From fact to fiction: A.M. Stuart

Terror in Topaz, my fourth Harriet Gordon Mystery (set in Singapore in 1910), was released in October and I’d like to share a little of the story behind the story.

The murder of William Steward by his lover, Ethel Proudlock, on the steps of the headmaster’s bungalow at the Victoria Institution in April 1911, rocked the colonial world of Malaya. It became a cause celebre, immortalised in William Somerset Maugham’s The Letter. The Letter became a film and more, but how many people know the real story of Ethel Proudlock?

In 1907 pretty, fair-haired, Ethel married William Proudlock, a teacher at the Victoria Institution. In 1910 Proudlock was appointed as acting headmaster and the couple and their daughter moved into the headmaster’s house in the school. 

William Steward was a single man, the manager of a tin mine at Salak South. 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, although strenuously denied by Ethel at her trial. A few months before his death, Steward took up with a local woman who moved into his house. 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 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 Hotel 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 Proudlock was attending 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 six rounds of the Webley revolver into the man. 

Ethel, now wearing an evening dress that she had not been wearing when Proudlock left home (and, as subsequently discovered . . . no underwear), claimed self-defence. She had been writing letters on the verandah when Steward arrived. He made a pass at her and, in a panic, she seized up the (fully loaded!) revolver and shot him. As he staggered down the steps of the verandah, she fired again, continuing to shoot as he lay dying at her feet in the driveway. 

Ethel maintained her story but she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. She was eventually reprieved by the Sultan of Selangor. The Proudlocks left Malaya and the marriage disintegrated.

There was no doubt she shot Steward – being caught with a proverbial smoking gun saying “I did it” is a bit of a giveaway… but why? 

I fictionalised the Proudlocks’ story but kept to the facts as reported, so what you read in Terror in Topaz is a reasonably accurate account of the events of the night of 11 April. Harriet Gordon, and I, have our own theory as to what transpired that night and you will need to read Terror in Topaz and draw your own conclusion!

Editor’s note: On 27 January, Terror in Topaz also became available as an audiobook. Retail price is $20 (or part of your Audible or Kindle Plus subscription) but it is being offered at a launch price of $15 until 1 March. Go here.