43 years late

One of the editors of Metric Views has been reading a book entitled “Eleven minutes late” by Matthew Engel. The book is subtitled “A train journey into the soul of Britain”, and may provide a clue to why the UK is taking so long to adopt fully a modern measurement system.

In the first chapter of the book, Mr Engel refers to the closures of railway lines in Britain in the 1960’s:

“ … in utter contrast to the 1830s when railways were the epitome of modernity, the railways were now seen as its antithesis.”

But then he notes a change in mood:

“The 1970s saw a swing back to more traditional British values ie a misty-eyed nostalgia. Country cottages, which previously could hardly be given away, became more desirable than new homes. The modern British arcadian dream took shape: living in a cottage (always ‘with roses round the door’) close to an oak-beamed pub selling real ale, and cricket on the green. And the vanished branch lines and steam trains became an important part of the make-believe idyll. The railways were no more popular than they ever had been but they now had a fixed place in the landscape of the imagination.”

Mr Engel points out that running preserved railways became a particularly British pastime. He writes:

“By 2008, the European Federation of Museum and Tourist Railways (Fedecrail) included 102 passenger-carrying preserved railways in Britain and Ireland among its members. In the rest of Europe combined, there were 117. Its meetings were said to be totally dominated by the British.”

He also observes:

“The Thomas the Tank Engine books were modestly popular in my childhood in the 1950s, rather went out of fashion in the Beeching era of the 1960s before returning with a vengeance to become a publishing and marketing phenomenon.”

Britain’s metric changeover started in earnest in 1965. Four years later, the UK Metrication Board began its first report, entitled “Going metric: first five years 1965-69”, with the words “Britain will be a metric country before 1975”.

1975 came and went with much work still to be done on the changeover. In 1978, the Government, perhaps influenced by national feelings of misty-eyed nostalgia, put off fixing cut-off dates for the metric changeover in key sectors of the UK economy. And after a general election in 1979, the pretence of carrying out a planned changeover was abandoned. When it came to measurements, many dreamed of drinking pints of real ale in country pubs and watching cricket on pitches umpteen yards long.

The country’s railways have come a long way since the 1970s. But misty-eyed nostalgia still appears to influence many British people and politicians when it comes to the matter of measurement units. Can this be sustained in a “global Britain” in the 21st century? It looks as if we shall have to wait and see.

10 thoughts on “43 years late”

  1. All hope may not be lost. Just when you think the other side has won the war and it is the darkest hour, the sun finally pokes through. I posted this to under another topic, but I think it belongs here:


    This article in the Daily Wail is meant to be anti-metric , but the author points out that people are using metric units freely without being told to. There may be a nostalgia for old trains but not for old measuring units. Read the article and see if you don’t get the same feeling I’m getting.

    The author is literally upset because people in the UK are freely choosing to use metric measures even when they don’t have to and this bothers him. Maybe in 2001 there was a strong pro-imperial bias in the shops, but 20 years later the people are freely choosing to do business in the metric system.

    His own words of lament:

    “But as with so many other aspects of our lives, they were destroyed with slow subtlety and cunning, and resistance is left to a few eccentrics, such as I am, fuming hopelessly against a loss nobody else can see.”

    These fuming eccentrics may hope there is a reversal of attitude come Brexit, but a Brexit with no deals (and there shouldn’t be any – Brexit means Brexit) with any country, not just the EU, will prove economically disastrous for the UK economy. The supporters of Brexit, mostly older people will bear the wrath of the younger generations, who support both remain and metrication.

    The battle is just beginning.


  2. From yesterday’s “Metro” free newspaper:
    “The BBC dealt a body blow to its TV rivals as political thriller Bodyguard pulled in twice as many viewers as Vanity Fair on Sunday night.
    (Bodyguard) attracted 6.6 million viewers, compared to the 2.9 million tuning into the lavish period drama’s debut.”
    Bodyguard is set in the 21st century, Vanity Fair in the nineteenth. So there could be hope for modernisers.


  3. … BTW, what units does/would/could Doctor Who preferably use, in the original British TV series…? That would set the mile-… ooops, kilometre-stone (well, only on Earth and similar planets: elsewhere, greater prefixes would probably be needed), for the present and the future…! 🙂 Really, Doctor Who being almost a popular British institution (and thus potentially stimulating the “other”, a little too lazy, “real” (?) institutions)… perhaps could very well contribute to finally complete the metric switchover – anyway, why not…? 🙂 Maybe…


  4. Nostalgia for the past could be the main reason why road signs have not yet been converted to metric in the UK.

    The Imperial road signs might also be the reason I hear far too often on the BBC World Service a British reporter speaking in a metric country about something that took place “xxx miles ” from the capital city or some such.

    Why “miles” when the information about the event surely came from a local news outlet or government office that provided the information in “kilometers”? The reporter had to have converted the metric distance to Imperial on his/her own with no objection from a BBC editor.

    I can only chalk this up to the persistence of Imperial road signs in the UK. As experience in both Canada and Ireland have shown, once the road signs get converted to metric, the population quickly converts to metric distances quite naturally.

    Let’s hope a new government (Labour?) comes along soon enough that will be open to converting road signs (maybe as part of an “international Britain” campaign?).


  5. Ezra:

    I agree with what you say about the BBC World Service reporters’ use of ‘miles’ to describe distances in totally metric countries (which is most of the world, of course). I think it is ingrained. Many of these reporters work for national BBC as well as the World Service and on national BBC the rule is, I believe, to give distances in miles to domestic audiences. It’s probably a question of training. Britons are so conditioned to converting in their head that many of us become quite good at it. Reporters are the same. They need to be told that if they want to reach out to a world audience, they should use the measurement units used by the wider world and not the parochial ones used in the UK. To me, the practice also smacks of colonialism, us imposing our values on others. Your idea about an ‘International Britain’ is right, but I don’t believe this to be a party political issue. As with other major nationals issues such as our switch to decimal currency, or our relationship with our European trading partners, what is needed is cross-party consensus. Perhaps the old country needs some new political parties.


  6. @Esra, Jake
    This is one point that comes up often, overseas reporters, or reporters overseas, giving distances in miles or yards when almost every country in the world, including our own, uses metric.
    Is it just habit, or something more sinister? As Jake suggests, the practice does indeed smack of colonialism. Certainly it shows a total disrespect for the host country which we can be sure does not go unnoticed. We need no reminding that UK is officially a metric country, and as such I feel international media has a duty to reflect that in its broadcasts.


  7. They did it again (meaning the BBC World Service). A BBC reporter from Australia talked about how a fugitive was arrested “10 miles” off the coast of some island near Papula New Guinea.

    “World” service? Really? And the reporter was in Australia. He surely got the news from the authorities in “kilometres”.

    Yet another unfortunate knock-on effect from the persistence of Imperial units on road signs. 😦


  8. Ezra,

    Since it was “off the coast” are you sure he wasn’t referring to nautical miles? With a nautical mile being 1852 m exactly, this makes the distance 18.5 km. The real disservice would be if the nautical prefix was dropped and the assumption is that the land mile is meant. This would result in a 2.5 km error in location.


  9. Daniel Jackson@:

    Yes, I have heard “nautical miles” used when referring to distances on the ocean. However, in this instance the reporter simply used the term “miles”.

    Ironically, while the World Service on the radio used Imperial units, the same story on the BBC News web site used “km” all by itself.

    Another round of “muddle”, anyone?


  10. Ezra,

    In your latest comment on the “Use of the kilometre in the UK” article I pointed out why a reporter for the BBC uses imperial. So as not to repeat it here, go their and read my response if you haven’t already.

    Yes, it is a muddle, and the people who use imperial do so deliberately and will never stop. It’s done on purpose and you aren’t going to stop it, so no need in worrying about it.


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