Col. John Pennycuick
"Cuick the weary wizard, who blocked and stopped the wandering water" i





Other sources

  1. Waterlines - the Penguin book of River Writings, ed. Amita Baviskar, New Delhi, 2003, including An Ode to an Engineer by Anand Pandian
  2. Lieut.-Col. J. Pennycuick, CB, KH, A Memoir, by W.S. Sampson (Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, winter 1974)
  3. Various correspondence with W. Stuart Sampson, grandson of Hilda Pennycuick
  4. Correspondence and conversations with Santhana Beer-Oli, film-maker
  5. Correspondence with Ted Howard, researcher at Alberta Family History / Genealogy Research
  6. 'The Pennycuicks', notes written and compiled by James A.C. Pennycuick and Janet Buchanan (.pdf file) [pages 52-59]

Family trees

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

Other information

Col. John Pennycuick memorial, Rochester Cathedral


Memorial to Col. John Pennycuick in Rochester Cathedral

Sacred to the memory of John Pennycuick CSI, Colonel, Royal Engineers, late President of the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill, born January 18th [sic.] 1841, entered into rest March 1st 1911 aged 70. This memorial is placed by some Cooper’s Hill men in token of their esteem for the statesmanlike manner in which he governed them and of their gratitude for the friendly interest he took in their work and sports.

Col. John Pennycuick, obituary


Obituary for Col. John Pennycuick

The Times, March 1911

Sandgate, with the house 'Silourie' on the right

Pastel painting belonging to our family

Conamur School
Conamur school, 1934

Truman & Knightly schools directory?

Dora Pennycuick
Dora ('D') Pennycuick

Photos belonging to our family

Lucy ('Doddy') Pennycuick
Lucy ('Doddy') Pennycuick
Col. John Pennycuick
Col. John Pennycuick, 1898

Photo in possession of our family

My great-grandfather Col. John Pennycuick sits in the middle of a line of five John Pennycuicks - 'the laird, the soldier, the engineer, the judge, the philosopher' - and has come to be known and revered in southern India: for his great work, the Mullaperiyar Dam, which for over 100 years has provided famine and flood relief for millions of people - and, also in southern India, as a cricketer.

Researching Col. John's life and work is less a problem of lack of material, more of what to leave out, given the wealth of information available. As well as (of course) Stuart Sampson, grandson of the Colonel's daughter Hilda and a family and military historian,ii,iii I am grateful to Santhana Beer-Oli, a film-maker from the region where the dam was built, who has spent years researching Col. John's life and work.iv Thanks also to Ted Howard at Alberta Family History / Genealogical Research for uncovering a huge stash of detail on Edith Pennycuick.v

Life and career

Various online biographies give details of Col. John's life.1,2,3,4,5 He was born in 1841 in Poona on the west coast of India, the tenth of the eleven children of Brig. John Pennycuick and his wife Sarah Farrell. He probably lived in India until age about six: in 1847 his father returned to Britain, and Sarah and the children lived in Cheltenham. John went to Cheltenham College (which provided free schooling for the sons of British soldiers who had died in battle), initially as a 'day-boy', from August 1849.6 (His future father-in-law Stephen H.E. Chamier, seven years John's senior, also started there that month). At some stage he was adopted, together with his sister Lucy, by the family of Henry Maltby, whose brother Edward had married John's sister Jane Maria. (John's father the Brigadier mentions this in his will of 1848.) In 1850 he moved to Christ's Hospital School in Sussex,7 returning to Cheltenham College in 1856, together with his younger brother Charles Edward, numerous members of the Chamier family, and several Maltbys.

After two years at Addiscombe Military Seminary, which trained army officers for the British East India Company, John, an excellent mathematician,ii,vi passed out in 1858 as a lieutenant engineer, joining the Madras Public Works Department (PWD) in 1862.2 He saw active service in 1868 in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where the emperor had taken several British hostages and was effectively holding the British government to ransom, demanding military assistance.8 The Abyssinia Expedition to resolve this situation involved taking a large force across difficult terrain: Pennycuick commanded a company and was mentioned in dispatches.6

Col. John Pennycuick in Bangalore
Col. John Pennycuick, Bangalore, 1870

Photo: Stuart Sampson

Back in India, he worked his way up the ranks - he became a captain in the Royal Engineers in 18704 - and the PWD hierarchy. In 1881, now a major, he was made Superintending Engineer,2 and the following year was tasked with preparing a detailed proposal for a dam on the river Periyar, together with a tunnel to take water through a ridge of hills to the drought-stricken Madurai plains. This great work, for which the name of Pennycuick is still held in high regard in Tamil Nadu, became the Mullaperiyar Dam and Tunnel and is described in detail on that page. (Pennycuick's involvement with the project goes back to the 1870s, when he had worked on early proposals with Maj. Ryves.) While the plans for the dam were going through the approval process, he was put in charge of tank maintenance. The eight years between the commencement of work in 1887 and the opening ceremony were probably the most arduous of Pennycuick's career, although his tight-lipped account does not dwell on this.9 The unusual quotation at the top of this page is from a poem written a few decades later (see below), and conjures up an image of the Chief Engineer bowed down by the weight of responsibility - and whose name many Indians have grappled with.i

Given the all-encompassing nature of this work, and its great success, other promotions and honours are almost irrelevant. He was promoted to colonel in 1887,3 made Chief Engineer in Madras (1890), given a seat on the Madras Legislative Council (1893),10 and in the year the dam was officially opened (1895), awarded the Companion of the Order of the Star of India (CSI), the highest order of chivalry in British India (the medal on the right in the above photograph).11

Pennycuick grave


Col. John Pennycuick's grave at St Peter's Church, Frimley

February 2018

It seems Pennycuick enjoyed somewhat prickly relations with the British-Indian establishment - "breaking lances", is how the Times obituary (left) puts it - and he did not remain long in the country after the dam was completed. In 1896, a few months after the opening ceremony, he set sail for England, where he was awarded the Telford Gold Medal by the British Institution of Civil Engineers. He retired to Camberley, accepting posts as president and chair of the engineering faculty at the Royal Indian Engineering College in nearby Coopers Hill,12 but he resigned both after only three years - it seems his energy and temper were running low. He did some consultancy work on flood prevention in Queensland, Australia,3 but eventually the "weary wizard" hung up his hat. He died in Camberley in 1911 and is buried in Frimley churchyard.


Especially in recent decades, Col. John Pennycuick has been fêted as a kind of demi-god in the region of Tamil Nadu, which benefited most from the irrigation water from the dam. There are at least three statues of him near the dam (see below); a bus station in Theni is named after him; parents name their children after him, descendants visiting from Britain are garlanded with flowers, and so on. This is partly due to the recent political tussle between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, respectively owners of the dam and users of the water. But the veneration goes back much further: a poem (Ode to the journey) written in the early 20th century by the Tamil poet Anthony Muthu Pillai (1863-1929) gives a flavour, as does the dissertation which frames it (Ode to an Engineer) by the anthropologist Anand Pandian.i

Col. John Pennycuick statue 1
Statue of Col. Pennycuick at the PWD Office, Madurai
Col. John Pennycuick statue 2
Statue at the Pennycuick memorial at Lower Camp, Theni
Col. John Pennycuick statue 3
Statue of Col. Pennycuick at the Mullaperiyar dam

In Britain, there is a monument in Rochester Cathedral (near the Royal School of Military Engineering in Chatham), erected by his colleagues and students from Cooper's Hill.13 And his grave in Frimley churchyard has recently been smartened up, with a statue erected nearby, funded by the governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.


Alongside the adulation of the Colonel, a mythology has arisen about the man and the dam, mostly uncorroborated (see also the page on the Mullaperiyar Dam). Among these myths are:

Madras CC jubilee dinner
Madras Cricket Club jubilee dinner, January 1896, commemorative programme

Courtesy of Stuart Sampson


Col. John was a fine cricketer, and from his early years in India did much to establish and promote the game there. He joined the Madras Cricket Club soon after arriving, and helped them acquire and build the new ground at Chepauk in 1865.14 Under his aegis a new pavilion was built in 1892, which was used for some 90 years. He also played for Bangalore, often against the Madras club. It seems he was bowler, on one occasion chalking up six wickets for 36 runs against Bangalore. (The match series between the two clubs included rackets.) He instituted the J. Pennycuick trophy for inter-collegiate teams in Madras, which was still going until quite recently.

In England he was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and although their website and another cricket statistics website only record one year (1883),15 an interview for an English magazine from 1896 indicates a much longer career in the club.16

Fittingly, one of his last public engagements before leaving India was the jubilee dinner celebrating 50 years of the Madras Cricket Club, of which he was by then Vice-President. Stuart Sampson has unearthed the fine commemorative programme, showing various cricket grounds in Madras. His Who was Who entry says that he "contributed largely to the development of cricket in India".5


Pennycuick group
Grace Pennycuick with five of her children, summer 1911

Back: Grace, Hilda, Bryda, Dora, Lucy, two unknown men

Front: John, two unknown children

Photo belonging to our family

John married Georgiana Grace Chamier in Madras in 1879. Grace was the daughter of Lieut.-Col. (later Lieut.-Gen.) Stephen Henry Edward Chamier, an officer in the Madras artillery and at the time Deputy Inspector-General of Ordnance in Madras (see page on the Chamier family for details). They had five daughters (all with middle names beginning with M) and one son.

Col. John Pennycuick's house at Kodaikanal
The Pennycuicks' house at Kodaikanal

Photo (1880s) courtesy of Stuart Sampson

The growing family lived first in Madras, then in Bellary near Bangalore, then in Kodaikanal, a hill station not far from the Periyar site, where Hilda was born (see photo left). (Col. John was a founder member of the Kodaikanal Cricket Club in 1887.17)

After his return to England, the family lived first in Kent,16 then in Camberley, where son John was born in 1899. The house there, on Brankscombe Park Road, was called 'Silourie' (pronounced 'silery'), named after 'Soilzarie', the Pennycuick family home in Perthshire. (The house was renamed Winsford House in 1936 and demolished in 1974 to be replaced by four new houses. Brankscombe Park Road is now Brankscombe Close.iv) John's father-in-law Stephen lived close by, at Brooke House on Middleton Road, and died in 1910.

Silourie, Camberley
'Silourie' in Camberley (1920s)

Photo: Sir John Pennycuick collection

Silourie, Sandgate, from S


'Silourie' in Sandgate (August 2020)
Grace Pennycuick at Silourie
Grace Pennycuick at 'Silourie' in Sandgate

After John died in 1911, Grace lived in Camberley for a while, before moving to Sandgate, where her two eldest daughters ran a school (see below). Later joined by Bryda, they lived in a large white house on Sandgate Hill, described on a sign nearby as an "enormous Georgian vicarage", which they named 'Silourie'. This was the third house in the Pennycuick family to bear this name. It was sold in the 1970s and is now divided into two.

John and Grace's children excelled in sporting and academic fields:. Doddy played hockey for England,iii Edith played badminton and golf in Calgary, and John competed at the Wimbledon tennis championships, alongside his future wife Lucy. And in the Cricket interview mentioned above, some (unnamed) girls chip in to say how much they enjoy the game.16 John and the eldest two daughters went to university, and the youngest daughter worked in Naval Intelligence.

'D and D'

Dora Margaret and Lucy Magdalene, nicknamed 'D' and 'Doddy', or collectively 'D and D', led almost parallel lives. Both attended Newnham College, Cambridge, at a time (probably the 1900s) when university education for women was in its infancy. The 1911 census shows 'D' living with her elderly grandmother in Camberley, 'Doddy' working as a schoolteacher in Rochester. Also that year, a certain Fannie Jarvis was headmistress of a private girls' boarding school in Sandgate, which she had started in 1893 with Clara Berry.18 The school was contained in two, later three, private houses and had 32 pupils. At some stage in the following years, 'the Misses Pennycuick' (as they are described in a later advertisement - left) joined the staff, and took over Conamur in 1921 when Fannie Jarvis retired. (Annes Jane and Sarah Frances McConnell had followed very similar career paths some 20 years earlier - see page on the Children of Samuel and Agnes McConnell.) The school was quite liberal by Edwardian standards, focusing on learning for its own sake rather than competitions and prizes, but nonetheless sending several girls to good universities. The writer Jocelyn Brooke, who was there as a young boy, describes an atmosphere of "breezy and strenuous optimism".19 The wonderful school photo below shows Miss Dora and Miss Lucy (as the pupils called them) in the centre.

Conamur school in 1926


Conamur school in 1926

Conamur closed in 1936: competition from public schools and the demand for specialised buildings meant that it had lost its progressive edge.20 'D' and 'Doddy' retired and lived at Silourie with their mother, dying in 1955 and 1971.

Edith Pennycuick
Edith Pennycuick

Photo: Stuart Sampson


Born in Sydenham in 1883, Edith Mary initially worked in England for the Post Office, then emigrated to Canada in 1908. Her sister Hilda visited her there not long afterwards, and then it seems Edith returned to England at the start of the war. Afterwards she settled in Calgary, Alberta, where she worked as a secretary for the Bank of Commerce. She moved in elevated social circles - the Edmonton Journal reported her dinner parties and theatre attendances - and belonged to the Garrison Badminton Club and the Calgary Golf and Country Club, playing both sports to a high level.v In 1944 she went on an extended visit (effectively 'moved') to Vancouver, where she worked as a stenographer for the Anglican Theological College. She died there ten years later. Quite what event precipitated this exit from her busy and enjoyable life in Calgary is not known. There is a rumour that she formed a liaison with a prominent Canadian politician:iii this has been hard to pin down, but is possibly in some way connected.

Bryda Pennycuick
Bryda Pennycuick

Photo: Stuart Sampson


Bryda Millicent was born in Madras, and after returning to England studied music. She married James Brancker, a major in the Royal Artillery, in 1915, but he was sadly killed at Feuchy in northern France two years later.22 Bryda, who shared Edith's taste for aristocratic friends, lived in Abercorn Place, St John's Wood (just around the corner from her brother John), and during World War II stayed with her sister-in-law Lucy and her family (including my mother Alba) at the Old Malt House in Berkshire, home of the Spranger family, who were acquaintances of her brother (see the page on Stanley Johnstone for more details and photo). She retained her love of music, often taking Alba to concerts in London.

Hilda Pennycuick
Hilda Pennycuick

Photo: Stuart Sampson


Hilda Muriel was born in the hill station of Kodaikanal above Madras, and after her family returned to England, studied art in Germany.iii During the First World War she worked in Naval Intelligence ('Room 40', the forerunner of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park).23,iii Like Bryda she married a serviceman, William H. ('Billy') Sampson, whom she met while visiting Edith in Canada. Billy served in tank regiments in World War I. After the war he and Hilda lived in various places - Brixham in Devon, then Saltwood in Kent, where Hilda died in 1985. They had two sons, Teddy and Tony: the latter was killed in the fighting at the fall of Singapore in 1942.24 Her grandson, W. Stuart Sampson, is a barrister and military historian, and an expert on Pennycuick family history.


Born in Surrey in 1899 after his father had returned to England, and 11 years younger than Hilda, Joe (as he was known in the family) went on to be a High Court Judge. See main article.