Brigadier John Pennycuick
"There was nothing for a brave and able commander to do but what Colonel Pennycuick did." (General Sir Charles Napier, ca. 1850)11,iv





Other sources

  1. 'The Pennycuicks', notes written and compiled by James A.C. Pennycuick and Janet Buchanan (.pdf file) [pages 8-9]
  2. Statement of the Service of Lieut.-Col. John Pennycuick (up to 1825). National Archives, ref. WO 25/794
  3. Lieut.-Col. J. Pennycuick, CB, KH, A Memoir, by W.S. Sampson (Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, winter 1974)
  4. The 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot - 2nd Sikh War - Chillianwallah 1849. Fact Sheet 2-B04-01, from the regimental museum of the Royal Welsh Regiment

Family trees

Pennycuick FT
Family trees of the Pennycuick, McDonald and Farrell families


Other information

Birth date

There is considerable confusion over the birth date of Brig. John Pennycuick:

John Pennycuick birth certificate


Birth certificate of John Pennycuick, 31st October 1785

The origin of this confusion is not clear. Two possibilities are:

The confusion over the exact day in October (28th, 29th or 31st) is perhaps due to the few days between birth and baptism.

I will take 31st October 1785 as the true date, especially given that in 1789, as has recently come to light, John's brother Alexander was born.

Medals (see inset below)6

Top: KH (Knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order), awarded Poona, New Year's Day 1837

Right: Order of the Durrani Empire (3rd class), awarded Kabul, 17th September 1839

Left: CB (Companion of the Order of the Bath), awarded Kalat, November 1839

Bottom: Ghazni, awarded July 1839

In addition (not shown), Pennycuick received the Military General Service medal with clasp for Java, and the Punjab campaign medal with clasp for Chillianwala.

Brig. John Pennycuick medals
Brig. John Pennycuick: medals

(inset from the above portrait)

Charles Edward Ducat Pennycuick

Brigadier John had a friend, Charles Ducat, born in Kittins, Angus in 1793. Ducat married Emily Matilda Lucas (born and died London, 1807-1897) in Bombay in 1830, and their fifth child was named after the Brigadier: Cyril Hugh Pennycuick Ducat, born Jersey 1842. As a return gesture, the Brigadier named his last son after his friend: Charles Edward Ducat Pennycuick was born in Aden in 1844. Where and when the friendship dates from is not certain: quite possibly an army connection.

Brig. John Pennycuick


Brig. John Pennycuick, by E.F. Green
Hamilton Gallery, Victoria, Australia

This portrait, painted in Bombay in ca. 1847, was acquired by the gallery in 1965 from Sue Pennycuick, granddaughter of James Farrell Pennycuick.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Hamilton Gallery

The Brigadier, my great-great-grandfather, somehow occupies a key position among my ancestors, sitting as he does in the centre of the family tree. The second in the line of five John Pennycuicks, he is the first about whom much is known; the head of a varied and illustrious family, he is caught up in some of the glorious and less glorious episodes of British colonial rule in Asia.


Brigadier John was the first son of John Pennycook and Jean McDonald, who married in 1785. The Brigadier's father, known as 'the Big Laird of Soilzarie', was born in 1760 in Leduckie and died in 1827 at Wester Logie. His mother, born in 1769, was the daughter of Alexander McDonald and Margaret Ferguson, and her brother James is referred to in letters from Sarah from 1839. See the page on Soilzarie for full details of the Big Laird. See also the maps of Perthshire (links left) for the locations.

Birthplace and date

John Pennycuick was born in Soilzarie in Perthshire, near the house he was later to own. His birth certificate (below left) gives the place as 'Mains of Soilarie' (the home farm on the Soilzarie estate), and both parents are mentioned.2 But there is some confusion over his birth date: see left for the various different versions and possible explanations. I take 31st October 1785 as the correct date (some 38 weeks after his parents were married on 5th February). John's brothers Alexander, Charles and James were born in 1789, 1792 and 1796 respectively. See pages on Soilzarie and the Brothers of Brig. J. Pennycuick for details. (The notes compiled by James A.C. Pennycuick and his daughter Janet mention that John also had a sister, Arabella.i This is as yet uncorroborated...)


There are various online biographies of the Brigadier,3,4,6 as well as two much more detailed accounts by W. Stuart Sampson,7, iii who is a military historian and the Brigadier's great-great-grandson. The picture that emerges from these is of a soldier who led (often literally) from the front, not averse to long fast marches followed by swift effective action. This modus operandi can be seen at Probolingo, Ghazni, Kalat, Aden, and, tragically, at Chillianwala. Another pattern is that of changing to a more active regiment when it suited him (from time to time soldiers were put on half pay, sometimes for many months, when their unit was not required for active service).7 In most cases his wife travelled with him, which explains the widely dispersed birthplaces of their children, shown below in bold in square brackets. Fatefully, Sarah did not accompany him on his final tour of duty which ended in his death, but stayed with the children in Cheltenham.7

78th Highlanders

Pennycuick joined the Edinburgh Militia in February 1806 at age 20, and took a commission as an ensign (equivalent to 2nd lieutenant) for the 78th Highlanders in August 1807.ii This regiment was out in Goa and he joined them the following January. In March 1811 they left Goa to take part in the conquest of Java,8 which they reached that August. A week after arriving they attacked the Dutch and French troops at Weltevreeden and captured two guns; two weeks later they attacked Fort Cornelis where Pennycuick was wounded and put out of action for a year, during which time (January 1812) he was promoted to (1st) lieutenant. In May 1813 an insurrection - 2,500 to 3,000 men and some light guns - flared up at Probolingo on the island of Java, and Pennycuick was one of six officers dispatched with 100 men to quell it. They covered 64 miles in 18 hours, riding through the night, then "formed in line to meet the enemy who charged to within a spear's length, where they were received by a volley which is reported to have killed 150".ii,iii The rebels were completely dispersed.

Apart from some minor action in Bali in June 1814 the rest of the tour of Java was uneventful, and the regiment left Java in September 1816 (on the way back Pennycuick narrowly avoided being shipwrecked), and in March 1817 set sail for England. After a brief stop-over in Scotland they were dispatched to Ireland, stationed in Tullamore, Mullingar, Castlebar and other places - see map of Ireland (north). During this time John met his future wife Sarah Farrell, a vicar's daughter from County Roscommon, and they married there on 21st March 1820. He purchased his promotion to captain in June 1821.

47th Foot

In January 1825, perhaps tired of inactivity due to 'force reduction' in the 78th,iii he transferred to the 47th Foot as Captain Pennycuick. The regiment was in action in Burma (1st Anglo-Burmese war),9 and he joined them in India (accompanied by Sarah and their young son John), sailing from there to Rangoon in December. Apart from some hair-raising sea and river voyages, this tour of duty involved little action, and the regiment returned to Calcutta in April 1826 [Jane Maria]. A year there was followed by another in Berhampore [daughter Sarah], after which they returned to England [James Farrell]. The Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight, Ireland and Gibraltar were the next stopping points [Alexander, Catherine, Margaret]. Pennycuick purchased his promotion to major in April 1834, and after a year on half pay he transferred regiments again, to the 17th Foot.

Brig. John Pennycuick
Brig. John Pennycuick in blue service dress

Watercolour portrait from ca. 1848 belonging to Stuart Sampson.

17th Foot

The new regiment was again already out in Asia, so Major Pennycuick travelled out to Poona to meet them, arriving in late 1836 [Ruth, Lucy]. On New Year's Day 1837 he was made a Knight of the Hanoverian Guelphic Order (KH) for former service (see Medals, left). (This order of chivalry was instituted in 1815 by the Prince Regent, who was also King of Hanover.) In November 1838 the regiment left Poona as part of the campaign to invade Afghanistan (1st Anglo-Afghan war).10 The journey to Ghazni in April 1839 involved crossing high mountain passes with artillery and stores, and a "sharp skirmish" to drive off an attack by bandits: as in Java, Pennycuick's method was swift, effective action with minimal casualties on his side ("one man hurt with a stone").iii At Ghazni there was a short battle to take the town, for which Pennycuick received a medal, after which the regiment proceeded to Kabul, where he was awarded the Order of the Durrani Empire. They returned via Kalat in Baluchistan (modern-day Pakistan) where the town was stormed and taken in November 1839. Pennycuick commanded the advance guard, and was the first to enter the town. He then forced the citadel in a daring and desperate attack,7 for which he received the Order of the Bath (CB).

They returned to India by way of the Indus to Karachi, with another shipwreck in the Arabian Sea, arriving in Poona in mid-1840 [John]. Pennycuick was promoted to lieutenant-colonel that June. (In order to be able to afford this promotion, John and Sarah put the family home up for sale - see the page on Soilzarie for details. In the event, it was not sold until after John's death.) The following year they set out for the British outpost of Aden (present-day Yemen). His task was to take a force of 500 men and destroy two Arab outposts: after a long march of 40 miles in 22 hours the forts (Shaik Medi and Shaik Othman) were taken in just two hours of heavy fighting.

The regiment stayed in Aden until 1845 [Charles Edward Ducat], after which they returned to Bombay. Here they were selected for active service in Scinde under General Napier, and Pennycuick was put in command of the 2nd Brigade (hence his title 'Brigadier', although his official rank was lieut.-colonel), but in the event the campaign finished before they were deployed. They returned to England in August 1847 and later that year Pennycuick was put in command of the regiment.

24th Foot

Following a now familiar pattern, the Brigadier now transferred to another regiment already out in Asia, the 24th Foot (now the Royal Regiment of Wales), and became its Commanding Officer. Accompanied by his son Alexander, fresh out of Sandhurst, he joined them in September 1848, soon after the revolt that started the 2nd Anglo-Sikh war. A march of some 350 miles in 32 days brought them from Agra to Ferozepore, where General Gough's Army of the Punjab was assembling.

The events leading up to the terrible Battle of Chillianwala on 13th January 1849 are described on a separate page. Pennycuick was in command of the 5th Brigade, comprising the 24th Foot and the 25th and 45th Native Infantry. They were ordered by Gen. Colin Campbell to take out a Sikh artillery position. Notoriously, the order was to advance without without firing, all the fighting to be done with the bayonet. It seems there are situations where this is a correct tactic, but Campbell reportedly later "blamed himself for it".7 A letter from a Major M. Smith of the 29th Foot to Brig. Mountain describes how Pennycuick and his son met their deaths. The full text is in the National Army Museum,13 but in summary:

Pennycuick was dismounted from his horse, and went ahead on foot, in front of the 24th, at 'charge pace', to a Sikh gun battery. 50 yards from it he was shot in the chest, and was carried to the rear, where he died soon afterwards. The Sikh battery was strongly defended, and on reaching it the Regiment came under heavy fire, and after severe losses had to retreat. Pursued by the Sikh cavalry, they swept past the men carrying Pennycuick's body, who were forced to lay him down and join the retreat to the village.

Alexander Pennycuick was on the sick list that day, but insisted on going into action and subsequently retreating with the Regiment. Hearing of his father's fate, he went and found the body and was shot in the back while standing over it. He was buried alongside his father.

The Brigadier's modus operandi of fast, daring attacks thus ended in tragedy, in a battle plan not of his devising. The fine words of Gen. Sir Charles Napier quoted at the top of this page need to be taken in the context of the general national soul-searching after this horrific battle.

Chillianwala Pennycuick


Inscriptions below Lord Mayo's cross

Pennycuick's name is the first in the left-hand column


Many of the dead of Chillianwala were buried in four trench graves in a mound near the village. Most of the fallen from the 24th Foot, however, were buried near to where they died. Brig. John Pennycuick and his son Alexander are in a separate grave, one of four at the memorial cemetery, with a tombstone erected by his widow a few years after the battle.i,iii (For map and photos see the page on Chillianwala.)


Brigadier John's wife and ten children led lives entirely dominated by their father's career. In most cases Sarah travelled with him, and the children were born wherever he happened to be stationed. The boys in some cases went to boarding school in England, the girls were perhaps privately educated. In many cases they married people connected with the colonies or with the army. See the page on the Children of John and Sarah Pennycuick for more information and photos.

The will of Lieut.-Col. John Pennycuick is in the National Archives.14 Signed in London on 12th June 1848, with Edward Maltby and Rev. Maurice Farrell as executors, it stipulates how his estate, essentially £2,000 insured on his life plus the proceeds (if any) from the sale of Soilzarie, should be divided between his ten children. In a (typically?) pragmatic manner, he directs that the estate should be bequeathed to his wife, in trust for four of the children. The other six children were either married, adopted or commissioned in the army, and were thus already provided for. See page on the Children of John and Sarah Pennycuick for details.

The National Army Museum contains various letters and journals from and relating to Lieut.-Col. Pennycuick, collated and meticulously transcribed by Stuart Sampson. In addition, various letters from Sarah Pennycuick about the proposed the sale of Soilzarie are kept in the Museum.13