Purley film-maker looking for family ties of colonial engineer

A documentary film-maker who lives in Purley is appealing for help to delve into the colonial past of India and to track down family and descendents of a pioneering British engineer whose life’s work has helped to save the lives of millions for more than a century.

A Victorian engineering marvel, the Mullaperiyar Dam. A Purley film maker wants to contact the engineer’s descendents

Santhana Ibrahim has spent six years researching the life of John Pennycuick, who in the 19th century sold his family home in Camberley to fund the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam in Madurai, on the Periyar River in the Indian state of Kerala.

And Colonel Pennycuick also had connections with Croydon, as from the age of 16 until he was posted to India, he studied at the East India Company Military College in Addiscombe.

In India, Pennycuick rose to the position of chief engineer in the Public Works Department, and spent six years constructing Mullaperiyar Dam, which is 176ft high and nearly a quarter-mile long. When it was completed, in 1895, Queen Victoria nominated Pennycuick a Companion of the Order of the Star of India.

The dam was considered an engineering marvel of the age. When designing it, Pennycuick took on nature, and reversed the direction of the river away from its course to the sea.

Dam fine: John Pennycuick

The dam diverts the Periyar River as it flows west, towards the Arabian sea, so that it instead heads eastwards to help irrigate a large, dry area (in what is modern-day Tamil Nadu). This transformed the lives of millions of people who continue to benefit from its supply of clean water more than 120 years later.

Pennycuick and other British engineers braved severe flooding, poisonous insects and a lack of money to complete the project. He sold his home in Branksome Park Road, Camberley to fund the dam.

Having grown up with family stories of Pennycuick’s bravery, Ibrahim wants to make a film about his life and work, and use it to offer solutions to modern-day water shortages and pollution issues.

He says that by using Pennycuick’s pioneering dam-building technique, the Indian government could prevent water being polluted by riverside leather factories.

Purley film-maker Santhana Ibrahim

The self-taught film-maker saw his uncle Raja Sharif blinded by acid after working in the factories and says clean water will save the lives of people who rely on the rivers for their livelihoods.

Ibrahim, who lives on Godstone Road, said, “It would be a dream come true to trace John Pennycuick’s family and speak to them about their ancestor’s work.

“Are they proud of him? Do they know what he has done for the people of India? His work is like a fairytale in India, his story is passed down through generations.”

Ibrahim plans to travel to India next month to film the documentary. Anyone with information or archive material relating to John Pennycuick and his family, or with information about his time at the East India Company college, can contact the film-maker by emailing beemediauk@gmail.com

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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