John Pennycuick (British engineer)

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Colonel John Pennycuick

Colonel John Pennycuick CSI (15 January 1841, Pune - 9 March 1911, Camberley) was a British Army engineer and civil servant who served as a member of the Madras Legislative Council when India was under Colonial rule of British East India Company. He undertook several irrigation works which included the masonry dam of Mullaiperiyar on the Periyar River.

Early life[edit]

Pennycuick was born on 15 January 1841 at Pune to Sarah and Brigadier-General John Pennycuick who fought and died in the Battle of Chillianwalla.[citation needed] He was educated at Cheltenham College.


Pennycuick entered the East India Company Military College at Addiscombe, Surrey, in 1857, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Madras Engineer Group in December 1858.[1][2] He arrived in India on 11 November 1860.[citation needed] He became a Second Captain on 15 October 1870;[3] and a major on 8 December 1876.[4] He commanded H company at Zoulla during the Abyssinian campaign of 1868.[5] On 10 October 1895 the Queen nominated him a Companion of the Order of the Star of India.[6] He served in the Public Works Department till January 1896. During his six years of service in the PWD, Pennycuick served as Chief Engineer in the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam and was awarded a medal for his participation in Abyssinian Expedition of 1867-68.

Pennycuick was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in November 1893. He was the last president of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Coopers Hill. He also held the position of President of the Sanitary Board and was a faculty in the University of Madras. He received a Telford medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers. The Australian government sought his advice for avoiding damage from flooding of the Brisbane river in 1899. He was also a keen cricketer.

Mullaiperiyar Dam[edit]

Colonel Pennycuick decided to divert the west-flowing Periyar (river)'s culmination in the Arabian Sea towards the East so that it could irrigate lakhs of acres of dry land depending only on Vaigai river.

Though Pennycuick and other British Engineers went ahead with the construction, braving the nature's fury and the dangers of poisonous insects and wild animals, the construction works were disrupted by relentless rain. Large number of sand bags kept for the construction of the dam was destroyed due to severe flood. Since he could not get adequate funds from the British government, Pennycuick went to England and sold his family property to mobilise money to fund the project, which was completed in 1895.

The dam was inaugurated by Lord Wenlock, the then Governor of the Madras Presidency. It resulted in irrigation of 2.23 lakh acres in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts.

Pennycuick used lime and surki paste for construction, taking into consideration the gravitational force: this allows the dam to withstand tremors and remain strong. Pennycuick said: "I am going to be only once in this earthly world, hence I need to do some good deeds here. This deed should not be prorogue nor ignored since I am not going to be here again".[7] For his Gratitude Tamil Nadu Government heads with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced that there would be a memorial of 2500 square feet ‘manimandapam' with a statue of Pennycuick on the premises of the TANGEDCO office at the Lower Camp.

A new bus stand was constructed in the name of Colonel Pennycuick in Theni by the Tamil Nadu chief minister on 31.12.2013.


Pennycuick's son, Sir John Pennycuick, became an English barrister and High Court judge.

Remembrance in Tamilnadu[edit]

A stone plaque bearing Pennycuick's name in Vadipatti
  • Tamil Nadu government established his statue.
  • A booklet in honour of him written by Madhavan was released by Sagayam, the Collector of Madurai District on 17 December 2011 in Thaniyamangalam.
  • Many of the farmer families of the Theni, Madurai District still keep portraits of Pennycuick.
  • In Theni district, at Balarpatti, Kutchanoor and Kuzhiyanur, people celebrate the Pongal dedicating to Mr. Pennycuick, a traditional festival of farmers, in the streets.
  • In remembrance of him, many children in this area are named after him.
  • The Public Works Department Office at Madurai houses a Pennycuick statue.
  • A memorial to Pennycuick at Theni district was unveiled in January 2013.