Proby Cautley

Portrait of Proby Cautley, Engineer and Paleontologist.

Sir Proby Thomas Cautley, KCB (3 January 1802 – 25 January 1871), English engineer and palaeontologist, born in Stratford St Mary, Suffolk,[1] is best known for conceiving and supervising the construction of the Ganges canal during East India Company rule in India. The canal stretches some 350 miles between its headworks at Haridwar and, after bifurcation near Aligarh, its confluences with the Ganges river mainstem in Kanpur and the Yamuna river in Etawah.[2] At the time of completion, it had the greatest discharge of any irrigation canal in the world.[2]

Proby Cautley was educated at Charterhouse School (1813–18), followed by the East India Company's Military Seminary at Addiscombe (1818–19). After less than a year there, he was commissioned second lieutenant and dispatched to India, joining the Bengal Presidency artillery in Calcutta. In 1825, he assisted Captain Robert Smith, the engineer in charge of constructing the Eastern Yamuna canal, also called the Doab canal. He was in charge of this canal for 12 years between 1831 and 1843. By 1836, he was Superintendent-General of Canals.

Ganges canalEdit

In 1840 Cautley reported on the proposed Ganges canal, for the irrigation of the country between the rivers Ganges, Hindan and Yamuna (then called the Jumna), which was his most important work. Cautley began working towards his dream of building a Ganges canal, and spent six months walking and riding through the area taking each measurement himself. He was confident that a 500-kilometre canal was feasible. There were many obstacles and objections to his project, mostly financial, but Cautley persevered and eventually persuaded the British East India Company to back him. This project was sanctioned in 1841, but the work was not begun till 1843, and even then Cautley found himself hampered in its execution by the opposition of Lord Ellenborough.

Digging of the canal began in April 1842.[3] Cautley had to make his own bricks, brick kiln and mortar. Initially, he was opposed by the Hindu priests at Haridwar, who felt that the waters of the holy river Ganges would be imprisoned; but Cautley pacified them by agreeing to leave a gap in the dam from where the water could flow unchecked. He further appeased the priests by undertaking the repair of bathing ghats along the river. He also inaugurated the dam by the worship of Lord Ganesh, the god of good beginnings. Construction of the dam faced many complications, including the problem of the mountainous streams that threatened the canal. Near Roorkee, the land fell away sharply and Cautley had to build an aqueduct to carry the canal for half a kilometre. As a result, at Roorkee the canal is 25 metres higher than the original river. From 1845 to 1848 he was absent in England owing to ill-health, and on his return to India he was appointed director of canals in the North-Western Provinces. When the canal formally opened on 8 April 1854,[4] its main channel was 348 miles (560 km) long, its branches 306 miles (492 km) long and the various tributaries over 3,000 miles (4,800 km) long. Over 767,000 acres (3,100 km2) in 5,000 villages were irrigated.

He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Roorkee college, named the Thomason College of Civil Engineering in 1854 and now known as IIT Roorkee. One of the twelve student hostels of IIT Roorkee is named after him.[5]

Fossil workEdit

Cautley was actively involved in Dr Hugh Falconer's fossil expeditions in the Siwalik Hills. He presented a large collection of mammalian fossils, including hippopotamus and crocodile fossils indicating that the area had once been a swampland. Other animal remains that he found here included the sabre-toothed tiger, Elephis ganesa (an elephant with a trunk length of about 10​12 feet), the bones of a fossil ostrich and the remains of giant cranes and tortoises.

He also contributed numerous memoirs, some written in collaboration with Falconer, to the Proceedings of the Bengal Asiatic Society and the Geological Society of London on the geology and fossil remains of the Sivalik Hills.


Cautley's writings indicated his large and varied interests. He wrote on a submerged city, twenty feet underground, in the Doab: on the coal and lignite in the Himalayas; on gold washings in the Siwaliks, between the Sutlej and the Yamuna; on a new species of snake; on the mastodons of the Siwaliks and on the manufacture of tar.

In 1860 he published a full account of the making of the Ganges canal.

Awards and honoursEdit

In 1837, he received Wollaston medal of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.

The plant genus Cautleya is named in his honour.[6]

A student hostel (Cautley Bhawan) in Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee is named after him.[5]


After the Ganges canal was opened in 1854 he went back to England, where he was made KCB, and from 1858 to 1868 he occupied a seat on the Council of India. He died at Sydenham, near London, on 25 January 1871.


  • Cautley, Proby T. (1860). Report on the Ganges Canal Works: from their commencement until the opening of the Canal in 1854. London: Smith, Elder. (2 vols.)
  • Cautley, Proby Thomas (1864). Ganges canal: a disquisition on the heads of the Ganges of Jumna canals, North-western Provinces. London.


  1. ^ History of Physical Anthropology - Frank Spencer - Google Books Retrieved 2016-11-03.
  2. ^ a b Stone (2002) p.18
  3. ^ Upper Ganges Canal The Imperial Gazetteer of India, v. 12, p. 138.
  4. ^ Cautley, Proby Thomas (1 January 1860). Report on the Ganges canal works:from their commencement until the opening of the canal in 1854. London. hdl:2027/uc1.c2697499.
  5. ^ a b "Cautley Bhawan". IIT Roorkee. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  6. ^ Bream, Roland (2013), "An overview of Cautleya", The Plantsman, New Series, 12 (2): 122–125


  • Brown, Joyce (1980), "A Memoir of Colonel Sir Proby Cautley, F.R.S., 1802–1871, Engineer and Palaeontologist", Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 34 (2): 185–225, doi:10.1098/rsnr.1980.0008, JSTOR 531808
  • Stone, Ian (2002), Canal Irrigation in British India: Perspectives on Technological Change in a Peasant Economy (Cambridge South Asian Studies), Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 392, ISBN 0-521-52663-9
  • Vibart, H.M. (1894). Addiscombe: its heroes and men of note. Westminster: Archibald Constable. pp. 333–6. OL 23336661M.