When consulting a reference book from 1896, we came across an article about imperial measures which provides a timely reminder that, even in its heyday, this ‘system’ was not as straightforward as some would now have us believe.
English measures accumulated over two millennia. Successive invasions from continental Europe – Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans – made significant contributions to the mix, but trade specialisation, sectional interest and poor communications in Britain and Ireland also added to the muddle. By the time of the industrial revolution, the system of measures was no longer fit for purpose and rationalisation was long overdue.
The Weights & Measures Act of 1824 was intended to put matters right. Nevertheless, some historians consider it to be a case of ‘tidying up’ the statute books and removing arcane laws rather than radically changing the multiplicity of customary weights and measures used throughout the country. Indeed, the 1824 Act expressly stated that “it shall [be] lawful [to] buy and sell goods and merchandize (sic) by any weights or measures established either by local custom or founded on special Agreement” provided their exact relation to the ‘standard’ units defined by the Act was generally known. The report of the Select Committee in 1862 (see our article), illustrated some of the unfortunate consequences of this approach.
A further example is provided by Mr Balch’s “Ready Reference”*, published in 1896, which has this entry on measures of capacity:
4 gills…………..1 pint
2 pints ………..1 quart
4 quarts………1 gallon
10 gallons……1 anker
18 gallons…….1 runlet
42 gallons…….1 tierce
2 tierces.……..1 puncheon
1½ tierces…..1 hogshead or 63 gallons
2 hogsheads…1 pipe or butt
2 pipes ………..1 ton (sic)
Ale and beer measure
2 pints…………..1 quart
4 quarts……..…1 gallon
9 gallons……….1 firkin
2 firkins….…….1 kilderkin
2 kilderkins……1 barrel
3 kilderkins……1 hogshead or 54 gallons
2 hogsheads….1 butt
Ten pounds Avoirdupois of distilled water, weighed in air with the barometer at 30°, and the thermometer at 62°F, will fill 277.274 cubic inches, or measure 1 gallon; and from the knowledge of this fact, the standard of our measures of capacity can be obtained, should it at any time be lost or injured.”
Simple, rational and coherent it is not, although it would have been reassuring for the Victorians to know that the standard measure of capacity could be replaced if lost or injured!
There are those who now suggest that schools should venture back into this scrapyard. Fine, if it is seen as part of the history curriculum. There is much material there that can be dusted off, examined and form the subject of history project work. But it certainly does not belong in the maths syllabus. As was pointed out in the 1960’s, emphasis in primary schools on conversions and relationships that have no logical basis is just as likely to put kids off maths as it is to improve their arithmetical skills.
A minister at the Department for Education has promised that a draft for full public consultation will be published before any changes occur to the curriculum. UKMA will of course respond.
* “Ready Reference. The Universal Cyclopaedia. Containing everything that everybody wants to know” by William Ralston Balch, published by Griffith Farran Browne & Co, 1896.