Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t

Britain adopted the metric system in 1965.


How well has it worked? In 2015, 60% of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds didn’t know their weight in kilos; 54% didn’t know their height in centiwhatsits or in a combination of centiwhatsits and full-grown whatsits. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the slightly older group, twenty-five- to thirty-nine-year-olds, did better in both categories. After that, it went downhill.

For measuring short distances and for cooking, the number of people who use the metric system goes up. For long distances, though, people measure in miles. Well, why wouldn’t they? British roads are measured in miles,so folks drive in miles, regardless of how they measure walls.

All this–or the data part of it anyway–is from a YouGov poll. No one can say YouGov dodges the important issues. The poll also reports that the middle class is more likely to use metric measurements for short distances and for cooking than the working class is.

From this I gather that the upper class is too good to take surveys.

Irrelevant photo: A rose. By any other name.

Most people you’ll find on hanging around on any random street corner on any random day won’t be frothing at the mouth about this, but you’ll find pro- and anti-metric advocacy groups and they do manage to keep themselves worked up enough to function. One anti- group argues for the inherent logic of feet and inches because the foot divides so neatly into quarters. So let’s take the argument seriously enough to look at how this eminently sensible system developed.

England emerged from the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages with a rich collection of measurements. Here’s a quick and highly incomplete survey. The data’s mostly from the Britannica and the link covers only a few bits of it. I could turn the whole post blue with Britannica links but one will get you into the general vicinity. You can to explore from there if you want it all.

The furlong started out as the length of a plowed furrow–a distance that would have varied from place to place and field to field. 

The rod varied from nine to twenty-eight feet and was sometimes called a perch or a pole.

An acre was the area that a yoke of oxen pulling a wooden plow could plow in one day. Predictably enough, that varied too.

The foot was initially based on the human foot–which you may have noticed isn’t a standard size. That’s why they don’t make one-size-fits-all shoes.

The mile was based on a Roman measurement, the mille passus, which was a thousand paces as measured by your average Roman legionary, who by the Middle Ages wasn’t around to measure it anymore so they had to settle for your average English peasant. Or possibly your average English aristocrat, who would have been better fed and probably taller, with a longer stride.

And here we’ll abandon boldface type so I can rearrange my sentences a bit.

In 1500 (or thereabouts, since we’re using imprescise measures), the old London mile measured eight furlongs, or 5,000 feet. How big was a foot just then? Funny you should ask. They were using the Germanic foot, which was bigger than the foot England adopted a little later, under Elizabeth, which meant the mile changed to 5,280 feet.

I don’t know what went into the decision to change it. Maybe Liz had small feet.

The Irish mile was 6,720 feet and the Scottish mile was 5,952 feet.

Meanwhile, Cornwall was working with a whole different set of measurements. The mile was 16,694.32194 feet, or a bit over three of I’m not sure who else’s miles–probably the ones we use today. The Cornish bushel was three Winchester bushels, or 18 gallons, and used for barley, wheat, and potatoes.

The what bushel? The Winchester bushel was a royal standard, named after the capital of tenth-century England, where Edgar the Peaceable kept a royal bushel to measure other bushels against. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale: If your bushel was too small, you’d have to find your way out of a subterranean labyrinth with only a potato to guide you –and the potato hadn’t made it to England from the Americas yet.

Edgar is also notable for having divorced an Elfleda to marry an Elfrida.

Winchester is not in Cornwall and Cornwall was an independent country in Edgar’s time. The Winchester bushel is just a point of reference–a rare standard measurement in an unstandardized time.

The Cornish apple gallon was seven pounds, although a plain old gallon was ten pounds. The Cornish pound was eighteen ounces but that seems to have applied only if you were measuring butter.

The warp was four fish. The burn was twenty-one fish. The mease was five hundred and five herrings. A knight’s fee was four Cornish acres.

Let’s cross the Tamar–that’s the river that forms Cornwall’s border–before we get too dizzy to find our way.

In 1215, the Magna Carta called for standard measurements with the desperate-sounding phrase “let there be one measure.” It wasn’t one of its more effective clauses. No one was around to enforce it, and over the years various gestures were made in the direction of standardization. Let’s review a random few of them:

In the sixteenth century, the rod was defined as the length of the left feet of sixteen men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church. That was easiest to measure on a Sunday unless you wanted to assemble and choreograph the crowd yourself.

No, I don’t know why it had to be the left feet. Or leaving a church. Do feet change size during church services? 

That was–I suppose we should have guessed this–meant as a way to memorize the length of the rod, not as a standard for it. I probably shouldn’t include it as a gesture toward standardization, but it’s too good to leave out.

In 1668, John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, was still calling for standardized measurements and added that units should increase by a factor of ten and create some simple relationship between length and volume. He was accused of being a spy for the European Union and since it didn’t exist yet he was banished into the far future, where he went on to lead a pro-metric organization.

In 1707, England celebrated its union with Scotland by imposing the English measuring system on Scotland. If Scotland didn’t vote, then and there, to join the European Union, the Euro, and the metric system, it was only because none of them had been created yet. It’s one of those lost opportunities that history’s so full of.

But enough. Let’s talk about Imperial measures.

The British Imperial System was created by a law passed in 1824 and again in 1878, which may speak to the effectiveness of the first one. Anything before 1824 was an English unit, and anything after was an Imperial unit. The Imperial gallon now held the same amount whether it was full of wine, ale, wheat, or dog sick. The yard and the pound were standardized. The rod and the chaldron (you measured coal with that) were abolished. So was lining up heel to toe after church.

The system was eminently sensible: A pound weighed a pound. A stone weighed fourteen pounds. A hundredweight weighed a hundred and twelve pounds–and still does. Please don’t ask me to explain that.

The U.S., just to be difficult, adopted most of the same measurements but gave them different values, ensuring that no conversation would be understood the same way if the participants came from opposite sides of the Atlantic. This leaves us with not just a ton but a short ton and a long ton, a short hundredweight (which, unfathomably, weighs a hundred pound) and a long hundredweight.

But we’re not done with the Imperial System: It kept the troy pound (240 pennyweight) and the avoirdupois pound (16 ounces or 7,000 grains). And of course, apothecaries’ weights.

The troy pound is used for precious metals and jewels. Apothecaries’ weights are a version of troy weights but not quite the same. Because why should you have one pound when you can have three?

I could go on–grains, drams, scruples, gills, minims–but let’s stop.

The point is that any fool can memorize this between the morning’s first sip of tea and the second one, before the caffeine has even had time to kick in. It’s simple: You have 16 ounces to the pound, 16 drams to the ounce, and 27.344 grains to the dram.

Of course, that’s only for the avoirdupois pound. Troy pounds have 12 ounces to the pound, 20 pennyweight to the ounce, and 24 grains to the pennyweight.

We’ll leave apothecaries’ pounds alone. That’s where you get into scruples. I have a few of those left, but like all apothecaries’ measurements they’re very small.

Skip forward, then, to the twentieth century, when the metric system was sneaking into Britain by way of scientists and businesspeople. One group liked to have measurement-related conversations with colleagues from countries that already used the metric system and the other group exported to those countries. Both thought it’d be simpler if they could use a system any fool could understand. Assorted committees and politicians talked about introducing the metric system but then looked down the barrel of history, heritage, and the tabloid newspapers and lost their nerve.

Until 1965, when the government announced a ten-year program during which the country would shift over voluntarily. Goals were set. Measures were recalibrated. Change was encouraged. Eventually, Britain would shift to the metric system and everyone would be happy.

This wasn’t simple. You had hard metrication, where the size of standard objects changed. You had soft metrication, where the object stayed the same but was measured in a new language. And you had viagra metrication, where the user needed a bit of help to toggle between soft and hard metrication.

Service stations changed over more or less by accident. Petrol (or gas, if you speak American) pumps were built to switch between liters and gallons so they could continue working in gallons for the time being, but that only worked when the price was under £1.999 per gallon. Above that level, they spoke metric and only metric. So when the oil prices went up, the industry threw its hands in the air and asked to be switched over so they wouldn’t have to pay for new pumps.

Many things changed and some didn’t, and no one could have predicted which would fall on which side of the divide: Road distances and speeds are still measured in miles and yards. Land is measured in acres. In pubs, cider and beer on tap (or draught if you speak British) are still sold in imperial units, but wine, whiskey, rum, and all their friends and relations are sold in metric units. Which makes perfect sense to a country that invented the gill, the scruple, and the minim. 

And even though Britain still sells petrol (or gas) by the liter, it measures fuel efficiency in miles per gallon. 

British politics and trade became more deeply integrated into Europe and a deadline was set for Britain to go metric. But by 1979, metrication had stalled. Polls were taken and people didn’t seem happy. Britain asked for a later date for the shift to the metric system. Then it asked for a later date than that.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who was the not-happiest of all? Why, the retail industry was the not-happiest of all, and eventually the postponements came to an end. That’s when a group of market traders got themselves arrested for boycotting the metric system. They weighed their produce on scales that used only the Imperial System and posted their prices only in pounds and ounces. When they were arrested, they called themselves the Metric Martyrs, and they were convicted and lost their appeals all the way to the House of Lords (which didn’t want to hear about it) and the European Court of Human Rights, which didn’t think using the Imperial System was a human right.

The original court case considered precedent all the way back to the Magna Carta, so let’s dredge up the full quote from the M.C. instead of the shortened form I quoted earlier. In true micro-managing form, it said, “Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely ‘the London quarter’; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.”

An ell is a measure used only for cloth. Russet in this context isn’t a color, it’s a kind of cloth–one common people wore. No one knows quite what halberget is, which seems appropriate. Listing the various kinds of cloth gives me the impression that they not only didn’t measure distance the same way they measured cloth, they didn’t measure any two kinds of cloth the same way.

The defeat of the Metric Martyrs brought Britain fully into its current  ideal and semi-metric chaos.

155 thoughts on “Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t

  1. Lol! I remember when it all changed over in 1971. Unfortunately I still only understand stones not kilos and miles not kilometres. I’ve gradually figured out Centigrade from Fahrenheit though. Great post!


  2. Pingback: A Recommended Post on Another Blog (but you have to suffer some of mine to get to it, unless you simply scroll past it) – O4FS

  3. I did try to reblog this earlier and it wouldn’t play so I wrote a post and linked to it instead.
    Now I’ve come back to explain that it didn’t work, it does. Must have been something in the conversion.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I shared this on Facebook. I don’t think most people are aware of the origins of basic units of weights and measures, and this is a richly detailed source of that information!

    I know my weight in kilos, but not pounds. Once, when being prepared for a medical procedure, I was asked my weight. “I don’t know how many pounds I weigh,” I told the nurse, “but I know how many kilos.” She was happy to hear that because she usually had to convert pounds to kilos for her records! (I get weighed for a different medical procedure, and the scale measures in kilos.)

    Given a choice, I’d live in a fully metric world. Though there are the dangers of moving the decimal point too far or not far enough, there’s a lot less memorization and math involved in its use.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The most annoying thing is, even in a room full of engineers, you get such statements as “it is 6 meters by 3 inches” or some such thing.

    *I know my height in cm and my weight in kg (well roughly my weight i haven’t weighed myself recently) and I am 43…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Like most things about this country, it’s as clear as mud, isn’t it? But we’re a traditional bunch, and trying to take away our pint as a measure was doomed to failure. Another for your collection: the chain. This dates back to the 16th century, and began life as a surveyor’s measure. It comprises four of your rods, poles and perches, which makes it 22 yards. Nowadays, I think its only real use is as the measurement of the length of a cricket pitch, which for you probably opens up a whole new ball game.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Oh sweet bleeding man -on -two -planks-of -wood! I’ve lived through two , yes, TWO currency
    changes (well, three, if you count being in NZ when Australia was first off the blocks) and it is never easy. When I lived in London and spent the summer in a villa in Italy I had no problem asking my Italian butcher for 200gramme macinata
    But I struggled ti come to grips with the conversion in England.This may, or may not, help

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I was taught both versions in school (I’m 35 this year, so I’m talking late 1980s in to early 1990s). I’m one of those annoying people – and it’s annoying to me too – who uses a different version, depending on what I’m measuring. For example: when I’m baking I use lbs and ounces, but when I’m weighing myself (or one of the furkids) I use kilos and grams. I wish I’d just been taught one version. Then maybe I could stick to one version properly.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Always was confusing for me and even more so now that I’ve read this! I’ve heard thru the years how we here in the US are way behind the times for not using the metric system and maybe we are, I don’t know. I learned just enough metric in nursing school to do what I needed to figure out medicine dosages but that’s all. I just did a search and if the info is up to date then only 3 countries don’t use metric: US, Liberia, and Myanmar.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Canada went metric in 1976 – I was twenty. I’ve managed to adjust to distance, more or less – because I worked in the engineering department at the telephone company – it was all about meters of telephone wire. I’m a weather nut, so I’ve got Celsius down, too. Except for using the oven. The dials on the cookers are still imperial in Canada. Weird, eh? But weight? Nope, I’m sticking to the imperial measures and avoiding the bathroom scales at all costs, anyway.

    If I had to delve into British weights and measures, or god forbid, currency? I think my head would explode.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When Canada switched to metric we completely forgot how to talk in imperial measurements. Which has made it difficult to talk to our American neighbours especially about the weather. Metric is so much easier. I still need to get out a calculator when British people talk about weight in stones. Is it 7 pounds or 14 pounds per stone and what is that in metric? They must do this on purpose to confuse the rest of us and we never really know how much they weigh. (which isn’t any of our business anyway!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • If Canada was using the British version of imperial measures, it’s probably just as well you can’t talk to your neighbors about anything other than the weather, since the US and British pint (and tablespoon, and almost everything else) aren’t actually the same measurements, even if they have the same name. At least this way you know you’re not communicating.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Ellen, this was fabulous. Only you could make this topic such fun. I write all my recipes with measurements to please everyone on the planet, with cups, ounces and grams, fluid ounces and millilitres, etc. The one thing that irritates me is the money–I’m still mourning the loss of shillings, etc. I don’t seem to be getting over that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d have come unglued if I had to figure out shillings and farthings and whatsings and guineas and pigeons and–. No, I’ve left the coinage behind somewhere, haven’t I?

      I tried converting a recipe from metric to imperial (or the other way around–I can’t remember) and decided that it just wasn’t possible. It’s reassuring to know that someone can do it.


  13. I became in favor of the metric when taking chemistry in college. All the chemicals came in quarts, etc and the formulas were in metric.

    Change the road signs and baseball parks to measure in metric.

    Thanks for the information. Not sure how I will use it but it is good to know. It comes up in crossword puzzles sometimes, for one thing. I have started working them to delay any onset of dementia. I dementia a metric term?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. According to my Mum, a yard used to be the distance between (left) shoulder and (right) fingertip, hence the drapers were very fond of employing short armed women.
    I can use either metric or imperial depending in what I’m measuring, how big it is and who the information will be shared with. But I’m grateful not to have to do accounting with pre-decimal currency, my 12 x table was never that great. Temperature for some reason I can only do in Celsius (except when cooking!).

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I had no clue about some of the origins of measurements. It’s fascinating and makes you wonder at the precision that had to be achieved with the advent of machinery and factories. Standardization! It takes me back to school…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. When I was in grade school in the 1950s we were told America would soon be switching to the metric system, so we learned a bit of it. When I retired from teaching in 1999 we were still dabbling in it in math class. All this time I believed that the US of A was the only backwards country in the developed world, Since it seems we now ARE that, it’s a relief to know we do not still have the metric system on our to-do list.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s entirely possible that they tried to teach us a bit of the metric system when I was in grade school but that I took in as little of it as I did of the multiplication tables. (I know the twos, fives, and tens. After that, it’s patchy.) But I remember reading, in either the sixties or seventies, that we’d switch over. And, um, yeah, predictions are hard. Especially–as someone or other said–about the future.


    • I’ll have to take your word for that, but it does at least use freezing as a dividing line between positive and negative, which places it someplace real instead of random.

      Having said that, my body thinks in Fahrenheit and won’t discuss changes. Some things you can take in, some you can’t. I can approve of the system even while I can’t completely adapt.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. I think I’d better wait for the new season of Poldark to see if they spend much time talking about their measurements. Actually, I wonder what system Poldark would use to measure something important to him. You know, like the distance he gallops his horse at the beginning of every episode. Or whatever.
    Most informative, but I’m sure I need remedial work.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Another Canadian here. I was about 20 when we changed to metric, so I’m sort of OK in both systems. BUT in the grocery store, produce is priced in pounds, but bulk items (like nuts) and seafood by the 100 grams. That makes these items seem cheaper, until you multiply the price by 10 and are appalled that almonds cost $30 per kilo. And here’s a personal weirdness: our house is old and had a thermostat in degrees F. We’ve since switched to a programmable digital thermostat, but chose degrees F when we were programming it. So I think of indoor temperature in Fahrenheit (65 is our winter time setting), but outdoor temperature in Celsius. Twenty-three degrees is a perfect summer day. I actually have to do a calculation or Google to find out that 65F = 18.3C. I think this tells you that the brain is a wonderful and mysterious thing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I get caught by that 100 grams trick too. I wouldn’t blame it on the metric system so much as on the stores. It’s like that old trick of pricing something at $14.99 because it sounds so much cheaper thand $15.

      And my body refuses to think in centigrade, indoors or out. It won’t even discuss the issue. You’ve at least gotten halfway there.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I always wondered why the USA did not favour going ‘modern’ with metric. I think it’s a miracle any of us survived pound, shillings and pence in maths at school – perhaps that’s why everyone adapted to metric money – or because there was no choice…

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Are we (US) the only country using Fahrenheit, for temperature? the only thing that switched over here was alcohol. Do they make bathroom scales that are calibrated in stones? It might be nice to step on and see such a low number.

    Liked by 2 people

    • According the WikiWhatsia, “Fahrenheit is used in the United States, its territories and associated states (all served by the U.S. National Weather Service), as well as the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and Liberia for everyday applications.” So no, but we don’t have a whole lot of company.

      The scale we bought when we moved here can be set to either kilos or pounds. (It’s digital.) Kilos’ will also give you a nice low number, but since it didn’t mean anything to me I set it for pounds. By now, I’ve forgotten how to set it back, so even if I want to make the switch (I don’t), I’m stuck. I’ve seen older ones that work in stones and pounds, but there may be some newer ones that do the same. I haven’t made a full survey.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The amazing thing is that they managed to construct castles and cathedrals in the absence of standardized measurements–although I’m sure each locality, or possibly each project, would’ve had a set of standardized measures they could use to make sure the east wall and the west wall were the same length. Not to mention the same height. But if a carpenter moved from one area, or one country, to another, it all changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. I remember when Canada “switched over” to the metric system, and I put that in quotation marks because it’s the same here. Metric is really only used in anything to do with driving–pretty much everything else is still referred to in Imperial terms, like height, weight, baking measurements, and so on. I’m still trying to figure out how long it will be before no one knows anything but metric–maybe once we start using the metric clock:-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Funny, because new recipes in Britain are metric. It’s only the old ones that aren’t. It’s amazing how hard it is to change something like this. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like if one of the English-speaking countries had gone ahead and radically simplified its spelling, as some serious campaigns wanted them all to? I don’t mean just the moderate changes the U.S. made in its early days, when spelling was still a bit fluid. I mean root and branch simplification. It would’ve been wild.

      That’s not to say it would necessarily be a bad idea–I could argue both sides of it. But it would’ve been messy.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Pingback: Reblog: Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t — Notes from the U.K. – Journey to life

  23. Ellen, this post was great! I love your wittiness with words! I don’t know-how in the world I ever got out of Math classes, but I remember being confused when I was being taught the metric system. Thanks for sharing with us and linking up to the #GATHERINGOFFRIENDSLINKPARTY 2 pinning and sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Loved this, I give my height in ft and inches, weight in stones and lbs, drive using miles and know the markers on the motorway are 300, 200 and 100 yards but I’m not sure what a yard is I just know to indicate if I’m coming off the motorway then. Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As an earlier comment mentioned, a lot of people learned the yard by measuring cloth from one shoulder to the opposite outstretched hand. I’m short, so my motorway exit is closer than (presumably) yours.

      Okay, I can find a more standardized way to measure it, but the is the way I learned a physical sense of the yard.

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Pingback: Inspire Me Monday Linky Party #237 | Mostly Blogging

  26. Many years ago, when I was in school, the US decided that we should go metric (at least Michigan did), So we spent a couple of years learning how to convert the measurements. They said it would only be painful during the conversion. Once everything was metric, life would be good. We never got to metric, so I don’t know if they were telling the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In a sense, yes they were. Once you start measuring metrically, you set inches and all their friends and relations aside. You only need to convert things you absolutely refuse to change. Knowing the rainfall in millimeters is useless to me–I don’t instinctively know what they really mean the way I do with inches. Sadly, the rain here falls metrically, so I give myself a very rough translation, but if I stopped I’m sure I’d get used to metric rainfall.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Pingback: What the world wants to know about Britain, part 18-ish | Notes from the U.K.

  28. I felt all superior a while back when I learned that there are two ‘standard feet’ still used in the USA (they’re almost, but not quite, the same length). You’ve reminded me that Brits are also members of the species homo fatuus brutus. Thank you for the humbling experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, hell, you’re right. As a species, we’re completely insane. And to make it even sillier, the basic measurement by which they define the two different feet is the meter–which the US refuses to recognize because it’s a communist plot.

      I always did hear the nobody’s feet are exactly the same size.

      Liked by 1 person

Talk to me

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.