Purley filmmaker searching for family of Croydon student who saved millions of lives in India


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Documentary maker Santhana Ibrahim is making a film on Colonel John Pennycuick

A Purley documentary maker is trying to track down relatives of a pioneering dam-maker who dedicated his life to saving millions of lives in India.

Santhana Ibrahim has spent six years researching the life of Colonel John Pennycuick, who sold his house and risked everything to help build a dam in Kerala at the end of the 19th century to help bring clean water to the south west of India.

After studying at the former East India Company Military College, in Addiscombe, the dam-maker became a qualified engineer and colonel and went on to undertake several irrigation works in India during the 19th century. 

The most famous of these was the Mullaiperiyar dam, which he helped complete in 1895 and diverted the west-flowing Periyar River towards the east so it could irrigate dry land.

This transformed the lives of millions of people who continue to benefit from clean water more than 120 years later.

The Mullaperiyar Dam as it stands today, which Colonel John Pennycuick helped to build in 1895

Mr Ibrahim, of 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. I would love to know if they are they proud of him and if they know know what he has done for the people of India.

“Back home in India Col Pennycuick’s work is like a fairytale, his story is passed down through generations. There are statues and plaques marking his life and where he lived. It has been an inspiration for me and has been since childhood when I first heard about him.”

Col Pennycuick became a legend in the south west of India when he brought clean water to five districts through the building of the Mullaperiyar dam.

He braved severe flooding, poisonous insects and a lack of money to complete the project,

By using Col Pennycuick’s building technique, the Indian government was then able to prevent water being polluted by riverside leather factories.

This would enable locals to drink and cook with clean water, preventing water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

The issue is one close to Mr Ibrahim’s heart.

The self-taught documentary maker’s family grew up along the riverside where the dam was made and his uncle also worked in one of the nearby factories, where he was blinded for life by acid due to contaminated water.


Santhana Ibrahim is off back to India for a 11 day research trip

The legendary engineer died in Camberley in 1911 and he is buried at St Peter’s Church in Frimley Green Road.

Mr Ibrahim, 27, said: “I have spoken to about 20 people as part of six years of research as well as countless hours in libraries, council buildings and online.

“I found and met John Hope, a great grandson of John Pennycuick who lives in Blackpool, and he is set to be in the documentary.”

He is still searching for more descendants of Col Pennycuick as part of his film.

Mr Ibrahim plans to travel back to India this August to film the documentary, which is yet to be named – and he is also looking for a budding producer to accompany him.

Anyone who can help with this project can contact Becky Lawrenson on Beemediauk@gmail.com or 07866 381 555.


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