Remembering a tenacious campaigner

It is with sadness we report that Anne Attlee, leader of the Metric Sense Campaign for almost forty years, passed away peacefully at the age of 87 on 31 May 2018.

Anne’s involvement in Britain’s metric conversion began almost by chance. It was in 1964, when she was 33, that her husband’s business took him to Brussels, and the family quickly followed. During the two years she was there, Anne realised that Britain too would benefit from having a single, simple and logical measurement system, and this passion stayed with her for the rest of her life.

During the 1970s, as the UK’s metric changeover was gathering pace, Anne concluded that a focus on multiples of 1000 that had served so well, for example, the construction industry perhaps might not be to everyone’s taste, and ‘Metric Sense’ was born.

Her campaign quickly made its mark, as this extract from Hansard of a speech by Joyce Quinn, a pro-metric MP, on the 11 April 1989 shows:

“I refer the Minister to the interesting work carried out by Lady Attlee and the metric sense campaign. Lady Attlee feels that the way in which metrication is used in Britain at present and the way in which we have introduced systeme internationale measurements has increased the confusion and made metrication less user-friendly or consumer-friendly than it ought to be. She made the point that very often millimetres are used to quote a size which would be much easier to understand if it were expressed in metres and centimetres. For example, the standard size of a bath is apparently given as 1,700 millimetres, while it seems to me and to the metric sense campaign that 1 m 70 cm would be a more reasonable way of expressing the size.

I hope that the Government will examine the suggestions from the metric sense campaign in trying to present the metrication that we already have in a way that is helpful and not confusing to consumers. That would make necessary changes easier to achieve.”

(Incidentally, the record of this debate illustrates the problems of ignorance and prejudice then faced by Anne, some of which are with us still.)

Anne was also an adviser to the National Federation of Consumer Groups, and succeeded in making her voice heard there, as shown by this extract from a summary of the changeover situation prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry in 1995:

“7.3 The National Federation of Consumer Groups and the Metric Sense Campaign consider that the UK fails to use metric in everyday life because practices in the UK are not as user-friendly as those in other European countries.”

By 2002, the gloves had come off in the battle of the measurement systems. Anne joined the UK Metric Association and frequently attended its AGM and Annual Conference while continuing to promote Metric Sense.

A recent article on Metric Views, posted less than three weeks before her death, shows that the issue that was the focus of the Metric Sense Campaign is with us still:


But today, now that over 60% of the UK population of school age and above has been educated using metric measures, we can be more relaxed about the matter. Whilst many of us may not be as familiar with metric measures as we should be, we are no longer intimidated by them. Perhaps metric sense is prevailing.

And if not, we may wish to emulate Anne, of whom it was said, “She did not hesitate from asking questions in areas where many feared to tread.”

12 thoughts on “Remembering a tenacious campaigner”

  1. So sad that Lady Attlee did not see complete metrication in the UK in her lifetime.
    But that day will surely come.
    And these words are still true today: “Keep calm and carry on.”


  2. I can see where Anne’s cause originated. Living in Belgium for a time, exposed her to the habits of Belgium where centimetres and mixed units and prefixes are encountered. This was familiar to her as repackaged feet and inches. This is obvious from her desire to have 1700 mm expressed as 1 m 70 cm, instead of either 170 cm or 1.70 m. Either of the correct forms would be fine, but never the form she chose.

    I believe it may have been and still is a common practice in French speaking countries to replace the decimal marker with the unit symbol, such as 1 m 70. Practices like these are not coherent with SI practice and must be abolished. They are nothing more than holdovers from previous unit collections.

    It needs to be repeated as often as possible to where it sinks in, but SI has no rules on units or numbers used and allows the user or industry to choose how they apply the units in their chosen field. If the industry uses millimetres internally, they can use centimetres externally if it shortens the number a bit. But, the rules for the use of units and prefixes must be adhered to. No mixing allowed.

    But, there needs to be a common sense approach to this and that means, no decimal parts. A dimension of say 23.6 cm must either be expresses as 236 mm or 24 cm. The numbers must be kept whole, round and simple. There must be no break up of the units into metres and centimetres in the same way feet and inches are used.

    Metric sense for the consumers is a wonderful but it has to be within the framework and rules of SI.



  3. @Daniel Jackson

    Excellent post on metric usage, Daniel. Thank you.

    (Editor. I agree. Thanks again.)


  4. It’s sad that lady Attlee didn’t see metrication completed in Britain, just to think she was the same age as I am now when she started her campaign, I pray that if I get to same age as she is now in the future we won’t be having this debate still.


  5. Sadly, I can confirm that the form “1 m 70” (or whatever the actual height) is how the Belgian federal police describe the height of missing persons, though without the spaces, so “1m70”. That’s no better than with the spaces, but I suppose the reader would read it the way they would speak it: “un mètre septante”. Another example of “colloquial metric”, I personally think, rather than a throwback to measures used two hundred or so years ago, but still wrong of course. In French (and German and Dutch), you do tend to state your height as ” x metre xx” rather than “one seventy” or “170 cm” as you probably would in English.


  6. This form of using multipliers is very common in electronics, particularly on circuit diagrams and components where space is limited, multipliers could be anything and confusion is best avoided.
    For resistors such as 10R8 (10.8 ?), 6k8,1M2 and capacitors 6µ8. Personally I rather like the system and will be a controversial enough to say I prefer it and it is common in my personal writing.
    What should be avoided at all costs is the form in the subject ‘1 m 70 cm’ as that is a double unit and plain wrong. The problem with 1m70, which I also use, is that it can only be used in limited places where context is not in doubt (an in a persons height).


  7. Thanks Ezra for the compliment.


    It is one thing is casual speech to say one metre seventy, it is another thing to write it that way. However a unit is spoken the written must always conform to the rules. Kilometres are often spoken as “kays” but never should it be written as “a 5 K race”. Always write it as 5 km.

    As far as I knew, the Germans never used centimetres for height, always sticking to metres and their height would be expressed as “eins komma siebzig Meter” and is always written as 1,70 m. But, the way spoken may be regional. Those closest to the French speaking countries may have absorbed the French speaking habits.

    The rules of SI don’t regulate speech, but they do regulate what is written and what is written is very important.

    Here is how the Germans write it:

    Here is how it is done in Italian:

    How to express height and weight in English (lecture to students learning English):

    Good thing the person giving the lecture is from Canada and not the US and is using the metric system to explain. I didn’t play the whole thing, so I don’t know if he used imperial later on. If he did I’m sure it would be confusing to any student who has no desire to learn imperial or USC as there is no need to.


  8. Daniel Jackson:

    Thanks for those useful links. My point was not that those colloquialisms are correct, merely that they are used and that people understand them. I have only ever heard Americans refer to kilometres as ‘kays’, and I believe that the practice is particularly prevalent among the military. As for the 5 k or 5 K race is concerned, yes, of course it is wrong, but all the runners understand it and it is surely preferable in context to pre-metric units. It’s a bit like learning to write: get the children to start writing, then make sure their spelling is correct. Get everyone using metric in all aspects of life, then worry about absolutely correct usage.


  9. I met and spoke to Anne on a few occasions and found her a very charming lady. She well deserves the respect for her contributions to the cause of metrication. She was quite right to draw attention to the poor use of metric units in the UK and the tendency to alienate it out of ignorance.

    I am proud to have known her.


  10. @Daniel Jackson:

    IMO, it is not productive to direct opprobrium at people who end up writing, e.g., 1m70 when very often that is how it reads off a cloth/ fibreglass/ metal measuring tape. It isn’t [strict] SI, but it is metric of a kind! Instead, pressure the tape manufacturers who could easily nudge correct practice by replacing the ‘m’ with (large?) decimal markers. Similarly, the use of centimetres-to-one-decimal-place instead of millimetres when that is what usually appears on rules. Be grateful people aren’t writing triple (or more) units such as 1 m 70 cm 5 mm 😧.

    In some countries, they even have the temerity to write unmetric times like 12h34 when they don’t mean hundredths of an hour 🤦‍♂.


    BS 1852 had codified this notation (for electronics) by 1967 and even obviated imperial fans’ mixed-case-and-Greek labelling tantrums. This might not have stopped them bellyaching about metric anyway for a further fifty years, but at least it hasn’t inspired them to promulgate steampunk imperial electrical units in their place…


  11. Mark,

    If people are taught to read a tape measure correctly and are taught the writing rules of SI correctly, they don’t need to modify the measuring tapes or rulers. No matter how the tape is made, one can learn to read it correctly. The errors are directly a result of improper training.


  12. @Daniel Jackson:

    You are correct, but it is a bit like King Cnut failing to hold back the tide and his advisors blaming all the poorly trained water molecules. Pragmatically, it is more efficacious to improve the markings (one for OIML?) than change the ways of end-users who are mostly just doing what comes naturally in a confounding environment. There can’t be more than a couple of hundred people at any one time who are designing length measuring tools and presumably most of them aren’t deliberately wanting their products to be unintuitive to use, apart from a few metric-haters who will be optimising theirs for USA customary only. So it ought to be a quick and easy sell, which IMO would make more Metric Sense than campaigning for/ against [archaic-mimicking] double units and requires less esoteric knowledge to be taught.

    If you go down the path of criticising individuals (or even just the teachers); firstly, you’ll barely scratch the surface and never completely succeed in reeducating the world population in a timely manner—secondly, the educationally subnormal need all the help you can give them in terms of straightforward instruments and teaching, etc., immediately—thirdly, those you do reach are just as likely to resent the intervention and keep writing measurements wrongly out of spite—fourthly, you’re still left with ubiquitous non-enabling measuring tapes in the wild and would have to continually rely on ‘encouragement’ forever. But if you praise those who currently get it right, they shall probably carry on doing so and might start passing this onto others without further input—although it could still take too long to snowball into the desired outcome.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: