan hands whilst others were just as miffed they hadn’t been included. In his preface to a later collection of stories Maugham emphasised the vast majority of colonials were decent, ordinary, hard-working people who drank moderately, played bridge and did a little shooting but:
‘they are not the sort of people I can write stories about.’
The Letter’ was inspired by the Proudlock case as told to him by Ethel’s lawyer.
In his story Ethel becomes Leslie Crosbie facing trial in Singapore for killing her husband’s friend Geoff Hammond. It opens with Leslie’s lawyer confident of a not guilty verdict :
‘He tried to rape me, and I shot him.’
Hammond is damned because of his association with a Chinese woman:
‘that robbed him of any sympathy which might have been felt for him.’
The revelation of an incriminating letter from Leslie to Geoff Hammond puts a different complexion on the case forcing the lawyer to pay for its return. She later breaks down and admits that Hammond had been her lover and she shot him in a jealous rage:
‘till the revolver went click, click and I knew there were no more cartridges.’
Leslie is acquitted but condemned to live life knowing she killed the man she truly loved.
The movie had a midnight premiere at Singapore’s Alhambra on June 3rd 1941. The Alhambra on Beach Road was the first air conditioned cinema in Singapore with a seating capacity of 3,500 and its own live orchestra. (Source: The Straits Times June 1941)
In 1940 Warner Bros. released a film version of Somerset Maugham’s ‘well known story of the East’ starring Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie and Herbert Marshall as her husband. Apart from Bette Davis superb performance as the cool, calculating killer the film is famous for its opening scene. The silent two minutes long tracking shot is suddenly broken by a gunshot from inside the bungalow, a man staggers onto the verandah followed by Davis who cold bloodedly pumps five more shots into him.
The Letter premiered in Singapore in June 1941 with the local press praising the authentic Malayan background all the more impressive as it was filmed entirely on sets. The Asian characters speak Cantonese and Malay while the court scenes were accurate including the wigs and robes of the judge and counsel.
The ending of the film tells us as much about Hollywood in the 1940s as the Proudlock case reveals about the attitudes and prejudices of colonial society. In the golden age of Hollywood studios were bound by the Production Code consisting of guidelines of what was morally acceptable in films. Maugham’s ending with Leslie returning to the husband who knows she doesn’t love him was unacceptable as murder was seen to go unpunished. A weaker ending was added, Davis paying for her crime with her own violent death. The suggestion that her lover was living in sin with a Chinese woman was also rejected so she became Geoff Hammond’s Eurasian wife.
‘The case was the sensation of the day and it was discussed in all the clubs, at all the dinner tables, up and down the (Malay) Peninsula, from Singapore to Penang.’ – The Letter
Largely forgotten after two world wars and the end of Empire, Maugham’s fictional version of the Proudlock case proved more enduring than the true story. Interest was revived in 1991 on publication of ‘Out East in the Malay Peninsula’ by G.E.D. Lewis, a member of the Malayan Educational Service from 1938 to 1963 and former headmaster of the Victoria Institution. Lewis first heard of the case in 1956 from an elderly lawyer and former pupil. Since the story had been covered in the Straits Times, Malay Mail and UK’s Sunday Observer in 1976 he felt free to discuss it in his memoirs.
In March 1976 the story ‘Crime of Passion’ appeared in the Straits Times. The writer admitted that only Maugham’s story was common knowledge at that time so he believed the real case had occurred in the 1920s. Only a chance remark in a Singapore bar and interview with Delmar Morgan, former manager of the Europe Hotel, led him to search back through nine years of local newspapers.
In 1999 Eric Lawlor’s ‘Murder on the Verandah – Love and Betrayal in British Malaya’ was published. He acknowledged that few sources were available and drew heavily on reports in the Malay Mail, Kuala Lumpur’s popular daily newspaper of the period.
Researching his book ‘Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China’ author Paul French described his eureka moment when he finally found a photo of his story’s victim – 19 years old Pamela Werner. The black and white photo showed a young, attractive woman in an evening dress. French had realised that without a photo or with a less photogenic victim his story wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact and might not have been published. The fatal weakness of Lawlor’s story is that he wasn’t able to discover even one photo of Ethel Proudlock.
Recently a photo has appeared online purporting to show William Proudlock with an unknown woman at the Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur but the source is unknown. Could this be Ethel Proudlock?
In 2012 Mary Kilcline Cody of the Australian National University was awarded a doctorate for her thesis ‘The Trial of Mrs Proudlock: Law, Government and Society in British Malaya, 1911’. It hasn’t been published and she didn’t respond to an enquiry but the abstract is revealing.
Part of it reads:
‘The melodrama of the criminal trial reveals much about the regressive feudal fantasy that colonialism had built for itself in Kuala Lumpur, a power structure and set of institutions that harked back to the imagined stable and vertiginous hierarchies of feudal England. In this medievalist revival fantasy, colonial authority was maintained by the daily reinforcement of white prestige…Both prosecution and defence framed their narratives against contemporary, widely held and yet contested views of true femininity,’
The UK National Archives in Kew has 8 records for public viewing under ‘Ethel Proudlock’ including copies of statements, trial transcript and the correspondence of William Proudlock. I was informed the collection had been withdrawn for condition assessment after a sample had shown traces of historic insecticides and so was not available for viewing. For reporting of the trial I therefore relied on Lawlor’s account and online newspaper records from Singapore’s National Archives.
The original Block One of the Victoria Institution burnt down in 1999 but was rebuilt in the same style and is now the Taman Budaya Cultural Centre.