It became a cause celebre and was still talked about many years later when a young writer called William Somerset Maugham shared a beer with the lawyer who represented Mrs Proudlock at her trial, EA Wagner. Like all good writers, Somerset Maugham saw a story within the story and penned THE LETTER, based on the Proudlock murder. THE LETTER became a stage play, a film and even an opera... but how many people know the real story of Ethel Proudlock?
Like all her family Ethel was a good shot and a keen member of the rifle club. She also dabbled in amateur dramatics. She is generally described as being fair haired and pretty.
Her wedding to Proudlock was a strange affair... a very small number of guests on a weekday afternoon. Her father didn't attend and the bride wore electric blue.
The Proudlocks left that night for England returning with a baby girl (Dorothy) early in 1908. It is more than likely Ethel was a pregnant bride. On her return to KL, Even as a married woman her 'outsider' status within the European community continued, and coupled with ill health, may have contributed to a sense of rejection, isolation, and deep resentment.
In 1910 Proudlock was appointed as acting headmaster of the school in the absence of the principal who had returned to England. The couple and their daughter moved into the headmaster's house on the grounds of the Victoria Institution.
William Steward was a single man, the manager of a tin mine at Salak South (although at the time of his death, the mine had closed and he was freelancing as a troubleshooter to other mines). By all accounts he was a rather shy, reserved man who liked a game of rugby. The one image I have seen of him reveals a muscular man in his forties, balding with a high domed forehead and a strong face.
It's not clear when the affair between Ethel and William Steward began but it appears to have been a fairly open secret within the community. The story of the two spending the evening entwined in the back of Steward's motor vehicle during a dinner party was well known (although denied by Ethel) and came up at the trial.
A few months before his death, Steward took up with a local woman who moved into his house at Salak South. This may have been the catalyst that started the chain of events leading to his death.
On Sunday 23 April 1911, the Proudlocks spent the afternoon on the shooting range. Ethel had purchased a Webley revolver for her husband's birthday (for self-defence) and was teaching him to use it. They returned home and attended Evensong at St Mary's. Back at the bungalow, William went on to dinner at a colleague's home. Ethel pleaded a headache and remained at home. Meanwhile, William Steward dined with friends at the Empire Club before leaving hurriedly about 9 pm claiming he had an appointment. Steward arrived at the headmaster's bungalow by ricksha and told the ricksha wallah to wait as he would not be long.
The dinner party at Goodman Ambler's (yes, that was his name) was interrupted at about 9.30 by the Proudlock's cook in a hysterical state demanding Proudlock return home. On arrival at the headmaster's bungalow, Proudlock found his hysterical wife shrieking "Blood, blood! I killed a man"... and the body of William Steward lying in the driveway. Ethel Proudlock had emptied all 6 rounds of the Webley revolver into the man.
Ethel, found clad in an evening dress that she had not been wearing when Proudlock left home (and, as subsequently discovered... no underwear), claimed to have no memory of the actual shooting after the first shot.
She claimed self-defence. She had been writing letters on the verandah when Steward arrived, he then proceeded to make a pass at her, and in a panic she seized up the (fully loaded!) revolver she had been using that afternoon and shot him. As he staggered away down the steps of the verandah, she fired again, continuing to shoot as he lay dying at her feet in the driveway - witnessed by the ricksha wallah who had brought Steward to the bungalow.
In the following weeks, rumours abounded and bizarre stories began to be circulated of Ethel's second lover swimming the Klang River to shoot Steward and then slipping away into the night.
Ethel maintained her defence but at her subsequent trial she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Throughout her trial, William Proudlock remained staunchly loyal to his wife. She was eventually reprieved by the Sultan of Selangor. The Proudlocks left Malaya and the marriage disintegrated. Ethel and her daughter died in Florida and Proudlock in Argentina.
No one could deny that she had indeed shot Steward - being caught with a proverbial smoking gun saying "I did it" is a bit of a giveaway... but why?
While I have fictionalised the Proudlocks' story, I kept to the facts of the case so what you read in TERROR IN TOPAZ is a reasonably accurate account of the events of the night of 11 April, based on the contemporary newspaper reports. Harriet Gordon has her own theory as to what transpired that night and you will need to read TERROR IN TOPAZ to explore the facts of this case and what Harriet (and I) think happened.
You can find images associated with the Proudlock case on my Pinterest Board: Click HERE
TERROR IN TOPAZ: Harriet Gordon Mysteries Book 4
The chance to pursue a new opportunity takes Harriet and her brother Julian, to Kuala Lumpur, but death is waiting…
Singapore 1910: Harriet Gordon has been dismissed from the job she loved and finds herself cast adrift. When her brother receives an invitation to visit a prestigious school in Kuala Lumpur, she and Julian decide to leave Singapore behind for a few days, but their pleasant visit takes a dark turn when a visitor to the school is shot dead on the front steps of the headmaster’s bungalow.
After being suspended from the Straits Settlements Police, Inspector Robert Curran has disappeared on a personal quest to find a missing girl but his suspension is not all it appears and he receives secretive orders to investigate the mysterious Topaz Club, which seems to be at the centre of high-level corruption within the colonial government of Malaya.
The uninvestigated death of a woman with links to the Topaz Club, brings Harriet and Curran together in a determination to shut down the notorious establishment for good.
But a devious criminal stands in the way and it is going to take Harriet and Curran all their resources to bring justice for the victims of the Topaz Club and in doing so, find what it is they have been looking for in each other.