An echo of the past, but no pointer to the future

The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail have followed the far-right British National Party in drawing attention to the case of a market trader in Dalston, East London, who prefers to sell fruit and veg by the bowl (see previous posting in Metric Views). This may come as no surprise to some readers, but we wonder where it is leading.

On 10 January, the British National Party published an article on its web site about a market trader in East London who was about to appear before magistrates, facing charges under the Weights and Measures Act 1985. The story was taken up in Mr Booker’s column in the Sunday Telegraph on 13 January, and in an article in the Daily Mail on 15 January.

No surprise here for older readers, who may remember the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, which appeared in the Daily Mail in 1934 over an article by Lord Rothermere supporting the fascist cause. But if the current case is about the application of European directives, as all three articles suggest, then here is a paradox. Why do those who supported the totalitarian governments of Italy, Portugal and Germany in the 1930s, now use every opportunity, some relevant but many not, to discredit the democratically accountable institutions of today’s Europe?

Weights and measures law, while being primarily concerned with fairness between buyer and seller, has always had a secondary purpose of removing barriers to trade. This was so for Magna Carta in 1215, which required, ‘one measure throughout our whole realm, and for the Act of Union of 1707, which imposed English weights and measures on the Scots. The rationalisation of measures in Britain and Ireland in 1824, made necessary by the industrial revolution, produced a system that was adopted by colonial governments throughout the British Empire for the same reason one system of measures for all purposes. And it was for this reason that most of these countries have now themselves adopted the metric system, without any encouragement from Europe.

Although metric has been legal in Britain since 1898, it was only in 1965, following requests from manufacturing industry, that very serious thought was given to a changeover. The UK Metrication Board was set up in 1969, three years before the UK began negotiations to enter the then European Common Market. The Board proposed in 1978 a cut-off date for the use of pounds and ounces, using powers provided by the Weights and Measures Act. This cut-off was not implemented until 1995 for packaged goods and 2000 for loose goods (fruit and veg), by which time the Metrication Board was long gone, and no-one was willing to accept responsibility for the necessary work of informing and educating.

So where does this leave the British National Party, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and our East End trader with her bowls of fruit? Only time will tell. But it is a characteristic of the British that we are adaptable to changing circumstances. The majority of us, probably over 90%, buy our loose fruit and veg from a supermarket or the corner shop, are accustomed to seeing it priced and weighed in kilos, and are wondering what this fuss is really all about.

9 thoughts on “An echo of the past, but no pointer to the future”

  1. When I first read this story my first inclination was to yawn. The legality of metric measures in the UK has been established years ago.

    However, it is clear that BNP and Christopher Booker (the author of the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail articles) share an antipathy for the European Union. Many – but not all – anti-EU campaigners have hoped that with British governments having had no sensible measurement unit policy for decades that metrication would be a convenient peg for their anti-EU agenda.

    The EU angle is largely irrelevant. As a consumer I want to be able to compare like with like in a fair market; a principle established in every major ancient civilisation as well as the Magna Carta. Mixing measures just confuses things and opens the door to unethical and unfair trading.

    However, what the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail seem not to have grasped is that cooking in metric is well established. Look at any modern British cookbook or watch Gordon, Nigella or Hugh on TV and you will only get sensible metric quantities.


  2. The likes of BNP and their supporters would do well to consider a few pertinent facts:

    * Imperial measures are not historically British. Many units are imported from European countries.

    * A number of metric units are named after British scientists.

    * The international body that develops and maintains metric standards is headed by a British Scientist.

    * Britain has been using metric for well over a century for a variety of purposes and is well established in our industry and system of education.

    * It has recently been discovered that an Englishman Bishop John Wilkins was the first person to propose a system of measurement very like the metric system that we know today.

    So, there is nothing unpatriotic about using metric and giving it the legal status it deserves. Imperial measures oddly enough have a weaker British pedigree than metric.


  3. Following on from an earlier comment, the “bakers dozen� derives from the tradition of bakers delivering a thirteenth loaf of bread as a precaution against short weight. Wikipedia ( describes the legislation as:

    “The Assize of Bread and Ale (Latin: Assisa panis et cervisiæ) was a 13th-century statute in late medieval English law that set standards of quality, measurement, and pricing for bakers and brewers. This statute is usually attributed to act 51 Hen. III, occurring about 1266-1267. It was the first law in British history to regulate the production and sale of food. At the local level, this resulted in regulatory licensing systems, with arbitrary reoccurring fees, and fines and punishments for lawbreakers. In rural areas, the statute was enforced by manorial lords, who held tri-weekly court sessions.�

    Although this was repealed in 1863, other laws were already in place regarding both short measure and a definition of which units of measure were legal. For example, Article XVII of the Act of Union 1707 states:

    “THAT from and after the Union, the same Weights and Measures shall be used throughout the United Kingdom, as are now established in England, and Standards of Weights and Measures shall be kept by those Burghs in Scotland, to whom the keeping the Standards of Weights and Measures, now in Use there, does of special Right belong: All which Standards shall be sent down to such respective Burghs, from the Standards kept in the Exchequer at Westminster, subject nevertheless to such Regulations as the Parliament of Great Britain shall think fit.�

    Thus, the laws that regulate our shops and street markets owe much more to history than might be deduced from the latest controversy.


  4. “The majority of us, probably over 90%, buy our loose fruit and veg from a supermarket or the corner shop, are accustomed to seeing it priced and weighed in kilos, and are wondering what this fuss is really all about. ”

    It would be good if you could point us to a poll, survey, etc that shows that 90% of British people now only use kilos. This would show that a collosal swing against imperial in a very very short time.


  5. Sean Weisthal is interested in how many British people now use only kilos. Metric Views admits it does not know. However, a rough estimate of those who are accustomed to seeing goods priced and weighed in metric can be made from published surveys of the grocery business.

    The TNS WorldPanel grocery market survey for the 12 weeks up to 7 October 2007 shows the share of Great Britain total spend at grocers, excluding petrol, as follows:

    Multiples        92.9% (of which Tesco alone accounts for 31.8%)
    Co-ops           4.4%
    Independents  2.7% (‘Symbols’ 1.0%. Other independents 1.7%)

    The survey does not indicate the proportion of total grocery spend in each group that relates to ‘goods sold loose from bulk’ (fruit, veg, delicatessen, etc). It also excludes specialist butchers and fishmongers, member-only wholesalers, such as Costco, and sales from market stalls. These are likely to have a turnover in total not greatly different from the independent grocers.

    At the Multiples and Co-ops, pricing and weighing of ‘loose goods’ at the point of sale is metric, and customers are accustomed, eight years after the changeover, to see their apples, carrots, salami and prawns priced and weighed in kilos and grams at the point of sale. Multiples and Co-ops account for 97.3% of grocery spend, excluding member-only wholesalers and market stalls.

    What about the Independents, who are included in the survey totals, and the butchers and fishmongers, who are not? Metric Views believes that most price and weigh in metric, but has little evidence either way, and notes that their turnover can only be a very small proportion of that of the Multiples.

    You can view the TNS survey by following this link:


  6. With the major supermarkets still showing metric and imperial it would be interesting to see if people actually do ask in metric or imperial since simply having the metric there (even if it is first, or even if it’s on it’s own) might not represent what people actually ask for even if it does get weighed metrically.

    Let’s say a British person goes to America and wants to buy a courgette. He might see some in a green grocer. They may be labeled up as zucchini but he may still ask for X number of courgettes. Of course the American grocer would not know what he was talking about which differs from the situation in a British supermarket where someone might ask for a ‘pound of ham’ and the assistant will know how to weigh that up in the metric equivalent due to training. I hope my example makes sense.



  7. I usually patronise Waitrose, one of the smaller multiple stores. They have 3.9% of the market and position themselves at the upper end of the market. Their policy in the vegetable section (help yourself) is to price everything in metric units only. They provide a balance that has both metric and imperial units so that you can check the weight of your purchase. At the delicatessen counter, products are priced in both metric and imperial units with the imperial unit text being half the size of the metric unit text.

    At the deli counter, I estimate that 70% of the public ask for “two pieces of ham� or “half of that piece of cheese� etc, about 25% use metric units and only 5% use imperial units.

    On the other hand, market traders in Hackney (where Colin Hunt, one of the so-called “Metric Martyrs� had a stall) claim that their clientele, especially the Afro-Caribbean community, prefer to use imperial units. When reading how the various ethnic communities perform at school, I can’t help but notice that the Afro-Caribbean community has the highest proportion of under-achievers, particularly amongst the boys. Furthermore, Hackney is one of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom.

    This suggests to me that the voluntary use of metric is dictated to a degree by class with those in the better-off socio-economic groups being more willing to use metric units.


  8. It is almost incredible that some of those opposed to metrication go to fascists for support!


  9. In reference to selling “by the bowl”, I’d be curious to know what size the bowl is. Aren’t bowls today made to be exact metric volumes? If one is for example using a two litre bowl then doesn’t that mean they are still selling in metric even if they are trying not to?

    I don’t see a problem with selling by the bowl, provided the bowl size is required to be described in rounded litres. But then that would defeat their purpose of trying to avoid one metric unit if they have to use another.


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