A bit of imperial history

Recent comments on the value, or otherwise, of retaining historic or traditional measurements in daily use have prompted thoughts on the swift rise of the imperial system of measures in the nineteenth century and on the muddle that has resulted from its inevitable decline in the twentieth.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the systems of measurement used in the British Empire were characterised by their diversity. In the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland) a huge number of measures existed, many surviving from medieval times or earlier. In particular, English measures of volume were a ‘historical hodgepodge’, with three different gallons and a luxuriant terminology including the jigger, the jackpot, the gill, the pottle, the peck, the bushel, the hogshead, the firkin, the pipe or butt, the kilderkin and the tun.  In Lower Canada, effectively under British control since 1759, the measures of ancien regime France were still in common use. In India, the measurement system of the former Mughal Empire was but one of many.  In Cape Colony, occupied by the British in 1806, the measures in use were those brought by settlers from Holland over a century before.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this situation had been transformed. The catalyst was the UK Weights & Measures Act of 1824. This provided a simplified measurement system that was nevertheless capable of meeting the demands of the industrial revolution. It was adopted rapidly throughout the British Empire, partly as a result of the requirements of imperial trade and partly because of encouragement and direction from the Colonial Office and the India Office in London. Nor was its use limited to imperial trade and commerce – everyday life throughout the Empire, for example in shops and in schools, also bore the imprint of the 1824 Act.

It is interesting to speculate how events might have developed had there been no rationalisation of weights and measures in the British Empire during early part of the nineteenth century. Imperial trade would have suffered, but many former colonies that today rely on global trade might, by moving directly to metric measures, have avoided the need to change their primary system of measurement twice in little more than a century.  Upper and Lower Canada might have accepted a welcoming embrace from US customary measures, making Canada’s subsequent metric changeover even more difficult, whereas British colonies in Africa and Central and South America might have fallen in step much sooner with their metric neighbours. And India might not have acquired a railway network of almost 75 000 km, the fourth largest in the world, if its builders had had to face many different measurement jurisdictions along the way.

A surprising aspect of this story concerns the arguments for a single, universal system of measures. These go back at least to the time of Magna Carta in 1215, and were used six centuries later to support reform and to extend throughout the Empire the use of the system created by the Act of 1824. Yet, when the need for further reform became apparent towards the end of the twentieth century, the same arguments were rejected by significant proportions of the public, the media and politicians. And the result – a costly muddle of measures the like of which has not been seen in the UK for almost 200 years.

8 thoughts on “A bit of imperial history”

  1. One of the views expressed elsewhere on this blog was a need for continuity with our ancestors.

    I hope the article above will help such minded people to appreciate that continuity can take a variety of forms. In this case the pressing need for a single rational system that everyone can understand and use.

    We can and should adopt the values of our nineteenth century ancestors in respect of fairness in trade. Their solution wasn’t the metric system because other considerations got in the way at the time (although less than a century later they did begin to see the error).

    However things have changed a great deal since then and there is no impediment to us making the modern international system the one that should occupy that role.


  2. Had the UK not simplified their weights and measures via the adoption of Imperial in 1824, I think the UK itself would have been more receptive to metrication. Most of the other European powers which adopted metric in the first half of the 19th century did so because their “systems” of weights and measures were a complete mess.

    The US did not adopt the Imperial gallon or bushel, but it clearly was a fledgling nation in this timeframe and very dependent on the UK for physical standards of weights and measures. Had the UK gone metric in this timeframe instead of adopting Imperial, I believe the US would have followed, due to lack of viable alternatives. All of the remaining British colonies would have followed as well.

    The discontinuity of Imperial in 1824 may have done more to damage metrication than all the “continuity with ancestors.”


  3. It is basically as simple as that, with the Brits being the predominant settlers in the in the new land their measurements went with them.

    A real obstacle to full metrication today are Britain’s EU haters. Never mind what it is if it comes from the EU it must be bad. Only a complete disregard of their prejudices will change that. Alas, that requires politicians willing to risk their seats and that won’t happen any time soon.


  4. Perhaps the next impetus for change in the UK will come from the USA.

    USMA and NIST have been trying for some years now to amend the FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act) to allow for voluntary metric-only labeling on retail goods. Unfortunately, the FMI (Food Marketing Institute) has been intransigent in its opposition, which has kept this amendment from being adopted.

    Now that the FMI has a new Director of Government Relations, it might be possible to work though this individual to change FMI’s opposition and get this amendment passed. Once retail goods start appearing in metric only in the USA, this could be used as leverage with the UK government to suggest to them that change is coming to America and the UK better get off its duff and finish the job of metricating.

    Here is the press release from FMI. Note that this new fellow has also worked for USDA (US Dept of Agriculture) on international issues, so we (USMA) hope he has a global perspective we can appeal to:



  5. Hi there

    I wonder if we here in the UK are in danger of believing all the anti-metric hype of some of the depressing newspapers in this country. Without question, there is an element of the British public that is against the adoption of the metric system. And I do think that the influence of the US is a great factor in the UK due to the exposure we have here to US TV and Culture. But reading the UK Governments latest attempt to ‘engage’ the UK public, http://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/home/index/ , you may be encouraged to read the many pro-metric comments. You will find ‘Weights and Measures’ under the ‘Retail Challenge’ tab. So lets not be too downhearted, there seems to be a substantial number of British people who support metrication. We need to be confident, we are not the weirdos here, the BWMA and its supporters are. Challenge the media when they use Imperial, and thank them when they use metric! I do it regularly and I swear I can see a difference! I’m in the process of looking for a new home at the moment, and encouraged to see how many estate agents are using metric as their primary measurements, and some are now exclusively metric. Its only 40 years late!


  6. The British press has much to answer for in impeding Britain’s move towards full metrication. They could learn from the Canadian press – newspapers like The (Toronto) Star, Globe and Mail, etc, I believe do their best to use metric measures (the only exceptions are usually when expressing people’s height, and anything that is simply a reprint from the US, which then stands out a kilometre simply for the use of non-metric measures). Certainly anything to do with motoring is invariably exclusively metric.

    I believe UK newspapers are doing a disservice to the British economy by steadfastly refusing, for the most part, to use metric measures, even in material that obviously started out as metric. One could almost say they are being unpatriotic – though I’m sure they think they are the opposite! If we could get the British press on side, then I think we would see a change quite quickly.


  7. In his account of the UK metric changeover, Jim Humble identifies the loss of nerve by politicians in 1978 as the point at which the drift into the current muddle began (http://metric.org.uk/articles/jhumble). There have been many suggestions why it continued over the ensuing 30 years, foremost among them the involvement of the EU, as noted by eric above. Here is a pointer to another, arising from a comment by Piers Brendon in his book “The decline and fall of the British Empire”. He writes as follows about the aftermath of the Falklands War of 1982:

    “Illusion outlived reality and the past governed the present. The Empire had gone but the emotions associated with it survived, like phantom feelings after an amputation. This boded ill for Britain’s future since subsequent leaders would face the temptation to exploit imperial longings – to promote general nostalgia while encouraging selective amnesia …”

    John comments above on the unhelpful attitude of much of the press towards the use of metric measures, and Ari and Keith Plumb suggest in replies to the previous article that those aged over 70 are part of the problem. Perhaps we really will have to wait until the generation that fondly remembers the Empire passes on before the Beefeater press changes its tune and the opinions of its readers move on too.


  8. We can only speculate about what would have happened had the UK standardised its measurements by replacing the old English measurements with the metric system instead of standardising the diverse English measurements in use by the 1824 Weights and Measures Act. Perhaps, this standardisation of measurements, through the introduction of the imperial system, made the transition to the metric system a lot harder. There were a few attempts to replace imperial with metric in the nineteenth century, one of which was defeated by just five votes. Now, there are many emotional arguments and myths and misinformation, supported by the tabloid press, about metrication in the UK, despite the fact that the imperial system is not ancient but was introduced by the 1824 Weights and Measures Act and is less than 200 years old.

    Before France introduced the metric system, their measurements were a complete mess. There was a huge amount of variation across France between the old units in the eighteenth century. Even there, the introduction of the metric system was not popular. For this reason, Napoleon introduced “mesures usuelles” in 1812. These “mesures usuelles” lasted until 1840 when they were abolished.


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