Forgotten British and Irish units

Magna Carta, signed on 15 June 1215, said, “Let there be one measure …”. This week, we illustrate the consequences of ignoring this principle by looking at some old measurement units whose meanings have now largely been forgotten.

In evidence given to the 1862 Select Committee on Weights and Measures, a Mr Greenhall said that “we have the grain, dram, drop, ounce, pound, stone, score, ton. In wool measure we have a clove, tod, wey, pack, sack or last. In straw measure, truss and load. In glass, a seam. In draper’s measure, inch, nail, ell, and yard. In long measure and land measure, line, size, hand, foot, palm, span, pace, step (military), link, knot, rood, hide, rod, pole or perch, fall, chain, mile, and league…….In various other scales of measurement we have the strike, peck, pot, gill, pint, quart, tierce, boll, coomb, pipe, butt, tun, and score. In paper selling we have the sheet, quire, ream, bale, and roll. In wood measure the cord and shid. In Scotch coal measure the deal, cart, and keel.”

Here is a list of measures taken from the 1862 report. They are presented in alphabetical order.

aigendale: The aigendale was used in Burnley for selling flour. It was a quantity of 8 lb.

bag: The bag was used for selling some commodities such as wheat and oats. Wheat was sold by the bag of 11 scores at Bridgenorth, of 11 scores 4 lb at Much Wenlock, of 11 scores 10 lb at Ludlow, of 12 scores at Leominster, of 2 bushels at Saltash and at Modbury. Oats were sold by the bag of 3 bushels at Saltash and of 20 gallons at Modbury.

barrel: The most familiar barrel in current use is the oil barrel, which contains exactly 42 US gallons (approximately 35 imperial gallons or 159 litres). However, the UK once used some of its own barrels for particular commodities. A barrel of soap contained 256 lb, a barrel of gunpowder contained 112 lb and a barrel of anchovies contained 30 lb. An oats barrel of 14 stone was used in Dublin and Dundalk, an oats barrel of 24 stone and a barley barrel of 24 stone were used in Sligo, a barley barrel of 16 stone was used in Dublin. A barley barrel of 224 lb was used in Preston for malting and a barley barrel of 240 lb was used in the same location for grinding. A coal barrel of 2 hundredweight 2 quarters was used in Downpatrick. In the Table of Agricultural Statistics of Ireland, the wheat barrel was 20 stone, the oats barrel was 14 stone, the barley barrel was 16 stone and the potato barrel was 20 stone.

boll: Wheat, oats and barley were sold by the boll at Barnard Castle, Darlington and Glasgow. It represented a volume of 2 bushels and weights of 240 lb, 264 lb, 280 lb, 320 lb, depending on the commodity and location where the transaction took place.

bundle: The bundle was used as a unit of weight for iron. A bundle of iron was 56 lb, a bundle of iron wire up to 20 gauge was 63 lb and a bundle of iron wire above 20 gauge was 60 lb.

bushel: There was once a wide variety of different bushels in use. Bushels of 8 gallons, 20 stones, 60 lb, 63 lb, 70 lb, 73 lb, 80 lb and 163 lb were used for selling wheat. There were many other bushels of different sizes used for selling other commodities. The bushel varied in size from 5 quarters in some places to 488 lb in others.

butt: The butt was used as a unit of volume for alcoholic drinks in the imperial system. In the imperial system, 1 butt of ale is equal to 108 gallons.

centner: A weight of 100 lb. This was especially used for US imports, which were purchased by the short hundredweight of 100 lb. After the 1824 Weights and Measures Act, the hundredweight was defined as a weight of 112 lb and traders could no longer refer to a quantity of 100 lb as a hundredweight. Therefore, they needed another name for the short hundredweight. Hence, centner was used instead.

clove: The clove was a unit of weight used for wool and cheese. A clove of wool was 7 lb and a clove of cheese was 8 lb.

coomb: At Beccles, wheat was sold by the coomb of 240 lb. In the imperial system, 1 coomb was equal to 2 strikes.

cord: The cord was used for trading timber. In Hastings, two different cords were used, a cord of 126 cubic feet and a cord of 128 cubic feet, and timber was also sold by the load of 50 cubic feet.

corf: The corf was used in Sheffield for coal trading. The 1862 Report identified 3 different corfs used: a corf of 3 hundredweight, a corf of 1 hundredweight and a corf of 3 to 4 tons.

cubit: A unit of length equal to 18 inches.

dish: At Hyde, butter was sold by the dish of 22 oz.

ell: The ell was a unit of length that was mainly used for measuring the widths of cloth. There were 4 different ells in use in the nineteenth century, namely the English ell, the Scotch ell, the Flemish ell and the French ell. The English ell was 45 inches in length, the Scotch ell was 37 inches in length, the Flemish ell was 27 inches and the French ell was 54 inches.

fathom: The fathom was used for marine navigation. Historically, there were several types of fathom. The 1862 Report mentions three of them: the fathom of man-of-war was 6 feet; of a merchant vessel, 5½ feet; of a fishing-smack, 5 feet.

firkin: A firkin of butter was 56 lb while a firkin of soap was 64 lb.

hand: A unit of length equal to 4 inches.

hobbet: A unit of weight of 120 lb. The hobbet was a multiple and was not the exact imperial standard as prescribed by law. Although it was not recognised by law, it was not illegal at the time of the 1862 Report because it had a certain relationship to the standard, being a multiple, it was not prohibited by law. The hobbet was used for selling wheat, oats and barley in certain places.

hogshead: The hogshead was once used for measuring large volumes of various alcoholic drinks. The hogshead for ale was 54 gallons and the hogshead for wine was 63 gallons.

kilderkin: In the imperial system, 1 kilderkin was equal to 18 gallons.

lase: At Falmouth, the superficial measure of land was the lase of 324 square feet.

last: In the imperial system, 1 last was equal to 2 weys.

load: Wheat was once sold by the load of different sizes; of 5 quarters, of 5 bushels, of 3 bushels, of 488 quarts and of 144 quarts. The load was also used for hay and straw measures. A load of straw was 11 hundredweight 2 quarters 8 lb. A load of old hay was 18 hundredweight. A load of new hay was 19 hundredweight 1 quarter 4 lb.

measure: Yes, there was a unit called a “measure”. This was used for selling wheat and oats. Wheat was sold by the measure of 75 lb in Chester and Wrexham. Oats were sold by the measure of 46 lb in these areas.

military step: A unit of length equal to 2½ feet.

pace: A unit of length equal to 5 feet.

pack: At Holmfirth, flour was sold by the pack of 240 lb.

palm: A unit of length equal to 3 inches.

peck: At Hyde, coal was sold by the peck of 1209 cubic inches. In the imperial system, 1 peck was equal to 2 gallons.

pipe: Every type of wine seemed to have the privilege of its own pipe. A pipe of Madeira was 92 gallons, a pipe of Marsala was 93 gallons, a pipe of Tenerife was 100 gallons, a pipe of port wine was 103 gallons and a pipe of Lisbon was 117 gallons.

puncheon: The puncheon was a large volume measure that was used for alcoholic drinks. Mr Greenhall told the 1862 Committee that “a puncheon of brandy may be from 90 to 100 gallons; a puncheon of rum is from 90 to 100 gallons; and a puncheon of whisky is from 110 to 130 gallons; while a puncheon in our tables of weights and measures is 69 and 73 Imperial gallons.” He continued that it was hard to know whether the old ale gallon, the wine gallon or the Imperial gallon was meant because they all varied.

quart: The quart is 2 pints. The US liquid quart is about 16% smaller than the UK quart. The US also has a dry quart, which is a different volume from the US liquid quart and the UK quart. The UK quart is the same for both dry and liquid measures.

quarter: The quarter itself was an unsettled quantity. When its value was given in pounds weight, it varied from 60 lb to 480 lb. In the imperial system, 1 quarter was equal to 64 gallons.

roll: At Bedale, butter was sold by the roll of 24 oz.

rood: There was a great variety of roods in the nineteenth century, not only of land area but also for linear measures of land. For example, in the Vale of Leven, the linear measure of land was the rood of 36 yards, in Preston, it was the rood of 22½ feet. The rood was also used as a superficial measure of land – of 49 square yards at Burnley and at Preston, of 64 square yards at Stoke-on-Trent, 1210 square yards at Falmouth.

rope: In Preston, the linear measure of land was the rope of 20 feet.

sack: Various sacks were once used, not the large bags in common parlance but used in the context of weight. A sack of flour was 20 stone, a sack of coal was 224 lb, a sack of grower’s wool was 3¼ hundredweight and a sack of dealer’s wool was 240 lb.

score: The score is a measurement unit that appears in the tables of a paper handed to the 1862 Select Committee on Weights and Measures. It is unclear what quantity it represented in these tables.

span: A unit of length equal to 9 inches.

stack: At Swansea, wheat was sold by the stack of 3 bushels.

step: See military step for details.

strike: At Holmfirth, wheat was sold by the strike of 2 pecks. In the imperial system, 1 strike was equal to 2 bushels.

todd: The todd was used for selling wool and flax. At Horsham, these commodities were sold by the todd of 28 lb. However, when wool staplers traded with each other and with manufacturers, they sold by the todd of 30 lb. In such cases, eight 30 lb todds made a pack or sack; but in purchasing wool from growers, 13 todds of 28 lb each made a pack or a sack.

truss: The truss was used for hay and straw measures. A truss could be 36 lb of straw, 56 lb of old hay or 60 lb of new hay.

tub: A tub of 1 hundredweight 1 quarter was used at Downpatrick, and was another term for the bag.

tun: The tun (spelled with a “u”, not an “o”) was used as a unit of volume for alcoholic drinks in the imperial system. In the imperial system, 1 tun was equal to 252 gallons.

wey: The wey was a unit of weight used for wool and cheese. A wey of wool contained 26 cloves of wool or 182 lb. A wey of cheese in Essex contained 32 cloves of cheese or 256 lb but a wey of cheese in suffolk contained 42 cloves of cheese or 336 lb.

winch: At Llandovery, wheat was sold by the winch of 1 Winchester bushel.

windle: At Preston, wheat was sold by the windle of 220 lb.

Few now remember such units and fewer mourn their demise. Clearly, many were still in use in the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the problems that arose from these multiple definitions of units was that it was often unclear which definition was meant when a particular unit was used. This exposes the folly of libertarian arguments that traders and customers should be free to use any measurements they like for transactions. That was what led to a huge variety of units and definitions used for different trades and locations.

As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, there will no doubt be discussion of its significance for the standardisation of measures in England and later in the UK. As with much medieval law, Magna Carta can be seen as recognising a problem rather than implementing a solution. The 1862 report illustrates just how difficult it would be to solve the problem of the multiplicity of measures. Alas, recent governments, unlike the barons in 1215, have often failed to see that there is a problem at all, and that a single, simple and logical system of measures that serves all purposes is almost within our grasp.

Full details about these forgotten units can be found in the full version of the 1862 Report on Weights and Measures, which can be downloaded as a free e-book from:

3 thoughts on “Forgotten British and Irish units”

  1. Illogicality and inconsistency are part of the human condition. Having floated onto this website by chance I was interested to read the many interesting articles and comments.
    From a personal perspective I am happy to be viewed as a romantic, reactionary and ruralist and any other ‘r’ epithet anyone may care to use. I span both the old world of traditional measures, customs, traditions and odd quirks and the super modern world with its drive to standardisation and emphasis on supposed rationality.
    Diversity in measures is to my mind not perceived as muddle and I like many people
    am happy to use and employ both sets of measurements with no particular rhyme or reason.
    Reading A Farmer’s Year by H Rider Haggard brought me here. He was a gentleman farmer in Norfolk farming over 350 acres in Ditchingham and Bedingham. He talks of thrashing some wheat that produced about 25 coomb of grain. There are other references to fanes and baulks, haysel and platers. Vocabulary from a vanished agricultural world but of historical and cultural interest. I must add that that the latter terms have no connection with measurements.


  2. “Diversity in measures is to my mind not perceived as muddle and I like many people
    am happy to use and employ both sets of measurements with no particular rhyme or reason”

    I agree. Each and every one of us should be able to use whatever sets of measurements in our own privates lives that we wish. But a country, a nation, needs a proper, single set of measures that everyone has been taught and which are used in all public settings. There is only one contestant for that set of measures! In fact, the UK is arguably 70% toward that goal of having a single set of measures. But: why are road signs considered to be an exception to the general rule of working towards standard metric units in all areas of life? The DfT has always cited cost as the excuse for not using metric on signs. There is no objection on the grounds of principle. Indeed, most road users have learnt metric at school and have to learn antiquated imperial units if they want to drive a motor vehicle in order to be able to understand the imperial road signs. A sign reading “Exit 500 yards ahead” which is normally placed at 500 metres! Yards on road signs are more often than not actually metres, so why not show them as such? The argument of the cost of conversion of road signs is a red herring. Other (English-speaking) countries have upgraded their road signs (Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, for example) at little real extra cost. It can be done if the will is there. I too grew up in an imperial world and have spent most of my life since then in a metric world. I grew up with shillings and pence too. But you have to stand back and take an objective look at the situation in Britain to see what a mess our governments have left us in on this issue.


  3. @Jake

    It would be trivial for DfT to put decals on all distance signs over a few months at low cost. That would definitely start to shift the public away from “miles” and towards “kilometers” (see Canada and Ireland for good examples of this effect).

    After that transition I think the public would move towards asking the government for (or at least easily being accepting of) a switch of the speed limit signs, which would then be the final nail in the coffin of Imperial in the UK (at long last).


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