In June last year, we published a time line up to 1980 showing progress towards the adoption of a single, simple, logical and coherent measurement system in the British Isles. We now bring this story up to date.
Manufacturing industry, which had been slow to adopt metric measures, now sees its export markets shrink as other countries of the former British Empire complete the metric transition. Although this is not the only factor contributing to Britain’s industrial decline, it is a significant one. Hard hit is the West Midlands, the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
On garage forecourts, pricing per litre is permitted. This had been requested by garage owners to enable an extension of the life of older pumps, many of which are limited to a maximum price of only £1.99 per unit. Equivalent prices per imperial gallon must be shown alongside the price per litre.
The Weights and Measures Act 1985 enables many imperial units to be dropped from use for retail sales by weight or measure. It also redefines the imperial gallon as 4.546 09 litres exactly. It does not cover goods and services sold by description, for example a “32 inch TV” or a “five foot Christmas tree”.
Foreign-owned manufacturing companies see the potential of the UK: located inside the EEC tariff wall, English speaking and possessing a skilled work force and a supply chain that is adapting to metric production. Nissan is among the first to become established, opening a pioneering car production plant in Sunderland.
Honda opens a factory in Swindon to build car engines.
Toyota opens a plant to build cars in Derby and Honda opens one in Swindon.
Metric units are substituted for, or permitted as alternatives to, imperial units in many regulations. As an example, domestic gas consumption can be charged by the kWh instead of by the therm.
The UK Hydrographic Office announces that it is able to provide data in digital format for those charts which show depths in metres.
Boeing cancels its project to build an ultra-high-capacity airliner (UHCA). This creates a gap in the market which is subsequently filled by the Airbus A380.
In July, regulations are laid before Parliament relating to metric units of measurement and their use for weights and measures and price marking purposes.
Retailers of carpets and floor coverings prepare, for the second and final time, to switch to pricing per square metre.
The last pumps at filling stations that are calibrated in gallons are converted to litres or replaced.
The Traffic Signs, Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) 1994 allow but don’t require metric measurements on signs which impose height restrictions.
BMW acquires the Rover Group, including the Mini brand. It later switches production of the Mini from Longbridge to a rebuilt plant and new production line at Cowley, Oxford.
All imperial units cease to be primary measures, except for eleven units when these are used for specific purposes. Many familiar units, including the square foot, square yard, cubic foot, quart and gallon, though still able to be used, are no longer legally authorised.
In pubs, spirits must be served in metric quantities eg 25 mL, 35 mL.
On garage forecourts, equivalent pricing per gallon is no longer obligatory.
Regulations prescribe rational metric sizes for many pre-packed goods.
New gas and water meters show consumption in cubic metres, although some existing gas meters showing cubic feet may well survive until 2020.
Some non-SI units required by international treaties in air, sea and rail transport remain in use without time limit, for example the nautical mile, knot and foot (for altitude).
In July, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) publishes a report, “The adoption of the International System of Units as the primary system of measurement in the UK”.
The British Weights and Measures Association is re-launched “to protect and promote British weights and measures, and to oppose compulsory use of the metric system”.
Supermarkets, butchers, fishmongers, grocers, greengrocers and corner shops complete their preparations for the switch to weighing and pricing in metric.
The therm, fathom, gill and fluid ounce are no longer legally authorised.
Weighing for retail sale of ‘loose goods’, for example fruit, vegetables and cheese, using imperial measures is no longer permitted and metric prices must be displayed. Customers are still able to ask for pounds and ounces, and supplementary pricing in imperial is also allowed, so it is only traders that are affected. A few find difficulty weighing or pricing in metric.
Croydon Tramlink opens with metric speed limit signs.
A group is formed with the aim of removing road signs which it considers fall outside the traffic signs regulations because they show metric measures. It achieves publicity the following year after its founder is convicted of theft and criminal damage when about 40 signs are removed in Kent. The conviction for theft is overturned on appeal after the signs are recovered.
Four traders are convicted under the Weights and Measures Act or the Price Marking Order for failing to weigh goods in metric or to price goods in metric alongside imperial.
The four traders who were convicted in 2001 for failing to weigh or price goods in metric together with one other trader lose their appeal against their convictions.
The TSRGD 2002 allow but do not require metric measurements on signs which impose width restrictions.
The Government say changing road signs would be confusing for drivers who had not received a metric education at school, and use this as a reason for postponement.
The UK Metric Association (UKMA) is formed.
The DTI, the British Standards Institution and the Confederation of British Industry publish the “Final document” and “Implementation annex” of the National Standardisation Strategy Framework (NSSF) – a joint attempt to improve the UK’s economic performance by harmonising standards. UKMA considers that the NSSF misses the point – standards can only be harmonised if everyone uses the same measurement system. Its response, “A very British mess”, is published in 2004.
Driver location signs that complement distance marker posts are introduced experimentally on motorways and major highways.
One of the traders convicted in 2001 dies of a heart attack, becoming anti-metric campaigners’ first ‘metric martyr’.
Over a single week-end in January, the Republic of Ireland completes the metric conversion of its road signs by changing all speed limit signs – distance signs had been converted gradually over the previous decade. For the first time, the UK has a land border with a country that uses a different measurement system on its road traffic signs.
Prescribed quantities are abolished except for alcoholic drinks.
MG Rover Group, formerly British Leyland, goes into administration bringing an end to mass car production by British-owned manufacturers – with MG and the Austin, Morris and Wolseley brands becoming part of China’s SAIC.
The UK Department for Transport (DfT) publishes an estimate of the cost of converting road traffic signs for distance and speed. The estimate for speed limit signs is about 180 times the one prepared in 1970 – ‘gold plating’ is suspected.
UKMA publishes its report, “Metric signs ahead”, on the conversion of road signs, together with its estimate of £80 million (in contrast to the DfT’s £700 million).
In October, the Airbus A380 enters commercial service. Major structural sections of the Airbus are made in France, Germany, Spain and the UK (wings and engines) and then assembled in France.
In November, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link with metric distance and speed limit signs opens from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras International.
Nic Davison is served with an infringement notice for selling draught beer by the litre at his Polish restaurant in Doncaster. He refuses to change, and eventually the case against him is dropped.
The National Weights and Measures Laboratory issues an “Update on metrication”, saying it is “keen to encourage [enforcement] action that is proportionate, consistent and in the public and consumer’s interest.” It adds, “Consistency of units allows customers to make value-for-money comparisons with similar goods on offer.”
Sales of canned and bottled beer exceed those of draught beer for the first time.
The European Parliament approves an amended measurement directive. The UK Government then claim credit for “saving the pint and the mile”.
The DfT sets up the Traffic Signs Policy Review, heralding it as the “the biggest review of British road signs for forty years.” The review runs from September 2008 to May 2011, but does not consider metrication policy and achieves little.
At the end of the year, the acre ceases to be a primary unit.
The use of supplementary indications is permitted indefinitely, as well as the use of six imperial units for specific purposes only:
* the mile, yard, foot and inch for road traffic signs, distance and speed,
* the pint for draught beer and cider, and doorstep milk, and
* the troy ounce for trading in precious metals.
The Traffic Signs (Amendment) Regulations and General Directions 2011 allow optional dual (metric and imperial) triangular signs warning of height or width restrictions, and require the internationally recognised symbol “t” for tonne to be used on new weight limit signs.
Preliminary results of the 2011 census show that a majority of the UK population has been taught using metric measures at school.
The London Olympics raise the profile of metric measures in millions of UK homes.
The Government admit that failure to convert road traffic signs may require changes to the school curriculum. Perhaps it realises that its argument about drivers needing to understand the units used on traffic signs is a two-edged sword.
As with the first part of the time line, we welcome readers’ suggestions for additions and amendments. These will be incorporated and the time line will then be posted on the UKMA web site. The first part including readers’ suggestions has now been uploaded and can be found at the time line page.
The time line shows that the UK’s metric transition falls into three phases:
In the first phase, between 1963 and 1979, there is initially widespread optimism among business leaders and politicians, with planning taking place during the late 1960s and a steady advance on voluntary conversion during the 1970s. But as new areas for voluntary action diminish and it becomes clear that compulsion will be necessary to achieve further progress, politicians’ nerve fails, and the changeover stalls.
In the second phase, between 1979 and 2008, several years of inaction are followed by a flurry of activity from 1992 onwards as the necessary orders are approved by Parliament and some hard work is done. We then see growing public opposition, until in 2008 the politicians again signal a halt.
During current and final phase, whose duration is uncertain, it is likely that the use of imperial units will fade away, as has happened in many other countries around the world, possibly hastened by globalisation, and imperial road traffic signs will be seen as a costly and inconvenient anachronism and a national embarrassment.
In conclusion, we note that the winding down of the imperial system of measures in the UK has now taken longer than the winding down of the Empire that gave it its name!
(Editor: Thank you, Erithacus, for your suggested amendment and correction. These have now been incorporated into the article.)