Malta is one of four EU countries which, within living memory, did not have metric as their primary system of measures. A recent holiday in Malta prompted a look at its transition to the metric system from traditional measures.
The principle that “there be one measure” is not unique to England post Magna Carta. It was adopted, for example, by the Ottoman Empire, by the Kingdom of Great Britain created by the Act of Union in 1707, when Scotland was required to adopt English measures, by the USA, whose Constitution allocates responsibility for weights and measures to the Federal Government, and by the EEC which legislated in the 1960’s for the use of metric measures – the system common to all its members at that time. The impact on potential new members should have been minimal – all were already metric or, in the case of Cyprus, Malta, the Republic of Ireland and the UK, already planning the transition.
The UK’s prolonged and continuing story of its adoption of metric measures has been covered by recent posts on Metric Views. We also reported on Cyprus in June 2008, and on the Republic of Ireland in June 2012.
A recent holiday in Malta and Gozo has enabled us to complete the picture. But do not expect a long article, for during a week on the islands, we found no example of the use, present or past, of Imperial measures (that is, if you overlook the consequences of globalisation such as tyre and TV screen sizes).
The situation in Malta is not straightforward since the traditional measures in the islands date back to Arab rule in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The “Weights and Measures Ordinance” of 1921 established uniformity in the conversion of these traditional measures. All were defined as multiples of Imperial units.
It is difficult to ascertain when the transition to metric in Malta began in earnest. It achieved independence in 1964 and adopted decimal currency in 1972, around the same time as the UK. A Berlitz guide book, published in 1980, says “metric weights and measures are familiar to young people (taught in schools), but far less so to many people over 35.” Accordingly, it seems likely that the Malta commenced metrication in the mid-sixties, at about the same time as the UK. Whatever the start date, the practical completion date is clearly long gone.
As you would expect, there is plenty of evidence of the former British administration, which lasted from 1800 until 1964. Cast iron pillar boxes and the iconic phone boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott are common, traffic drives on the left, electrical sockets are 13 amp square pin and, despite air temperatures in the thirties, the drains in Valletta did not smell!
However, the famous yellow Malta buses have largely disappeared. The Lonely Planet Guide of 2013 says:
“Big yellow buses
Malta’s old buses were a tourist attraction in themselves. … They were run as independent businesses by their drivers … You will spot the occasional old bus on the road: the classic Bedfords, Thames, Leylands and AECs dating from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, painted yellow, white and orange …”
This year, we saw none of the old yellow buses but many representatives of the new fleet of the Arriva Malta Bus system. This comprises 172 buses from the Chinese King Long Company and a few articulated vehicles from Mercedes.
Regular readers of Metric Views are unlikely to be surprised by the disappearance of either of these Imperial icons, the measurement units or British buses.