A trip to the Imperial Scrapyard

When consulting a reference book from 1896, we came across an article about imperial measures which provides a timely reminder that, even in its heyday, this ‘system’ was not as straightforward as some would now have us believe.

English measures accumulated over two millennia. Successive invasions from continental Europe – Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans – made significant contributions to the mix, but trade specialisation, sectional interest and poor communications in Britain and Ireland also added to the muddle. By the time of the industrial revolution, the system of measures was no longer fit for purpose and rationalisation was long overdue.

The Weights & Measures Act of 1824 was intended to put matters right. Nevertheless, some historians consider it to be a case of ‘tidying up’ the statute books and removing arcane laws rather than radically changing the multiplicity of customary weights and measures used throughout the country. Indeed, the 1824 Act expressly stated that “it shall [be] lawful [to] buy and sell goods and merchandize (sic) by any weights or measures established either by local custom or founded on special Agreement” provided their exact relation to the ‘standard’ units defined by the Act was generally known. The report of the Select Committee in 1862 (see our article), illustrated some of the unfortunate consequences of this approach.

A further example is provided by Mr Balch’s “Ready Reference”*, published in 1896, which has this entry on measures of capacity:

Wine measure
4 gills…………..1 pint
2 pints ………..1 quart
4 quarts………1 gallon
10 gallons……1 anker
18 gallons…….1 runlet
42 gallons…….1 tierce
2 tierces.……..1 puncheon
1½ tierces…..1 hogshead or 63 gallons
2 hogsheads…1 pipe or butt
2 pipes ………..1 ton (sic)

Ale and beer measure
2 pints…………..1 quart
4 quarts……..…1 gallon
9 gallons……….1 firkin
2 firkins….…….1 kilderkin
2 kilderkins……1 barrel
3 kilderkins……1 hogshead or 54 gallons
2 hogsheads….1 butt

Ten pounds Avoirdupois of distilled water, weighed in air with the barometer at 30°, and the thermometer at 62°F, will fill 277.274 cubic inches, or measure 1 gallon; and from the knowledge of this fact, the standard of our measures of capacity can be obtained, should it at any time be lost or injured.”

Simple, rational and coherent it is not, although it would have been reassuring for the Victorians to know that the standard measure of capacity could be replaced if lost or injured!

There are those who now suggest that schools should venture back into this scrapyard. Fine, if it is seen as part of the history curriculum. There is much material there that can be dusted off, examined and form the subject of history project work. But it certainly does not belong in the maths syllabus. As was pointed out in the 1960’s, emphasis in primary schools on conversions and relationships that have no logical basis is just as likely to put kids off maths as it is to improve their arithmetical skills.

A minister at the Department for Education has promised that a draft for full public consultation will be published before any changes occur to the curriculum. UKMA will of course respond.

* “Ready Reference. The Universal Cyclopaedia. Containing everything that everybody wants to know” by William Ralston Balch, published by Griffith Farran Browne & Co, 1896.

7 thoughts on “A trip to the Imperial Scrapyard”

  1. Prior to 1824, you had different size gallons for wine and ale, too. It is interesting that different names (and different numbers) were used for the relationships of units larger than a gallon. The hogshead contains different numbers of gallons for wine and ale.

    As the US established the (Queen Anne) wine gallon as its standard for ALL liquids, I wonder if the tierce (42 gallons) is in some way responsible for the selection of the US petroleum barrel as 42 (US) gallons.


  2. I wholeheartedly agree that “emphasis in primary schools on conversions and relationships that have no logical basis is just as likely to put kids off maths as it is to improve their arithmetical skills.”. As I have stated, from my experience between 1992-1997 (at secondary school), we had a couple of lessons on metric-imperial conversions in year 8 (1993), I had the impression that my fellow pupils didn’t enjoy those either. I was worried that I would do badly in Maths because of these conversions, so imagine my relief when I find out that conversions to Imperial units were not examinable – in fact I never saw imperial units again after that (indeed until I started learning to drive, and even then a limited subset).

    My fellow pupils and I used to dread imperial-metric conversions. I would even say that I owe my numeracy to ignoring imperial units completely. Personally I think imperial units have no place in the curriculum whatsoever (except in history projects if they really must).

    As we have repeated so many times, instead of looking at the curriculum and making schoolchildren suffer every year with conversions to the last remnants of the imperial non-system, why don’t the government and DfT at last start bringing road signs up to date with metric-only measures once? That way nobody needs to convert anything?

    And it’s a shame that the Imperial Weights and Measures Act did not follow the Select Committee report of 1862, rather than precede it. We will never know what might have happened.


  3. During the Christmas holidays I made a cruise on the Hurtigrute ship MS Nordnorge.
    It was a phantastic cruise. Near the restaurant were drawings of a pre-war ship with the name SS Nordnorge, built in Norway. Literally everything was in Imperial units. No metric unit in sight, even the benches on the decks were 18 inches high. I could not understand why did the Norwegians (and others) do this to themselves? It must have increased the workload significantly. At last, today ship building is metric, they now even rate engine power in kilowatts! Then I went to the upper deck, where the text was painted: ‘WINCHES ONLY’ for helicopters, as they could not land there. I was in a mischievous mood, stood with my FOOT on the W, and now it read: ‘INCHES ONLY’!


  4. I forgot to mention that when I flew from Amsterdam to Bergen on December 17 last the pilot announced that we were flying at an altitude of 11 500 m, the announcement was made in Dutch and English; no feet whatsoever. We need more pilots like him, that may lead to our reverting to metric in our airspace.


  5. I suspect that there are many who feel that they know the imperial system and are not even aware that such old measurements exist. One thing that many Britons may not realise is that only a small subset of the imperial system is still in use. I wonder how many people in this country know about such imperial units as minims, scruples, drams, pennyweights, etc.? Anyone reading a summary of the 1862 Report about imperial weights and measures would know that imperial units are far from simple.


  6. @John

    Pity that the story has no basis whatsoever in fact. In the UK, the measure equal to 1/8 of a fluid ounce is called the “fluid drachm”. The “dram” spelling of this measure is primarily a US spelling.

    A dram in whisky terms has never been a specific amount. A whimsical definition is “an amount which gives pleasure to both a guest and his host”.

    In pubs, it would now commonly be used to refer to whatever measure is in use (25 or 35 ml), and previously could have referred to 1/4, 1/5 or 1/6 gills.

    The contention that 1/8 of a fluid ounce was in use as a whisky measure before the 1963 Weights & Measures Act is also nonsense. The 1963 prescribed quantities were brought into force because of the wide variation in sizes up and down the UK – the smallest measure in common use was before 1963 was 1/7 gill in some London pubs.

    If you go to the Lochindall Hotel on Islay, the public bar has on display the old Imperial measures that the owner’s grandfather used to use. I can’t remember the exact date that they were stamped, but it predates 1963 by a number of years. They are all based on fractions of gills & pints, not on fractions of fluid ounces.

    Finally, I would mention that in the Scottish press, the story was picked up by the Scotsman, the Herald and the Daily Record.

    The Daily Record tells us “Officially, a fluid dram is an eighth of an ounce – or 3.7ml”. That means that a fluid ounce must be around 29.6 ml. Does that definition sound familiar to US readers?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: