The Proudlock Saga
teaching job in the backwaters of the British Empire, in a tiny protectorate amongst Her Majesty's far flung territories in the Malay Archipelago. A place where the British pound could buy servants to serve one hand and foot. Airy, spacious bungalows set amongst waving palms in a sultry tropical clime. Why not? He was young, athletic, adventurous and unattached. When William J. Proudlock joined the staff of the old Victoria Institution in 1901, he was not yet twenty-one. He had been recruited personally by Mr Bennett E. Shaw when the latter was on home leave in England the previous year and had accompanied the Headmaster back to the old V.I. in High Street. The V.I. had flourished since it started classes in 1894 with about 100 pupils and within six years its population had quintupled; hence Mr Shaw's overseas forays to recruit staff.
William Proudlock was presented to the school, then at its High Street location, at an assembly by Mr Shaw. (Something else too was presented - Mr Shaw had brought back a photogravure portrait of Queen Victoria from Her Majesty herself, no less, to the great pride of the V.I. boys.) A 1902 report mentions that Proudlock was then Fifth Assistant of seven European Assistants under the Headmaster and, by all accounts, he proved to be an able and popular teacher. He was a keen gymnast, a chorister, president of the state band, a lieutenant in the fire brigade and a member of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Rifles. He also played for the V.I. Football XI. In those days, teachers and boys made up the school football and cricket teams.
He married 19-year-old Ethel Charter in April, 1907, at the St Mary’s Church, Kuala Lumpur. He went on leave with his bride to England and returned to the V.I. the following January. (It is interesting to note that in the V.I. staff list of that time there was a F. G. Charter and a Miss Annie Charter. The latter taught the primary classes. Could they have been related to Ethel?)
When Mr. Shaw next went on leave to England in early 1911, William Proudlock was appointed the acting Headmaster and so moved to the Headmaster's bungalow with Ethel and their three-year-old daughter, Dorothy. The Headmaster’s bungalow in those days was a large single-storey wooden structure on concrete piles with wide airy verandahs all around the house. Its two sides and the back were surrounded by the meandering Klang River. The bungalow was fronted by a five-foot high hedge. It sat at one end of the V.I. field with busy High Street at the other end, about 150 metres away and sufficiently distant to afford a degree of privacy for its occupants.
On the night of 23 April, 1911, William Proudlock was dining at the Brickfields house of another V.I. teacher, Goodman Ambler. It was a Sunday and Ethel was at home in the bungalow busy with her correspondence when she had a visitor. He was William Crozier Steward, a 34-year-old engineering consultant and former manager of the Salak South Tin Mine. He had arrived outside the bungalow by rickshaw and had bidden the boy to wait beyond the hedge of the bungalow while he went up the steps of the bungalow to see Ethel. A short while later the rickshaw boy heard shots being fired and saw Steward stumble across the verandah, down the steps and collapse lifeless on the ground, the lower part of his body on the driveway, the upper part on the rain-sodden grass. Ethel Proudlock followed behind and stood over Steward’s body emptying the remaining rounds from her revolver.
This incident caused a sensation in Malaya, more so than any other as this involved the killing of one member of the British community by another. The case was even reported in the newspapers in England where, presumably, Mr Bennett Shaw would have been aghast to read of the dreadful goings-on at his own bungalow! There was a ten-day trial in June, 1911, which attracted intense public attention and was reported in great detail in the local papers. William Proudlock himself had to testify at the trial as well.
In court, Ethel claimed that Steward had tried to molest her and, as she backed away from him, she came on to her husband's revolver and had fired at Steward in self-defence. Nonetheless, Ethel was found guilty by the judge and sentenced to death. While awaiting her appeal, she was incarcerated in Pudu Jail for five months before various petitions to the Sultan of Selangor, including one from the V.I. boys and masters, were finally successful in securing her release. Ethel then sailed off almost immediately to England with Dorothy.
William Proudlock stayed behind in Kuala Lumpur as he was awaiting the results of a libel charge he had filed arising from police treatment of his wife. He lost this suit and resigned his job at the V.I. (Mr Shaw had since returned). He sailed off to England in November, 1911, to rejoin his family. In seven months, the world of the V.I. acting Headmaster had withered to nothing.
At his former School, a tight lid appeared to have been put on the Proudlock case as it was never ever mentioned in any official histories, not even in the last one published in 1961. There was an oblique reference to the affair in a letter to the 1938 School magazine by an Old Boy who had lived through those tumultuous months. "One rainy day," he hinted nervously to a new generation of Victorians, "persuade your fathers to tell you of several incidents I cannot or dare not relate here. Recall to them the names of Proudlock (and others) .."
Back to the Proudlocks. In 1913, they sailed off to Canada and settled in the central province of Manitoba. Then, in 1916, Ethel moved alone to New York and was joined later by Dorothy. In 1950, both mother and daughter moved again, this time to Miami, Florida. William Proudlock did not follow them. What he did from 1914 to 1929 is still not known. In 1930 he returned briefly to England.
While the V.I. studiously ignored the Proudlock case, public interest nevertheless continued into the 1920s and, as late as 1926, when Mr Shaw's successor, Mr Richard Sidney, was occupying that infamous bungalow, visitors were still asking to see the bullet holes made by Ethel’s gun. (The bungalow, incidentally, was demolished in the early thirties when the kink in the Klang River was straightened.) In 1921, W. Somerset Maugham the writer visited Malaya looking for material for his stories. Among the many people he met and talked with was Ethel’s lawyer, Mr Courtenay Dickinson, who related to him the details of the Proudlock case. Realizing what a superb story he had stumbled upon, Maugham wrote a fictional version of it, titling it The Letter.
In Maugham’s story, the names are changed; the accused is not the wife of an acting Headmaster but Leslie Crosbie, wife of rubber planter Robert Crosbie. Geoff Hammond is the hapless lover gunned down on the verandah of the Crosbie bungalow. Maugham spiced up the story with the titular letter, written by Leslie to Hammond asking him to see her. After his death the incriminating letter falls into the hands of Hammond's Chinese mistress who uses it to blackmail Leslie. The frantic effort to retrieve the letter forms the backdrop to Leslie's trial (in Singapore, in the fictional version). And Maugham's verdict is quite different – his rubber planter's wife gets acquitted!
On stage: Gladys Cooper; Katherine Cornell
In 1927, a three-act play with the same title was adapted by Maugham. Leslie Crosbie was played by stage and screen actress Gladys Cooper in London's Playhouse for over 300 performances. Across the Atlantic, Katherine Cornell took on the Crosbie role for the Broadway version at the Morosco Theatre in September 1927. Cornell had a loyal following and the opening night was such a sensation that the New York Sun wrote that the sidewalks were packed with people after the performance straining to catch a glimpse of her. The play lasted 104 performances and went on tour until the following September.
The Letter was one of the earliest plays to be filmed, in 1929, after the advent of talkies. It starred the noted stage actress, the beautiful Jeanne Eagels. Sadly, she died just months after the film was completed, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Leslie Crosbie. She was the first performer to be so recognized by the Academy posthumously, though hers was not an official nomination. The Letter was cited as one of the Top Ten Films of 1929 by the National Board of Review.
A second film version, directed by William Wyler, was made in 1940 and starred Bette Davis, one of the popular stars of that era.
Interestingly, Herbert Marshall who played the lover in the first version now played the husband in this remake! The film even garnered an Oscar nomination for Davis as best actress. The moralistic movie code of those times, however, required yet another twist to be tacked on to Maugham's ending. It was made a third time and retitled The Unfaithful starring Ann Sheridan in 1947. Still, the tale of love and betrayal refused to go away; as recently as 1982, there was a made-for-television version which starred Lee Remick. More recently, in July 2009, the Proudlock-inspired saga reappeared in yet another medium; the Sante Fe Opera in New Mexico, half a world away from the old Malaya, staged several summer performances of an operatic version of The Letter.
[There are many other film versions of the story, the two most widely known being Jean de Limur's 1929 version made by Paramount Pictures and starring Jeanne Eagels, and William Wyler's 1940 version made by Warner Bros. and starring Bette Davis. While de Limur's English-language version was made at Paramount's Astoria studios, several foreign-language versions were produced at the company's studios in Joinville-le-Pont: Louis Mercanton's French version, La lettre (1930), Dimitri Buchowetzki's German version, Weib im Dschungel (1931), Adelqui Migliar's Spanish version, La carta (1931) and Jack Salvatori's Italian version, La donna bianca (1931).]
Back again to William Proudlock. In 1930, he sailed to South America. One can only speculate that he was still trying to put the maximum distance between himself and the tragedy twenty years earlier. There have been reports that he was in Africa for a period but, at any rate, he finally ended up in Argentina at St George’s College in Quilmes, an almost rural community at that time, some seventeen miles south of Buenos Aires. There was a large British presence in Argentina then. They farmed the lands and built the railroads and most of the country's infrastructures. And they sent their sons to schools like St George's, which in those days took in only pupils of British stock.
Proudlock would have recognized his old V.I. in St George’s. Founded in 1898 - five years after the V.I. - it was also modelled on the British School system, preparing its pupils for the Senior Cambridge as well as the local Argentine Curriculum. Like the V.I., it had institutions like Houses, School Captains and Speech Days and demanded that its pupils partake in a variety of sports including athletics, swimming, football and cricket. Its pupils were expected to speak in English while at school and not the Spanish vernacular.
For many years St. George's was a boarding school for boys only, but is today for both boys and girls, boarders as well as day pupils. It has also expanded to found a second campus in the suburbs north of Buenos Aires. Its students are now Argentines of all origins, most of whom feel more comfortable in Spanish than in English. Like its Malayan counterpart, St George's has certainly produced more than its share of outstanding citizens of the world.
Hired as an assistant master by Canon Stevenson, the founder headmaster, Proudlock taught English, geography and history to the Cambridge classes. He was the House Master of Agar House, one of four Houses at St George’s then. Around 1947 he moved to the Junior School reporting to the Headmaster, Mr George Herbert Cordon. When Proudlock first joined St George's, the boys, poking fun at his name, nicknamed him Candado, Spanish for ‘padlock’, but later he acquired another nickname - Viejo Mato (old Mato). Mato may have come from mato ('I kill' in Spanish) or matón ('killer'). It was a sobriquet Proudlock earned for his frequent recitations of the following poem of his exploits in Malaya (he used Malay for Malaya for some reason):
I killed tigers twice a day,
Now I'm not in Malay,
I kill boys twice a day.
He was a health nut and exercised every day with dumb-bells. He scoffed at the boys who wore scarves and gloves in winter; these were the things that caused the colds. Look at him, he said, he never did and he never caught a cold. As if to disprove the Mato's infallibility, Old Georgian Peter Hussey recalls, one year in the 1940s, on the last day of school, a contemporary of his poured a jar of fly-juice through a hole in the ceiling onto the Mato's bed. The flies had been collected for weeks throughout the term and were, by that time, stinking to high heaven.
The upper school nurse in 1940 was a Mrs. Frederick. One night she died of a brain hemorrhage, screaming in agony. Proudlock had been sweet on her, according to Hussey, and when she died he went into a slump and was never the same man again. His voice sank and his whole body seemed to sag, Hussey says.
"Those of us who were at the College in the 1930s and 1940s have the Mato's image before us still," recalls David Smyth, another Old Georgian, "a lopsided man, one shoulder higher than the other, his hands clasping his coat lapels so as to conceal the shaking of his hands - the result it was said of malaria he had contracted in Malaya. But there was a little boy inside him. He liked to show us schoolboys the postcards he had bought in his youth, in Shanghai or somewhere - of headless corpses on some Chinese killing ground."
Indeed, Proudlock liked to expound on the countries he had purportedly visited, recalls Mike Reed, another Old Georgian, who was in the Junior school in 1941. "During geography lessons he told us about Burma, Myitkyina, the Irrawaddy River, Penang, Singapore and the very fast pace of development in Japan. We were at war with Germany then and frequently events were discussed even though we were all mostly ten year olds. Several times he insisted that 'the only good German is the dead German', something that impressed me a whole lot, at that time, because I had had a very dear German nanny when I was six!"
On the last day of the term in 1945, Reed was about to light some fire crackers that he had furtively stuck in a school fire extinguisher when somebody touched his shoulder. Turning around he saw it was Viejo Mato. "I thought to myself," he says, "what a whacking I'm going to get. Incredibly, the Mato took me downstairs, to his rooms, and very patiently showed me pictures of a group of young men, with handlebar moustaches, which he explained were the Fire Brigade 'when I was in Malaya' of which he was a member, and where he had learned that fires could be horribly deadly and cause a lot of property damage, and I should never again fool around with firecrackers inside a building. Unbelievable. I deserved a severe hiding and all I got was a very interesting and lasting lecture. A personality contrast that I cannot understand? I will be delighted if anyone can venture an explanation."
The Mato told his young charges, too, of the great twelve mile long wall of Kano in Nigeria that he claimed to have visited and of Kenya... Though he talked about the Selangor Fire Brigade, of his time at the V.I. and the events of 1911 there was nary a word. One wonders, since he taught English, might he not at some time leafed through Maugham’s Short Stories and come across a tale entitled The Letter? And what would he have made of it? Indeed, in his time, St George's had a movie show every Saturday night in the assembly hall and Bette Davis' The Letter was actually shown one night, according to David Smyth. Proudlock would almost certainly have watched it; after all it was set in the Malaya he had been telling everyone about. Then, when the lights dimmed and the film rolled, what would he have been thinking, as his and Ethel's joint nightmare unfolded - mangled - on the flickering screen?
Viejo Mato kept very much to himself in the common room and lived in a bachelor room at the College. He was a quiet man with an air of authority. Notwithstanding that, later as Deputy Head, he was responsible for the day-to-day running of the school and was thus in constant contact with the boys. After visitors had left the School premises on Saturdays, the boys would to go out to clear up the fields and Proudlock would be seen, with arm outstretched, pointing out, "Paper there!! Paper there!!" He was very much respected - his presence would quieten any group of exuberant boys. He was a good, if pedantic, teacher who achieved excellent results in teaching English as a second language. He was patient, sincere, effective and efficient at his job.
He often went to Córdoba in central Argentina for holidays. The Georgians never suspected he had a family elsewhere but Proudlock continued to keep in touch with Ethel and their daughter. To maintain the fiction that he was a bachelor, according to author Eric Lawlor, Dorothy addressed him as "Uncle Will" in her letters. However, there is a claim by the secretary of the St George's Headmaster at that time that he had a married niece living in Chubut, a southern province. Sometimes Proudlock would post her a book or a small parcel and she would come up to visit him at Buenos Aires, not Quilmes, from time to time. Could this "niece" be Dorothy?
When Proudlock retired to Cruz Chica in Córdoba in 1954, he took a job teaching at St. Paul's School at nearby Cruz Grande, where he mainly coached boys for the Common Entrance Examination. He was taken ill in Cruz Chica and was brought down to the British Hospital in Buenos Aires. The St George's Headmaster, Canon Jackson, and Mr. Cordon visited him often, and, on one occasion, the Canon tactfully asked him if he wanted to make a will, to which Proudlock replied that he wanted to leave his money to his brother, resident in England. Proudlock died on January 9, 1958, and was buried at the Quilmes Cemetery.
At the end of that school year, Mr. Cordon took his home leave and visited Proudlock's brother in England who said that he was not really entitled to anything, and that any money should go to the wife, resident in America. It was then that he told Mr. Cordon the story of the V.I. shooting and its train of events almost five decades earlier. Cordon traced
Ethel in the U.S. and handed over the legacy. Her reaction to Proudlock's passing is not known. Ethel herself died in 1974 aged 88 and Dorothy 16 years later in 1990.
In 1956 when Dr G.E.D. Lewis became the headmaster of the V.I. he first learned of the Proudlock case from an elderly lawyer who had been a pupil of the V.I. forty-five years earlier. From him, Lewis heard a fascinating twist to the drama. Apparently a jaga (watchman) had reported seeing, on the night of the shooting, a European swimming across the Klang River near the scene of the incident. It would be most unusual for a fully clothed man to swim across a crocodile-infested river at night. Was this man another lover of Ethel Proudlock and was Steward shot by this unknown rival? It was a riveting theory but clearly unprovable. Be that as it may, the official history of the V.I. that was later commissioned by Dr Lewis in 1961 blithely ignored the Proudlock matter completely. This skeleton was to remain locked up in the V.I. closet for another thirty years. A summary of the incident was published in The Sunday Observer in London in 1976, but one can hardly imagine too many Victorians, half a world away, laying their hands on that. The Proudlocks were finally taken out of the closet, so to speak, when Dr Lewis' memoirs, Out East in the Malay Peninsula, were published in 1991. When the School celebrated its centennial in 1993, its cause célèbre also received its due in a commemorative book, Victoria Institution, The First Century, 1893-1993. Nonetheless, this knowledge remained confined to the relatively small community of Old Victorians.
All that would soon change. In 1996, Eric Lawlor, an Irish-born writer came to Malaysia to research the Proudlock affair for his book. He dropped in at the V.I. hoping to learn something more from the school where it had all started. (The V.I. had moved in 1929 from its High Street location, though.) Lawlor wrote of his visit: "The Principal, a pleasant Malay woman, became agitated when I mentioned Steward's murder. Her assistant asked nervously if I were a policeman." That Principal would have been Puan Salha Othman. Poor Lawlor. He was 85 years too late; no one in the present day V.I. had heard of William Proudlock by then.
With the publication of Lawlor’s Murder on the Verandah in 1999 and the posting of some brief information on the Proudlock case in the V.I. Web Page (www.viweb.cjb.net) and the netzine, The Victorian Times, the floodgates were finally open. When the Old Georgians finally found out the shattering truth about their Viejo Mato, their feelings ranged from pity, guilt, awe and, finally, total respect for a man who had borne such a cruel burden for almost five decades with grace and fortitude. William Proudlock had never given the slightest hint to those around him, either through speech or bearing, of the terrible tragedy that had haunted him for the better part of his life. Any lesser man would have crumbled.
Hungry for more information, the Old Georgians contacted one of their members, Mac Forbes, who had known Proudlock during his schooldays and who happened to be in Kuala Lumpur for some business. In March 2000, Forbes visited the V.I. and called on the Headmaster, Tuan Haji Baharom Kamari, who, like Puan Salha before him, was in the dark about the matter. He sent the Old Georgian downstairs to the V.I. Museum where the boys could tell Forbes nothing more than what he already knew. Forbes, in turn, filled the V.I. boys in with the Argentinian side of the Proudlock story.
So things have come full circle for William Proudlock. He had spent the first decade of his career as teacher and mentor to the boys of the Victoria Institution and had won their respect. Then, after a brief stint as acting Headmaster with every promise to be a future Headmaster of the V.I., he had to uproot himself from a country that he had grown to love.
In the last decades of his life, this same William Proudlock put in new roots in a country at the opposite end of the world from Malaya, teaching in a school that was virtually the V.I. of Argentina. He was even acting Headmaster at one point. In St George’s College, he, too, won the same respect from his pupils that he had won from those in Kuala Lumpur.
Bridging two continents and two eras, Proudlock's Victorians have now linked with Proudlock's Georgians. They have finally completed the circle for Proudlock - V.I., St George's, V.I. They will, hopefully, take these incipient steps further and develop permanent links in the cause of international friendship and understanding. William Proudlock would certainly have approved.
Photo by Richard Moeller, Quilmes, Argentina
I wish to record my gratitude to Old Georgians Mac Forbes, Peter Hussey, Diego Llaneza, Richard Moeller, Charles Puleston, Mike Reed, David Smyth, and others who have so kindly provided me the Argentinian side of the Proudlock story. Muchas gracias, señores!
* * * * * * UPDATE - December 2014 * * * * * *
My place of residence is Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have read your article published in the V.I. web site with a great deal of interest.
I did not meet Mr. Proudlock personally as I joined St. Paul's School in Argentina, in 1958, only a couple of months after his death, but have heard a lot about him.
In 2004 our school celebrated its 50th anniversary and a group of former pupils edited a book on the history of St. Paul's School. I was part of that effort. The book contains, among other stories and information, a couple of paragraphs dictated to me by the former Headmaster who had hired Mr. Proudlock in 1954. I will partially copy these below as I believe you may be interested in the information they contain and perhaps consider incorporating part in your article if there is a future edition.
Our Headmaster at St. Paul's, Mr. Albert (Bob) Thurn, would have enjoyed reading your article on William Proudlock. Unfortunately he passed away several years ago.
"...... St. Paul’s began life at the “Casa de Piedra” of the Cruz Chica Hotel in March 1954..... .....Classes were held in the “Casa de Piedra”, near the main road and a part of the old main building was used for the boarders' dormitories. Meals were served in the main dining room and a large adjacent conference room was used as Assembly Hall, The first teachers were ....... Mr. William Proudlock, recently retired after 25 years at St. George’s College, (who) joined us during the year.....
The large British community adopted the school immediately. Without their support progress would have come more slowly, if at all.
William Proudlock at St Paul's (1956)
There were some interesting characters residing at the Cruz Chica Hotel when the school began: ..... and Mr. William Proudlock. Bill Proudlock was an example of the archetypal boarding school master. He began his teaching career at H.M.S. Worcester, a training ship that prepared officer cadets for the British Merchant Navy, and subsequently had roamed the world, teaching in Malaya and Brazil. He had decided to retire in Cruz Chica but, with teaching in his blood, soon volunteered to give a hand in the school. He became a great friend and it was fascinating to sit by the fire on a winter’s evening and listen to tales of his adventures, which would have filled a library. These included tiger hunts with elephants, journeys down jungle rivers and stories of colonial life in Malaya in the days of the Rajah. He had enjoyed a rich life and rumour had it that he was the subject of Somerset Maugham’s story “The Letter”. He was a lonesome individual. He wrote and received few letters but corresponded intermittently with a niece who lived in Bahia Blanca. He had a fine voice and often entertained the boys at the piano in the evenings after dinner.
Bill fell ill during our first year in Cruz Grande (1957). He was interned in the La Cumbre Clinic and later in the British Hospital, where he died. Before leaving for Buenos Aires he asked the writer to retrieve some articles from a trunk which he kept under his bed. The trunk was full of valuables including a very large amount of money in notes and title deeds of property in Brazil. Bill was a typical old bachelor, so we thought, but after his death a letter was received from Canada from his former wife. The niece in Bahia Blanca turned out to be his daughter.
My comment: although Bahía Blanca is not in Chubut but rather in southern Buenos Aires province, it is close enough!!
Hope you find this little contribution interesting.
Edward C. Lane
Last update on 6 October 2017.
Contributed by: Chung Chee Min