(50) Precautions against fire, heavy rains, protection against them [[232-235]]
[] The frequency of fires, occasioned by the common practice of thatching houses, has occasioned many regulations respecting what Europeans commonly call the Black Town at Calcutta. About thirty years ago, the principal streets were considerably widened, and it was ordered that the whole of the new tenements should be tiled. This at the time created some dissatisfaction, yet has not only proved a great advantage to the inhabitants at large, but is now confessed by the natives to have been highly beneficial, both to their health and their convenience.
Formerly, it was common to see immense piles of grass along the banks of the river, brought thither for the purpose of thatching; of late years, however, the quantity has been considerably reduced, there being not a twentieth part of the former demand. Owing to the cheapness of bamboos and mats, most of the natives build their huts chiefly of those materials; the whole of the uprights, rafters, &c., being of bamboo, and the walls, partitions, &c., of mats, supported by bamboo laths. The roofs are first covered with mats, or seerky, and then tiled, generally with that kind called nullies, which are about eight inches in length, representing the half of a truncated hollow cone, whose base may be about four inches in diameter.
These nullies are commonly laid upon roofs at an angle [] of about 30° of elevation from the horizon; but the choppers, or grass-thatches, usually are constructed at full 40°. At the military stations, where grass is invariably used for the covering in the cabins of the sepoys, &c., it is common to order the surfaces of all thatches to be smeared with mud, from about November to the setting in of the rains. Many very extensive lines owe their safety to this precaution; whereby not only sparks are prevented from communicating with the grass, which usually is as ready as tinder to take fire, but even when the thatch is partially kindled, the flames are greatly impeded, and more easily subdued.
The walls of huts being very frequently made of grass, tied in between bamboo laths (like those fences put to folds in yeaning time [when lambs are born], to keep the lambs warm during the night), they require to be well coated with mud; otherwise, they would be constantly subject to accension [=ignition], from the too common practice of making the choolah, or fire-place, very near the laths; thus producing danger both from the flame and from the embers. The attempt to put out a fire that has once got firm hold of a plain thatch is hopeless: the only chance of saving the street is to pull down all the neighbouring huts. This is not attended with that loss to which European towns would be subjected by such a preventive; since, generally speaking, a very tolerable hut, fit for the accommodation of a moderate family, may be built, complete, for about the value of a guinea, or even for much less.
Although water is generally at hand, there being abundance of wells, or tanks, or puddles, in the vicinity of every village, still it is deemed necessary by gentlemen whose bungalows, &c., are contiguous to bazars (or markets) or to the lines of native troops, &c. where thatches are numerous, to have large vessels fastened along the [] ridge-poles of their stables and other out-offices. These, being constantly full of water, greatly assist in the preservation of those buildings on which they are placed, since in case of any neighbouring conflagration, it is easy for one or more persons very thoroughly to wet the thatch; or they may reserve the water till the moment of exigency, to be thrown upon any part in immediate danger. If the thatch should have taken fire, so as to render it imprudent for persons to ascend to the vessels, they, being rather brittle, may always be broken to pieces by throwing bricks, or clods, &c. at them.
Some gentlemen adopt the precaution above described, of plastering the thatches of their out-offices with mud. Such a practice is, however, highly hazardous for edifices intended to be durable; as the white ants never fail to visit such plastered thatches, and to destroy the grass entirely: sometimes they even eat the timbers. Tiles certainly offer greater security than thatches, but they are insufferably hot; causing everything placed under them to warp, crack, and otherwise to perish. Tiled stables are found to be very injurious to the health of cattle. The best plan would be to have a coating of tiles, laid in mortar, on a thatch; but for such a mode of construction, very substantial timbers are requisite. This, however, would not only be a guard against fire, but leaks also; and render the interior remarkably cool during the hot season.
The long continuance of the periodical rains, which often fall in torrents for whole days, and are frequently drizzling for near a week with little or no intermission, renders it necessary to protect all exterior walls by copings, either of tiles or thatch. The former mode is effected by small tiles, laid in the usual manner, but cemented with lime mortar; or by very large ones, nearly semi-cylindrical, whose curve may measure full a yard, [] and whose breadth may be from fifteen to twenty inches; the thickness, perhaps an inch and a half. These last are merely slung over the top of the wall, which is formed so as to retain them firmly, and are over-lapped about two or three inches. The thatches are generally made with a double pent, each face being about a yard in depth. They are secured by being fastened together at their junction above, and by means of stakes passing through the wall; to these their eaves are tied with grass or coarse hempen twine.
Nothing can be more uncomfortable than a leaky bungalow. The water trickles down the walls, dissolving the coat of mud, or sand plaster, and greatly disfiguring the interior. It often happens that the outer walls are so far damaged by heavy rains, accompanied by a driving wind, as to be rendered unserviceable in the course of a aight, the whole being completely sapped through. After such weather, the damages are frequently extensive. The walls surrounding gardens, &c., though substantially built and duly coped, are seen to give way for scores of yards, falling with a tremendous crash. This is usually occasioned by some ditch near their bases, which, being filled by the heavy rains that soak into the banks, in a few hours yield to the great weight on their borders. Fortunately, such damages are speedily repaired, and at no very great expense; a rod of wall eight feet high, and averaging two feet in thickness, being generally built for about ten shillings; in some places for half that sum.