Housing and Sanitation


1. A brief overview of the housing situation (1811)

At just over two and a half square miles, Gibraltar has always had problems accommodating its native population. In the early part of the nineteenth century, most civilians were forced to live in squalid and overcrowded tenement buildings, with as many as fifteen or twenty individuals in one room. A decorative peculiarity during this early period was the tendency to paint buildings in black rather than the glaring white used in Andalusia. According to an 1831 American encyclopaedia, this blackening of outside walls was intended ‘to blunt the dazzling rays of the sun.’ Visitors to Gibraltar complained about the ‘sombre appearance’ of these poorer dwellings, some of which looked more like burial chambers than lodgings fit for human beings. By contrast, most of the English soldiery lived in ordered and well-appointed buildings, perfectly equipped with latrines and other conveniences, very much ‘in the English style’ as one commentator described them. This disparity between military and civilian standards of accommodation continued well into the twentieth century – although, not surprisingly, the military authorities tended to underplay any existing social inequalities. One English journalist, writing in 1897, even complained that ‘the Scorpions, as the inhabitants are facetiously called, have all the best houses in their hands’ – something which, in the light of how the majority of Gibraltarians then lived, is nothing short of astounding!

As this celebrated Rock has been so often and so minutely described, my remarks upon it will be very few. Considering the heat of the summer, and the reverberation of that heat from the rock, the town and most of the barracks appear to me to be badly constructed. Many of the streets are very narrow, and nearly all built after the English, instead of the Moorish, fashion; they are not sufficiently ventilated, and of course are more likely to assist, than prevent, contagion. On account of the number of adventurers who, attracted by the prodigious trade in English manufactures which was ‘till lately carried on here, reside at Gibraltar, and the small space allowed by the government for the erection of buildings, house-rent is almost incredibly high. Three or four hundred pounds per annum, for a small store and two or three miserable rooms, is a common rent; and my worthy friend, Mr. John Sweetland, the captain of the port, informed me that, were he so disposed, he could let his residence, a small Moorish house, having a square court, and stores and apartments on the basement and first floor on each side, for nine hundred pounds per annum.

Sir John Carr, Descriptive travels in the southern and eastern parts of Spain and the Balearic Isles in the year 1809 (1811).

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2. A description of Gibraltar’s civilian hospital (1830)

John Hennen was the Rock’s Principal Medical Officer from 1825 to 3 Nov 1828, when, aged just 49, he died of yellow fever. His Sketches of the medical topography of the Mediterranean was published posthumously in 1830. According to a memorial tablet in King’s Chapel, Gibraltar, ‘in the day of calamity [Hennen] sacrificed all considerations of his own safety for the public zeal.’ In this extract Hennen discusses the advantages of Gibraltar’s first civilian hospital.

The want of a civil hospital was long universally acknowledged; and at length, to use the words of an official document dated August 1815, ‘the extreme inconvenience and distress which had hitherto been experienced for want of a proper place for the reception and cure of sick civilians in the garrison, rendered the establishment of an hospital indispensable.’

A range of buildings was given up for this purpose, which had formerly been known by the name of the ‘Blue Barracks.’ In 1810 they were remarkable for the presence of fever in them, but by judicious arrangements, they have now become acknowledged among the airiest, most cleanly, and most salubrious buildings in the garrison.

The Civil Hospital stands on the hill side, at the northern end of the town. It is situated upon an open parade, and presents a front looking directly upon the bay. It is completely insulated from all other buildings on its flanks: upon the east, or rear, it is separated from the adjacent houses and tenements by sufficient walls. In this hospital there is accommodation for one hundred patients, with ample offices, and a house for the surgeon and dispenser.

The hospital is divided into three branches for patients of the Catholic, Protestant and Hebrew persuasions; each has a separate establishment for itself. The wards are upon two floors of easy access, and are extremely well ventilated; they consist of four for the Catholics, four for the Protestants, and two for the Jews. Besides these regular wards, there are three or four small rooms that, on an emergency, may be appropriated to hospital purposes.

The wards consist from four to sixteen beds each. The floors are of wood, the bedsteads are of iron, and the bedding is of a very superior quality, consisting of an excellent hair mattress, sheets, blankets, and a cotton cover; each bedstead is furnished with a frame for supporting a mosquito net; and upon the whole, the inmates of this hospital are as well accommodated, in these particulars, as any individuals in the garrison.

There are two large tanks within the walls of the hospital building, capable of containing between 4000 and 5000 gallons of water, with force-pumps to distribute it through all the wards of the hospital.

The sexes are properly divided. The sewers and drains throughout are well constructed; unfortunately, the privies, from the nature of the ground, have not the drainage that is so desirable in establishments of this nature.

Behind the hospital is an airing ground, sufficient, on an emergency, to contain two or three convalescent marquees.

Within the body of the hospital is a well-fitted dispensary, a surgery, and a room for specimens of natural history and morbid anatomy; and at one end, in a detached situation, is a chemical laboratory.

The officers of the hospital are: one surgeon, and a dispenser, who acts also as purveyor; both these gentlemen are half-pay British medical officers. The servants are: one steward for the whole establishment, one cook for the Protestants and Catholics (the Jews cooking for themselves), one orderly for each division, one nurse for each division, one dispensary servant and barber for the whole, and washerwomen hired at discretion.

The salaries are as follows: 1) The Surgeon: 90 dollars per mensem. 2) Purveyor and Dispenser: 45 ditto. 3) Steward: 24 ditto. 4) Cook: 8 ditto. 5) Orderlies: 8 ditto. 6) Nurse: 8 ditto. 7) Dispensary Servant Barber: 10 ditto.

Washerwomen and extra nurses are paid at discretion, and the steward, cook, and orderlies are allowed rations.

The diet and extras, as well as the books and regulations, are quite assimilated to the plan of the British Regimental Hospitals. On the average, the diet for each patient costs from 10d to 1s sterling per diem. The funds are supplied from a contribution of three reals, or about one shilling on each cask of flour used by the town bakers; the Quarantine fees, which average annually about 3000 dollars; fines imposed by the Civil Court; private subscriptions; legacies; and a sum of 2s. 2d. paid by such patients as are able to contribute to their own support. The Consuls of the different nations pay for sailors &c. at a similar rate, but payment is not necessary in all cases, the only claim for admission being distress. A legacy of 3000 dollars per annum was left to the Catholic part of the hospital by the late Mr. Gavino, a charitable inhabitant.

The Dispensary is daily open to out-patients; advice and medicines are liberally distributed, and vaccinations regularly performed. For a period of ten years, namely, from its first establishment in 1815, to 20th December, 1825, there have been treated in the hospital 2333 cases; and for the same period, 13,182 outpatients have been treated by the officers of this establishment.

Upon the whole, the civil hospital of Gibraltar reflects the highest credit on all concerned in it.

John Hennen, Sketches of the medical topography of the Mediterranean (1830).

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3. Houses utterly unfit for human habitation (1830)

To say that all [houses] are bad, would be exceeding the bounds of truth, or even of probability; but I am justified in asserting, that the majority are strikingly deficient in size, ventilation, and the means of cleanliness, and that some are utterly unfit for human habitations.

In the premises of a Jew, in Victualling Office Lane, I found, on a ground floor, seven occupied apartments, one storeroom, and one necessary, built around an area of twenty-five feet by seventeen feet five inches: this area was encumbered with casks, baskets, and jars piled along the walls, and the upper part was curtailed by a projecting gallery, so that the space left for ventilation was reduced to eight feet five inches by five feet six.

It would occupy a large volume, were I to go into minute details on this subject; I shall therefore merely give the summary of two or three reports I made in the spring of 1826, on the dwellings of the poor; and I may premise, that there are many infinitely worse off, in all respects, than the inhabitants of those places; the two first of which, it must be observed, are neither of them fifty yards from headquarters, close to the public offices, on a surface almost perfectly level by nature, and with a fair exterior appearance. Were I to select specimens from the hill side, the details would be still more illustrative of the insalubrious nature of these confined abodes; and when it is stated that the thermometer stood no higher than fifty-six degrees when my examination was instituted, some estimate may be formed of what the inhabitants would suffer in the summer, in a temperature of eighty degrees and upwards.

The entrance was fortunately wider than usual. Of the occupied apartments, two only had windows to the street, and two had small, irregular slits in the upper part of the wall, which admitted air from without, and the others had neither air nor light, except what they derived from the area; cross ventilation was therefore impossible. On this ground floor, twenty-four individuals (including children) lived. In one of the apartments next to the necessary, with no other means of ventilation than a door, three women and one dog slept. The cubic contents of this wretched kennel were short of 200 feet. Above, the rooms were of a better description, but they contained twenty permanent inhabitants, besides a day school, in which, when I visited it, there were fifteen children.

In another Jew’s premises, in Governor’s Lane, the sheds, which were built round an area originally twenty-eight feet by twenty-four, at the time of inspection were not overcrowded with population, but the cubic contents of the area were diminished nearly one half by the erection of a new shed in its centre.

In another Jew’s lodging house, in the main street, near the court house, three adults slept in a wooden shed of six feet long, five broad, and six high; the necessary wall formed one side of this commodious dwelling! But even this is ample accommodation, compared to what Mr. Fraser reports in 1816.

In the beginning of August he says, ‘In the middle area of Boyd’s buildings, confined and choked up by lumber, 18 persons were crowded together, some of them sleeping and cooking, in places called rooms, not larger than two ordinary sentry-boxes…. Some of the areas are crowded with water butts, old mats, oil jars, and lumber of all descriptions, affording a nest for filth, and a fruitful source of putrescent exhalations, independent of their seriously diminishing the cubic mass of air, the circulation of which is still further obstructed by lines and poles crossing the areas for the purpose of drying linen…. In many tenements there are no necessaries; in many others, one small hole serves to receive the ordure of twenty families. In the centre of the area, there is, in the best class of houses, a grating, which communicates with a drain; in several, this grating and drain are altogether wanting.... Upon the whole, although Gibraltar is improved to a degree scarcely to have been contemplated by those who knew it before his Excellency Sir George Don took the command, it is even now a town, in many parts of it confined and ill-ventilated, in which innumerable obstacles to cleanliness exist, and with a population, filthy in themselves, and overcrowded, perhaps, beyond any other community in the world.’

John Hennen, Sketches of the medical topography of the Mediterranean (1830)

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4. English construction methods in the Mediterranean (1831)

Henry David Inglis was born in Edinburgh in 1795. He was an assiduous traveller, visiting many countries before his untimely death at the age of 39. He was much struck by the inferior quality of local buildings when he visited Gibraltar in 1830.

Nothing can be worse judged than the manner in which the town of Gibraltar is built; the houses are constructed for the latitude of England in place of the latitude of Africa. It is not to be wondered at that, when epidemics find their way to Gibraltar, their progress should be irresistible; for not one demand of a hot climate has been complied with: here are no patios, and fountains, and open galleries, admitting a free circulation of air, as in Seville; all is closely boxed up, as if for the climate of England; closed doors, narrow passages, and narrow stairs, keep out the fresh, and keep in the foul air. In place of the floors being of brick, or Valencia tiles, they are of wood; the rooms are small; the windows, not folding, lightly closed, and opening upon airy balconies, but constructed upon the most approved air-excluding plan; and the bedrooms carpeted, and the beds curtained. The effects of all this may easily be imagined,— the spread of disease is powerfully assisted by filthiness, and by impure and stagnant air; and, accordingly, nowhere in Europe have the ravages of the plague been so fearful as in Gibraltar. The streets and houses are incapable of alteration; and therefore the only remedy would be gradually to pull down the houses, and to replace them with others better fitted to the climate.

Henry David Inglis, Spain in 1830 (1831).

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5. On the inadequacy of public sewers and drains (1831)

Gibraltar’s first sewers were constructed under Governor Don, just after the yellow fever epidemic of 1813. Although a considerable feat of engineering at the time, they had a tendency to clog and choke, frequently enveloping the adjacent town with a variety of unhealthy vapours and stenches. The area known as the Camber, now the site of the prestigious Waterfront development, was particularly notorious in this respect due to its proximity to one of the main outlets. ‘Besides this drain,’ wrote one disgusted commentator, ‘there is a stagnant piece of water, called the Camber, in which boats are hauled up to repair; this, it is said, has three or four feet of mud in it, and receives a great part of the filth of the shores at the south, and emits a very offensive effluvium.’

I am not sufficiently acquainted with the construction and state of the public sewers in general to submit correct and satisfactory remarks on this subject; but on referring to an official statement of Mr Woodward’s, surveyor of the Revenue Works, I find that the drains in the lower part of the town have but little declivity, and receive the soil and other filth from those in the upper part, into which the privies of the several houses discharge their contents. The consequence is, that, either by direct winds from the west, or eddy winds from the east, the foul air is blown up from the line wall; and in hot weather, the streets and houses are filled with air so offensive and fetid, as frequently to make the people sick.

The whole surface of the drains is covered with night soil, which, from the want of water to clean them, becomes in the warm weather an expanded ridge of rotten matter near the surface of the ground; and the offensive effluvia, disseminated over the whole place, cannot have escaped even superficial observation. During the late epidemic the air was particularly offensive, and great numbers of rats were found dead in the drains. At their outlets on the Line Wall, and in many places where Mr W. had occasion to direct their opening, he always noticed that they contained a great deal of filth, particularly at the lower part of the town.

It appears that, previous to the year 1814, there were very few drains in Gibraltar; and, for want of them, large accumulations of filth called Dirt’s depots were established in various parts of the town. In 1815, the reconstruction of the drains took place, and, since that time, they have been continued at various periods up the hillside; and the gullies have been covered, which undoubtedly is an improvement in the state of the drains. In rainy weather, they have sufficient declivity to be cleared of their contents; but this cannot be the case in dry weather.

In 1828, the drains were much filled with filth, and it may be remembered that there was in the month of July some rain. On the 1st of August heavy showers fell; and about the 17th, 19th, and 20th of August, there was more rain, which brought the contents into action, so that the effluvia arising from them were very like those arising from the dirt deposits in 1814.

As to the state of the drains more particularly belonging to the barracks occupied by the 12th regiment, with the condition of which it has been my duty to make myself acquainted, I can state, that, both in the town-range and King’s Bastion, they appear to have been, and continue to be defective. In the lower square of the town range, the drain from the soil-pit was choked up, and burst open a short time before the regiment was sent to camp; and, in the King’s Bastion, the sewers at the north and south, probably from a want of sufficient declivity, frequently allow the corrupt substances to accumulate at their entrances, and emit during the summer months exhalations highly offensive, which, in several instances, have been complained of by the men, and reported to the authorities.

The drains about the south end of the building, where the Regimental Hospital is established, are likewise in a very defective state. They have been frequently choked up; and their opening in the kitchen, and in the centre of a very small yard, forms a permanent source of disagreeable, and, I may venture to say, pernicious exhalations. In illustration of this it may be remarked, that the first hospital servant taken ill during the late epidemic was the cook of the establishment who slept in that kitchen, and the disease has been very severe amongst those who have been successively employed on the same duty.

‘Answers to Queries from the Army Medical Board on the Epidemic at Gibraltar 1828 by R. Amiel, Surgeon, 12th Regiment,’ Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (1831).

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6. Exorbitant Rents (1833)

It is impossible to conceive a spot better fitted for the dissemination of infectious disease than Gibraltar. Had the town been double in extent, it could scarcely have afforded sufficient accommodation to the numbers which were even then crowded within its narrow limits. The rent demanded for the smallest house in Gibraltar equalled that of a splendid mansion in London. The consequence, of course, was that a domicile which could afford comfortable accommodation for one family became the residence of many; nor was it an uncommon circumstance that fifty or even a hundred individuals were congregated beneath a single roof. The great proportion of these were foreigners; and when we consider how little attention was necessarily paid to cleanliness in such dwellings the unhealthy atmosphere in which their inmates were condemned to live and breathe, we shall not feel surprised that all human endeavours to arrest the progress of the pestilence were in vain. I had been in such houses. In an apartment scarcely the size of an ordinary English bedroom, I had beheld the accommodation of twenty human beings, where stretched upon a mat or carpet, they every night, even in the hottest season, retired to rest. In such hives of men, when fever once appeared, it of course spread like wildfire; there the arm of death was raised to strike — who could prevent its falling?

Anonymous, ‘Tales of Military and Naval Life,’ The Novelist’s Magazine (1833).

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7. Those damned mosquitoes! (1840)

With the warm weather come the Mosquitoes. These little tormentors, whose first dwelling is a pool of water, emerge at the critical moment when the case in which they have been enfolded is ready to burst, and fly off, gay as a butterfly just released from prison. I have seen water that had been accidentally left for some time in the open air, literally alive with the larvae, countless numbers flying off each moment to sport through the air. Their greatest victims are the newly arrived, whose blotched faces often bear witness of their sufferings, for the sting is intolerably itchy, and consequently, does not easily disappear. The chief precaution taken against them is to use thin curtains that leave no loophole of entrance; but this is not always effectual, and if they get within those protecting draperies, adieu to the favours of the drowsy god: better a tiger on the mountain than a mosquito within your curtains; you pass the night boxing your own ears in the vain hope of killing them, and you arise in the morning feverish and unrested.

Anonymous, ‘Letters from Gibraltar,’ Dublin University Magazine (1840)

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8. Gibraltar’s hospitals (1846)

Edward Frederick Kelaart was a staff assistant surgeon in Gibraltar from 1843 to 1845. He is mainly remembered nowadays as the author of Prodromus fauna Zeylanica, the first extensive description of Ceylonese fauna. In his book Flora Calpensis he discusses a number of Gibraltarian topographical and botanical matters.

The military hospital (formerly the naval hospital, and known still better by this designation) is a noble pile of buildings, situated on a flat below Buena Vista; it can accommodate upwards of four hundred patients. Each regiment has so many wards allotted to it, of which their respective medical officers have charge; the whole establishment being under the immediate supervision of the principal medical officer. A lunatic asylum, for the temporary accommodation of insane patients among the soldiers, has lately been added to this establishment, the arrangement and construction of which have occupied the constant attention of Dr. Gillchrest, the late principal medical officer. The ordnance hospital, situated on a higher flat, called Buena Vista, above the naval hospital, is a small range of old buildings, which can only accommodate about thirty patients. The civil hospital is situated on a projecting hill in the town, but sufficiently away from other houses of the inhabitants (the adjoining buildings are commissariat quarters). This establishment owes its origin to the late Sir George Don. It affords medical and surgical relief to the sick poor of Gibraltar, and even to strangers who may seek relief there; sailors from the shipping in the bay are also admitted into its wards. The expenses of this hospital are partly defrayed by government, and partly by private donations and legacies. Patients who cannot claim the usual certificate of pauperism are admitted into this hospital by paying one shilling and six-pence per diem. The Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants have each their board of directors, but from this multiplicity of masters, much of the efficiency of the establishment is destroyed. The hospital can accommodate eighty patients, but rarely are there more than thirty or forty in it. Besides the indoor patients, the dispensary attached to it affords relief to a large number of outdoor patients. There is some room for improvement in the whole institution, and a well-qualified resident English surgeon would be a great advantage to the establishment. Perhaps no class of people object to go into hospital more than the poor of Gibraltar; and it is only when the case is hopeless, or when the supply is stopped, that they can be persuaded to enter the hospital, relief to them having been, in the meantime, afforded by efficient medical practitioners.

E. F. Kelaart, Flora Calpensis (1846).

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9. The Unwholesomeness of Patio living (1862)

The city is composed of small and crowded dwellings, ill-ventilated, badly-drained, and crammed with human beings. Upwards of 15,000 persons are confined within a space covering a square mile…. The peculiar formation of the smaller dwellings is another enemy to health; these houses consist of square or oblong buildings, enclosing a confined and ill-ventilated courtyard or patio, into which the windows open. Each floor is cumbered with a balcony, and is often occupied by many families. In these yards clothes are constantly hung out to dry, thus further impeding ventilation. All kinds of filth accumulate, while the drain, if such a luxury exist, is rarely trapped or kept in order…. House rent is excessively high, and the poorer labouring classes are compelled to occupy dwellings which are more fitted for animals than human beings…. Most of the patios are crowded with lumber, water-butts, casks, and even animals; whole kennels of dogs and even mules and asses are sometimes kept in these yards. Such are some of the local causes of sickness, and it remains a question for inquiry, how far those causes may be considered to account for a high and increasing rate of mortality, apart from any atmospheric influences?

Frederick Sayer, The History of Gibraltar and of its Political Relation to Events in Europe (1862).

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10. The disposal of sewage (1862)

Although great facilities exist for the construction of a complete system of drainage, no comprehensive plan has yet been adopted. Main sewers have been established, which empty themselves by means of iron pipes at some distance into the sea in various places along the line-wall, but the want of water renders them comparatively useless during the summer months. In many houses cesspools or accumulations of night soil exist, which, through the apathy of the inhabitants and the disregard for stench and filth, remain untouched for years — slow, smouldering hotbeds of disease. When they are emptied, a course usually resorted to in summer, when the fetid effluvium overcomes the callous tenant, their contents are carried in open barrels along the streets, spreading their deadly exhalations through the crowded dwellings.

Frederick Sayer, The History of Gibraltar and of its Political Relation to Events in Europe (1862).

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11. The Want of Water (1862)

Another local cause of sickness is the want of water, a want which, considering the position of the town, might long ago have been supplied. From the peculiar nature of the Rock there are no springs of pure fresh water. To many houses tanks are attached, in which during the rainy season the water is collected, but rarely in sufficient quantities to last during the summer drought; in many dwellings, especially among the poorer classes, no such convenience exists, and the poor creatures are dependent for the water they require upon the hawkers who distribute it through the city in small barrels carried on donkeys or mules. During some seasons, such, for example, as the summer of 1860, the sufferings of the poor are very great for want of this necessary of life. During that summer, when smallpox, the companion of uncleanliness, was dangerously prevalent, and cholera was striking down its helpless victims, water became so scarce, and rose so considerably in price, that the poorer classes were in numerous instances reduced for days to a quantity barely sufficient to quench their thirst, much less to wash away their uncleanness. From a calculation lately made, it seems that nearly £3000 is annually expended by the public of Gibraltar on water alone, while for half that sum an efficient establishment might be maintained, which would supply the remotest districts of the city. This supply would be applicable to domestic wants only, the resources of fresh water being in no way sufficient to permit of its being used as an agent for flushing the drains and sewers. For this purpose we have vast means at hand, and readily available; as salt water, which at a small expense could be conveyed above the town, is as well adapted for that object as fresh.

Frederick Sayer, The History of Gibraltar and of its Political Relation to Events in Europe (1862).

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12. Communicating from the rooftops (1902)

[Regarding Gibraltarian servants], I may mention that the class of persons from which they are chiefly recruited reside in houses built around courtyards called Patios. The open space is generally square, and the rooms and verandahs are in tiers. Now, when a house is being built and nearing completion, it is often decorated with flags like a ship en fete, thus proclaiming its grandeur to the world at large. On entering one of these patios you will probably find a medley of people squatting in the courtyard around an itinerant vendor of goods, all chattering away at the tops of their voices; and among other things I have seen a coffin being publicly made in the midst of such a group, every one being in high glee! Ascend the narrow wooden steps and you may pass by a room in which lies a sick person who will be attended by a large number of men, women and children, who are crouching round the bed with sympathetic motives.

The men will be, as usual, smoking cigarettes and most polite to a stranger, but without an atom of modesty or reserve as they recount and dwell upon every sickening detail concerning the [invalid’s] case. The room, moreover, is clothed in filth from floor to ceiling, and the atmosphere vitiated; in fact, the general condition (as I have often witnessed) and state of overcrowding of these patios inhabited by the poorer classes is certainly neither wholesome nor a credit to civilisation and sanitary reform. Cross the room and put your head out of the window, and you will see the washed articles of clothing drying, and supported by means of three small sticks placed against the window ledge in the form of a triangle. If someone wishes to call your attention from a neighbouring window, he will hiss at you violently, this being the usual mode of drawing attention, and should he still further want you to go to him, he will not beckon as we do, moving his hand towards himself, but away from him and towards you — in fact, as if he wished you were further removed. I may add that a good deal of conversation, as well as love making, is carried on from the windows and housetops.

Richard Gillham Thomsett, A record voyage in HMS Malabar (1902).


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