The Crime That Shook Colonial Malaya

In the sweltering, hazy days of colonial Malaya, was a love triangle to blame for the murder of a British expat?
Tuesday 11 September 2018
Leslie Crosbie holds the smoking gun in 'The Letter'. Photo: Getty Images

Somerset Maugham and Malaya

W. Somerset Maugham travelled both for inspiration and (although married) to live freely with Gerald Haxton, his American companion whom he had met in the trenches in Flanders. His visit to the Federated Malay States (FMS) in the 1920s provided him with enough material for The Casuarina Tree, a collection of short stories that tell of the British experience in the colonies.

Having lost his French mother to tuberculosis and his father to cancer at a young age, he was miserable at The King’s School, Canterbury, where he was bullied for his French accent, short stature and inability to play sports. This experience taught him to become the master observer with a delicious wit.

With his eyes firmly trained on the expatriates whilst ignoring the “natives”, Maugham was accused of betraying the trust and hospitality of his hosts for revealing the hypocrisies and pretensions of the colonials.

Malaya was satirically called “Cheltenham-on-the-Equator” for its provincial mores and the voices of Maugham’s characters reveal the superior and condescending attitudes amongst them. One of the anthology, ‘The Letter’, was successfully adapted into a play and two films.

The most famous version was directed by William Wyler in 1941 starring Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the character based on Ethel Proudlock, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

The source of this sensational case has been attributed to Mr E.A.S. Wagner, the lawyer who represented Mrs Proudlock who shared details of the salacious crime which Maugham moved to Singapore and changed the ending – not just for dramatic purposes – but to protect himself from libel suits.

The indiscreet Mr Wagner must have regaled his famous visitor with all the licentious details at The Majestic, egged on by Maugham’s charming and garrulous companion Gerald Haxton over many glasses of “stengah”, the half-whisky half-soda tipple preferred by expats – and the legal niceties of client confidentiality all but forgotten.

Ethel and William Proudlock

The venerable Victoria Institution (VI) is a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur that was founded in 1893 with the help of the Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur, Yap Kwan Seng, business magnate Loke Yew and Thamboosamy Pillai, the leader of the Tamil community.

Named in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887, VI’s first headmaster for 28 years was Mr Bennett Eyre Shaw, for whom “Shaw Road” was named (now Jalan Hang Tuah). And it was he who hired Mr Proudlock to come to Malaya to teach at VI.

Although “The Proudlock Saga” took place in 1911, the murder and connection to the school was lost to history until 1991 when its former headmaster, Dr G.E.D. Lewis published his memoirs Out East in The Malay Peninsula and recounted the tale of murder in the final chapter.

The murder remained known only to VI Old Boys until 1999, when the saga became known to the wider public with the publication of Murder on the Verandah by Eric Lawlor.

William Proudlock was described as a ‘manly man’ which in the parlance of the day meant that he was the athletic anti-intellectual Christian – the embodiment of the saying attributed to the Duke of Wellington, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

The son of a millwright, he did not have the advantages of Eton and Oxford to his name unlike many civil servants of the day, at a time when pedigree and connections mattered a great deal.

An expat wedding was usually a capital excuse for merriment and grand celebrations in KL, but the wedding of 19-year-old Ethel Charter (the daughter of Robert Charter of the Public Works Department) to William Proudlock at St Mary’s Church in 1907, was a simple muted affair.

On her wedding day she wore an electric blue dress instead of a traditional white gown, and within one hour of the reception Mr and Mrs Proudlock had set sail for their honeymoon in England.

When Bennett Shaw went home on leave in 1911, Proudlock was appointed the acting Headmaster and he moved into the Headmaster’s bungalow with Ethel and their three-year-old daughter Dorothy. They did not socialise much, being as they were, of no particular social importance.

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The Crewe Circular

Malaya was oppressively hot and humid; long walks were not possible unless you cut through the dense jungle as you went along. Life here was not as grand as in British India but neither was it as hard as living in Africa or Australia.

In 1911, there were just over 1,000 Britons in the FMS with 700 in KL. While it was a dull backwater, KL was certainly preferable to life on remote and lonely plantations.

At the time, British males outnumbered their female counterpart by 3 to 1, which made the plainest woman ‘a goddess’, so wrote the editor of the Penang Straits Echo, George Bilainkin.

Against this background, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe, issued a circular in 1909 known as the Crewe or ‘Concubine Circular’, directing the Colonial Service not to enter into “arrangements of concubinage with the native population… Please warn them of the disgrace and official ruin which will certainly follow from any dereliction of duty in this respect.”

Unlike Singapore which was a Crown Colony, the FMS was not under the direct responsibility of the Crown and did not receive the Circular, but it reflects the prevailing attitude of the time.

It was reported that “concubinage” in Malaya which was as high as 90% amongst British planters at the turn of the century had decreased to 10% amongst British males in 1928, supporting how influential the circular was. Perhaps this explains why strapping young British men, in the prime of their manly manhood and deprived of suitable feminine companionship, could be overcome with sexual frustration, lust and desire.

One such man was Mr William Crozier Steward, the manager of a local tin mine. Male expats generally spent their free time with other males at the Selangor Club or the ‘Spotted Dog’ in the Long Bar knocking back many glasses of stengah.

William Steward seemed different.

Thirty-four years old, he was fairly abstemious, shy and hardworking, and up until the incident, highly thought of. But he had a secret private life that later convinced the expat community otherwise.

Ethel and William Steward

On the night of 23rd April 1911, William Steward had dropped by unannounced whilst her husband was out for dinner. Apparently reluctant to leave, she invited him to stay and made small talk about a book. While reaching for the book, and perhaps overcome by the low-cut evening gown she was wearing, Steward kissed and grabbed her, and tried to raise her dress.

In court, she admitted not to be wearing any “drawers” underneath her frock. In the struggle she tried to steady herself and somehow her hand found a revolver, a recent birthday present to her husband.

She claimed she shot him twice and terrified, her mind went blank.

He was shot six times in close range on the verandah of the Headmaster’s bungalow.

William Steward was alleged to have attempted rape on Mrs Ethel Proudlock, the wife of the acting Headmaster of Victoria Institution.

And she, in defending her honour, had shot and killed Mr Steward.

Or so the defence claimed. In ‘The Letter’, the lawyer Mr Joyce (the EAS Wagner character) said of the murder victim to Leslie Crosbie (Ethel Proudlock), “…he was the sort of man who might be guilty of the crime which in justification of your act you accused him of. The fact, which was discovered after his death, that he had been living with a Chinese woman gave us something very definite to go on.”

Maugham’s character exposes the racist attitude of the day: any man capable of consorting with the natives, was certainly capable of committing unspeakable acts.

The Trial

The next day Ethel Proudlock, 23 years old, was charged with murder.

Murder amongst the natives was not uncommon and usually ignored, but a white woman charged with the murder of a white man was especially distressing to the community.

There was general outrage that a white woman should face the indignity of prosecution for merely defending her honour. However, within a few weeks, public opinion had begun to turn. There was talk that Mrs Proudlock was a difficult, hysterical woman, and rumours spread that the meeting was planned.

It was whispered, most likely by Steward’s servants, that she had visited his quarters in Salak South and had brazenly conducted an adulterous affair.

To the post-Victorian Britons in Cheltenham-on-the-Equator, her adultery was even more unforgivable than the murder.

The prosecution pointed out that Mr Steward was shot on the verandah indicating that he was leaving the bungalow; further, he had asked his rickshaw to wait for him, surely not a sign he intended to stay long. Moreover, there were no signs of a struggle and Mrs Proudlock‘s wearing an evening gown at home suggested that she was expecting a visitor.

Her own testimony was often inconsistent and contradictory.

The prosecution posited that they had in fact been lovers and the real motive for the murder was jealousy. Steward was now living with a Chinese woman and wanted to end the affair. Humiliated by his betrayal and enraged by jealousy, she had invited him that evening with the intention of murdering him.

At the trial, Ethel maintained her innocence throughout and was mortified by the suggestion of an affair.

Pride and Prejudice in Malaya

To fully understand Ethel, we should look at the circumstances of her birth. She was in fact the illegitimate product of her father’s relationship with an Asian woman. Her birth certificate named Robert Crosbie as her father but is silent on the mother’s.

She was brought up by Mrs Crosbie who resented her and Proudlock claimed he only knew of Ethel’s parentage after they were married. Eric Lawlor in Murder on the Verandah contends that her mixed race was the real reason that the prosecution went ahead.

An Eurasian woman who murdered a white man could not go unpunished.

Rejected by society most of her life, she was betrayed many times over. Regarded as “pseudo-Europeans”, Eurasians were neither accepted by Europeans nor by the natives and Ethel wore her shame as an illegitimate half-caste misfit for all to see.

Likely not allowed to have contact with her biological mother, she was passing off as white and living a lie. This was not the only betrayal. It transpired later that before Proudlock had married Ethel, he too had been living with the mother of one of his pupils, a Chinese woman, and had continued to see her while married.

Even the circumstances around her marriage were suspicious. Did Ethel wear electric blue on her wedding day because she was pregnant? This would explain the rushed reception and why she was sent away to England to have a baby.

Although Maugham portrays Leslie/Ethel as white, he was either ignorant of, or most likely chose to ignore that she was Eurasian, as Maugham’s anti-Eurasian sentiments are well known in his stories.

In any case, a story about a murder committed by a half-caste native woman was not nearly as scandalous.

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Innocent or Guilty?

In ‘The Letter’, the jury acquitted Leslie Crosbie, believing that she acted in self-defence. However, Maugham had used a letter purportedly written by Leslie Crosbie/Ethel Proudlock inviting Geoff Hammond/William Steward to her home that evening in April, as a device to prove Ethel’s guilt.

Whether you believe fiction or fact, in real life, the judge and two British planters who acted as the assessors returned a verdict of guilty and the judge sentenced the accused Ethel Proudlock, “to hang by the neck till she be dead.”

Again, there was more general outrage that “any woman who defends her honour must look for no mercy from a British judge” in Malaya.

Several petitions for a reprieve were signed both by Europeans and the natives which were sent to the Sultan of Selangor. Advised that an appeal hearing would lead to even greater exposure of her personal affairs, she withdrew her appeal against her sentence and pleaded for mercy and pardon directly from the Sultan.

On Saturday 8 July 1911, and against the advice of his British advisers, Sultan Alaeddin Sulaiman Shah granted Ethel Proudlock a pardon on condition that she leave Malaya. A few days later she left for England.

William Proudlock’s ordeal continued however. He had written a letter accusing the Detective Inspector of beating his servants who had refused to provide evidence against his wife and was now being sued for libel. He lost the case and later, he lost his teaching position at VI as it was intimated that it would be an embarrassment for him to remain.

On his return to England he became something of a nuisance, as he continued to write to the Colonial Office demanding restitution, criticising the treatment of his wife and the conduct of the case, and by extension, the conduct of the British Empire.


The United Kingdom did not prove to be home for the Proudlocks. In 1913, they sailed to Canada and by 1916, Ethel moved to America, having lied on the form that she had never been in prison. We shall never know if Ethel ever watched The Letter.

Did she feel pride to have been portrayed by Bette Davis, a white woman who was the finest character actress of her generation? Or did she feel shame to have been exposed as a duplicitous adulteress?

In 1944 Ethel remarried and moved to Florida in 1950, where she died in 1974 at the age of 88. Dorothy died in Miami in 1990, aged 83, a childless widow. William Proudlock moved to Argentina in 1930 to teach at St George’s. It is said that he was in touch with both Ethel and Dorothy, and regularly sent them money. He died in Argentina in 1957.

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