The India Office Economic Department series of annual files contains much interesting material, for example IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 of 1920: “Research bearing upon the well-being and conditions of lives of natives and residents of the United Kingdom in the tropical climates”. The file includes correspondence between departments and the conclusions of the research “Note on Housing in the Tropics” by Andrew Balfour and “Notes on Tropical Climate and Health” by Leonard Hill, March 20, 1920.
The research notes demonstrate that there are already strategies in place that the locals use to cope with the heat and humidity such as sirdabs or tykhanas, i.e. underground chambers. However, they are “not bearable to the European” because the air remains stagnated unless there is an electric operating punkah, a ceiling cloth fan.
Therefore, the goal of the document is to look for the best choices in house orientation, design, construction and hygiene. The authors make clear that regional variations should be taken into consideration when implementing the suggestions, mostly regarding proximity to the Equator, proximity to the sea and humidity.
The recommendations involve having a good water and food supply, effective waste disposal and choosing light colours. In terms of construction, it is important to bear in mind the direction of prevailing winds and how close the building needs to be to other buildings and settlements. The building should sit in permeable and clean soil, if possible it should be elevated and have good natural drainage, good circulation of air and plenty of light, and far from large bodies of water to avoid excessive humidity.
Andrew Balfour compares the existing construction materials and presents the available advantages and disadvantages of concrete and cement in comparison with wood and the common mixture of mud and manure. He suggests “double walls” with thin inner and outer layers made of cement with the space between filled with sand or asphalt to be heat and vermin proof.
He stresses the importance of shades and verandas, of high ceilings with openings to release the hot air and to leave some space between the roof and the ceiling that is ventilated and has screened openings to avoid vermin.
He also sees the benefit of sleeping in hammocks on the roof for the early risers.
Leonard Hill notes call attention to the importance of health to cope with the climate.
He points out the importance of appropriate clothing, diet and exercise, since the weather might influence metabolism.
The subject of alcohol consumption is brought up both in the report and notes as “club life” might become a problem.
He also advocates for the health benefits of a good tan.
Although the reports present interesting ideas, both for mitigating tropical infectious diseases and for a better adaptation of people, European or otherwise, to tropical climate, the medical adviser disregarded the documents saying “there is nothing here which promises to be of any assistance to India”.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.