The 1895 Select Committee on weights and measures

This article looks back to the findings and recommendations of the 1895 Parliamentary Select Committee on weights and measures.

In 1895, a Parliamentary Select Committee, appointed to look into the system of weights and measures, concluded that the time had come for the UK to adopt the metric system. The conclusions of the report and its recommendations appear below. Only the first recommendation was promptly adopted, namely that the metric system should be legalised for all purposes. Implementation of the second recommendation remains on hold, thanks to the tunnel vision of successive ministers of transport over the last 40 years. Happily, in 1974 that teaching of the metric system became the norm in primary schools, achieving the aims of the third recommendation after a delay of only 79 years!

UK Metric Association finds it extraordinary that successive British governments have deferred the decision on a recommendation made by Parliament in the 19th century, when so many subsequent events have demonstrated its validity. Here is what the Committee said:

“THE SELECT COMMITTEE appointed to inquire whether any and what changes in the present system of Weights and Measures should be adopted:-  HAVE considered the matters to them referred, and have agreed to the following REPORT:-

THEY have in the first place received evidence from witnesses representing many different interests, (1) official; (2) commercial; (3) manufacturing; (4) trade; (5) educational; (6) professional.

They have also received from numerous corporations, school boards, and other public bodies, resolutions without exception in favour of the adoption of the metrical system.
Your Committee find that, almost all the witnesses express a strong opinion as to the complicated and unsatisfactory condition of our present weights and measures, and of the distinct and serious drawback to our commerce, especially our foreign trade, which this system entails, differing as it does from the system (metrical) now adopted by every European nation except ourselves and Russia, as well as by far the majority of non-European countries with which this kingdom trades.  The evidence, however, goes further to show that not only is our foreign trade, in every branch, seriously handicapped, but that the home trade would be benefited if more simple and uniform standards of weights and measures than those now existing were adopted.

Moreover strong evidence was brought forward as to the serious loss of time incurred by English school children in having to learn the complicated system of tables of existing weights and measures, and the urgent need of the adoption of a simpler system.  It was stated that no less than one year’s school time would be saved if the metrical system were taught in place of that now in use.

Evidence from competent witnesses proved to the satisfaction of your Committee that a compulsory change from an old and complicated system to the metrical had taken place in Germany, Norway, and Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, and many other European countries without serious opposition or inconvenience.  That this change was carried out in a comparatively short period, and that as soon as the simple character of the new system was understood, it was appreciated by all classes of the population, and no attempt to use the old units or to return to the old system was made.

In the United States, where a system founded on the English units exists, a Commission is at present engaged in an investigation of the same character as that with which your Committee is charged, and the Federal Government has this year passed an Act rendering the metrical system compulsory for pharmaceutical purposes.

Your Committee believes that the adoption of the metrical system by England would greatly tend to render that system universal.

Your Committee recommend:-

a) That the metrical system of weights and measures be at once legalised for all purposes.

b) That after a lapse of two years the metrical system be rendered compulsory by Act of Parliament.

c) That the metrical system of weights and measures be taught in all public elementary schools as a necessary and integral part of arithmetic, and that decimals be introduced at an earlier period of the school curriculum than is the case at present.

1 July 1895”

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26 Responses to The 1895 Select Committee on weights and measures

  1. Ed the Yank says:

    Amazing! What happened to derail the process? "In the United States, where a system founded on the English units exists" - here the system in the US is referred to as English units. Why do some individuals get upset when they are referred to this way? What happened to the coordinated effort?

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  2. Ray says:

    In answer to Ed the Yank, I think someone stood up during the Parliamentary debate and uttered something to the effect: "Do you think a hard working Englishmen is going to ask for 0.5683 litres of beer?". That very comment derailed the entire effort.

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  3. John Steele says:

    @Ed

    Apparently, Congress and Parliament had a coordinated process of ignoring the expert advice they received. For a comparison of what was going on in the US, readers might wish to see the following reports on the USMA "laws" page, http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/laws/
    (near bottom of page, scroll to end)

    *1866 Kasson Report (accompanied the bill which became the Metric Act of 1866 to Congress)
    *1878 Upton Report
    *1906 Alexander Graham Bell address to House committee.
    All recommended broad adoption of the metric system, little happened.

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  4. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Now that is a vision that is as appropriate today in 2013 as it was 118 years ago. I find it interesting that this Committe, even then, postulated on the amount of education time lost in teaching two sets of measurement units, with the figure of one year exactly the same as Richard Phelps of the US stated around 100 years later. I suggested in an article on this website just a few weeks ago (What do Imperial Signs Cost?) that re-introducing imperial units into the British school curriculum today would add four months of additional time over the course of a child's secondary school education, a figure which, considering that a lot of the old imperial units are now disused, seems quite reasonable. Likewise, this Committee also noted the potential loss of international trade incurred by not switching to the metric system, again something that I put some numbers to in the same article.

    Why, when you have high level committees such as this one, commissioned by the government of the day, producing thought out and reasoned arguments, does that same government then ignore (partially or wholly) that same committee? Is it fear of the electorate? Maybe, but governments are (a) supposed to lead, even if that means introducing measures that are needed even if unpopular; and (b) the present UK government seems to have no problem in adding ever new taxes and other measures that they state are necessary if unpopular in today's economic climate. I wish I knew what the real answer was in the failure of the government to complete metrication in the UK.

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  5. philh says:

    I seems to me fairly typical of governments to commission enquiries (at public expense) and then cherry pick the recommendations, or even reject the report outright. This appears to be accepted protocol although I have no idea whether it is really supposed to be that way.

    It might make sense if governments at least took on board the findings of the report even if they draw a different conclusion. If they disagree with the recommendations then governments should properly explain their reasoning and show just cause. At any rate they should not get away with wasting public money by dumping a report just because the outcome proves politically inconvenient.

    To date no politician has given any sensible reason for allowing the UK to drift into to the ludicrous measurement mess we are now in or not trying to put things right.

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  6. Ronnie Cohen says:

    I do not know of any politician in recent times who has publicly acknowledged that there is a measurement mess in the UK. It seems to me that they pretend it does not exist and hope that it will go away.

    This has led to some absurd anomalies. For example, large vehicles use tachographs and speed limiters based on kilometres that are incompatible with our mile-based speed and distance signs. Underground maps and public notices at stations normally use metres but signs at the exits of stations use yards. We have tram systems and some modern rail lines that use kilometre-based speed limits whereas old railway lines use mile-based speed limits. Some distance signs for walkers and pedestrains display miles only, others display kilometres only and others display both. There are private sector metric-only, imperial-only and dual restriction signs and there are imperial-only and dual restriction signs on our roads. This muddle influences the British press where authors mix metric and imperial units in any combination they fancy, doing a disservice to their readers.

    I can go on and on. It is not hard to think of a lot more absurd anomalies. How can any sane person think that the status quo is satisfactory? Politicians have buried their heads in the sand and do not want to do anything about it for fear of upsetting the eurosceptics, Little Englanders, UKIP, the vocal anti-metric lobby and their cheerleaders in the populist tabloid papers. When will our political leaders find the courage to admit that this sorry state of affairs is unacceptable and do something about it?

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  7. John Frewen-Lord says:

    There may be more progress than we realise, or are conditioned to presume. Yesterday, the BBC ran an article on the new method of calculating air fares by a Samoan airline, based on your weight, or mass. As with many such articles, logged-in readers were invited to submit their comments.

    I would have to say that I was agreeably astonished to find that by far the majority of commenters thought of, and knew, their weight in kilograms. Out of the nearly 500 comments, of which probably half referred specifically to the measurement of their weight, no more than a handful used the archaic and preculiarly British unit of stones. The use of the kilogram (admittedly incoreectly referred to in some cases as K.G., kgs, etc) was almost universal. Not all is rosy in the garden however - all those using kilograms also referred to their height in feet and inches. Oh well, at least some progress is being made.

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  8. Cliff says:

    The following is an email I wrote to Andrew Percy MP in response to an article he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper on metric measurements
    Sent: 17 April 2013 13:37
    Mr Percy,
    I have just read an article that you wrote for the Telegraph newspaper which was published on the ninth of January, 2013. The smugness in that article is palpable.
    Of course everybody in Britain is confronted by a speedometer in miles. As you said yourself road traffic regulations make it illegal for speed limits, distances and exit signs on roads to be anything else. The government sees to it that there is no choice.
    This catch-22 situation is reminiscent of the infamous dictation test used by the government of Australia to restrict the type of people allowed to settle there in the first half of the twentieth century. The preference was for fair skinned immigrants so a test was devised to keep out those with darker skin without appearing to be racist to the outside world. Prospective settlers had to be literate in the English language. A government official would dictate a passage in a European language and the prospective immigrant would have to write in down in English. The government didn't have to stipulate which European language would be read out so someone from Malta, for example, would be given the test in Dutch. One person who spoke several languages was given the test in Gaelic. Nobody ever passed the test.
    Metric measurements, unlike imperial measurements are actually part of a system, meaning a series of connecting things that make up a whole like the links in a chain. If one link is broken the chain doesn't exist. The ridiculous way that metric measurements were introduced into Britain in a piecemeal fashion rather than as components of a system means the strength of the system was never fully realised. Having 1609 metres in a mile makes as little sense as having 1760 yards. Millions of pounds have been wasted on the process of change and it has achieved nothing but confusion. Various governments since 1965 have merely skimmed the surface of change instead of doing the job properly. Little wonder that the public have rejected it.
    You say that confusion over keeping two systems of measurement hasn't done the country a great deal of harm. Confusion is never good and has done the country a great deal of harm. One standard system of measurement is necessary to avoid misinterpretation and disagreements in trade and science. Even the Magna Carta called for one system of measurement throughout the realm.
    In the 1980s I had the task of analising bids for components used in the construction of oil platforms. It was clearly stated in the instructions to bidders that all information was to be in SI units. British and Continental manufactures were invited but the British manufactures arrogantly gave information only in imperial and consequently lost out to companies in Scandanavia and the Netherlands.
    It is a waste of time teaching children redundant information that is used by just 5% of the world's population. It would be far better to spend the time and money on increasing public awareness, doing the job properly and completing the changeover that began in 1965.
    Your reference to metric zealots linked to pro European fanaticism pushing metrication is unashamed jingostism designed to appeal to the ignorant, not unlike the anti-semitic propaganda in German newspapers before the second world war. It's true that the metric system was devised by eminent European scientists such as John Wilkins, James Watt and William Thomson (Baron Kelvin) but it's not only used in Europe. It's used throughout the world because it's superior to the archaic measurements that preceded it.
    The fact that the EU gave up on trying to make the UK see sense is very bad news for the UK but good news for competitors everywhere who now have the unfair advantage of a common working numerical language.
    Unlike you, Mr percy, I didn't have the advantage of having a metric education. I'm 64 years old and had the misfortune of being taught in imperial. The goverment in 1965 promised that the UK would be a metric country but reneged on their promise. Nevertheless I think of and describe my height in centimetres and my weight in kilograms because it makes more sense to compare my own statistics with everything around me if I use the same units. Like having one key to open many doors instead of seperate keys for each. The fact that your pupils used imperial measurements to design the half-pipe in the skate park is a tragic consequence of the confusion in the UK caused by two methods of measurement rather than the ascendancy of imperial measurements.
    I used to vote Conservative. I now realise that the core values of conservatism are to preserve the past above all and not look to the future. I now realise that it's a lazy and unimaginative creed and want nothing more to do with it.

    The puerile reply from Andrew Percy MP:
    This was very amusing to read as it started off with a critique of my smugness only to go to patronise in both a smug and personal way. Anyway, I am assured that the vast majority of folk in this great country support my view and not your view. You only have to ask a kid his height and you will see which measure people prefer.
    Can’t chat though as I need to head off home. I live about 200 miles away and hope to get there in a few hours going at an average speed of about 60mph. My car does about 35 miles to the gallon and when I arrive home I will probably first go to Tesco and pick up one of their 4 pint milk bottles and if I have time pop to my village pub for a quick pint before last orders. Oops, was all that in imperial. Oh dear!
    Sorry if this was a smug reply but I prefer to treat like with like.
    Tatty bye and kindest regards,
    Andrew

    People like Mr Percy are in charge of the country.
    Be very afraid.

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  9. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @Cliff:

    You too have been given the appalling and insulting treatment by Mr Percy. I too have received many such replies to my emails to him (and some replies were actually abusive in the extent of their personal insults to me). Nonetheless, I was actually winning the arguments against him when he blocked all further emails from me. None so blind, etc.

    As you say, he is arrogant, sarcastic and very insulting to anyone who has the temerity to question his stance. He will not even engage in any kind of rational argument, but resorts to the kind of email you have received. Very sad for the future of this country.

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  10. Jake says:

    For an elected Member of Parliament to write to the public the way Mr Andrew Percy has done is surely grounds for a complaint to his constituency party office. An MP does not have to agree with everything the public request but the public do deserve the courtesy of a proper reply; they are paying his salary, after all. Please consider.

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  11. Paul Sweet says:

    Mr Andrew Percy is a Member of Parliament and he gives such a childishly flippant and insulting reply to Cliff's email which itself was written in answer to an article on metric weights and measures he had written. Andrew Percy clearly takes any form of criticism very personally. Regardless of Percy's views on the metric-imperial debate, I would seriously question the competence and psychological fitness of someone like him to be in a position of authority. He seems far too emotionally sensitive, childishly egocentric, and just too immature to be a Member of Parliament. If Mr Andrew Percy MP is representative or typical of British Members of Parliament, Cliff is 100 per cent right, be very afraid.

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  12. gary sear says:

    To be honest his reply is a disgrace, a 5 year old could give a more grown up response. If I was Chris I would complain to the party leader himself.

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  13. gary sear says:

    I meant Cliff, my apologies.

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  14. philh says:

    As I am not a member of the constituency of Andrew Percy MP I cannot write to him directly but should he ever get to read this discussion thread I have this to say in response to his original article in the Telegraph:

    1. The two systems muddle that the great British public now find themselves in has been caused by the mismanagement of the changeover by successive governments since 1965, not because they deliberately chose it.

    2. The persistence of two incompatible sets of measurement units alongside each other is a recipe for mistakes, incomprehension and accidents.

    3. A proper answer to this unsatisfactory state of affairs is to complete the changeover decisively and as soon as practicable, not burden future generations indefinitely with having to learn difficult and unncessary conversions, instead of the clean and simple application of a well designed system they have been taught in school.

    4. As someone strongly in favour of completing metrication in the UK I consider Britian's relationship with the EU an entirely separate matter. There is an international dimension certainly but it concerns doing business with the world as a whole not just Europe.

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  15. IanR says:

    @Cliff:

    I enjoyed reading your very well written response and it's clearly wasted on an MP of such low intelligence. Although educated in the seventies, I was fortunate to be taught solely in SI units but saw examples of how much more difficult engineering calculations were in the bad old days .

    I too have noticed that the Tories are strongly anti-metric but what choice do the long-suffering British public have? Labour had years to sort out this mess and I can just imagine what the UKIP view must be!

    Here in Scotland I am hoping the SNP-led Scottish government might commit to switching the road signs to metric if they win the independence vote in the forthcoming referendum. They may just be clever enough to realise that it would be worth the small cost to present a modern, forward-thinking image to the UK and the rest of the world. I have written to the relevant minister but still await a reply. Their response might just affect the way I vote.

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  16. Ray says:

    Phil:

    1.) There was no mismanagement of the changeover by successive governments since 1965. What you have witnessed is the in result of the infiltration into key government posts of anti-metric saboteurs. People like Andrew Percy who are bound and determined to undermine to the best of their ability any further metrication or its completion. Their goal is to reverse any metrication that has taken place.

    2.) The metric opponents don't care. In their view if the country returned to full imperial, the duality problem wouldn't exist either.

    3.) In order for this to happen, metric opponents holding key decision making positions need to be replaced by metric supporters.

    4.) Metric opponents are under the false belief they can do business with the US and prosper. They don't care about Europe nor the world. They would rather spite their face by cutting off their nose than give one millimetre to the completion of metrication.

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  17. Penelope says:

    I have just discovered this little gem on the web.
    Andrew Percy's response to the Vice President of the U.S. Metric Association who dared to criticise the article written by Mr Percy in The Telegraph newspaper.
    -----------------------------------------------------------
    http://www.mail-archive.com/usma@colostate.edu/msg41188.html
    ------------------------------------------------------------
    Hello there,

    Imperial measurements are not going to be replaced on UK roads, not now, not
    tomorrow and not any time soon. Nor are we going to allow the sale of beer in
    litres.

    As such children must learn both. Why do you want to endanger road users and
    put children at risk by not having them learn the ONLY legal measure on our
    roads. Seems a bit backwards and ignorant of you.

    Regards
    Andrew Percy.
    Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange
    -------------------------------------------------
    Is this the response of a rational person?

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  18. philh says:

    Ray,

    I don't think it is as simple as that.

    The mismanagement by success governments I referred to is the mistaken belief that metrication can proceed gradually on a purely voluntary basis and that the road signs change will or may be mandated by popular demand eventually. From their actions it would seem that they thought the younger generation would do it for them once they were educated in metric.

    The anti-metrication lobby mostly developed later on and it is bound up with Euroscepticism. They didn't create the present situation they are just exploiting it for reasons that have nothing really to do with measurement.

    I don't expect to convert the likes of Andrew Percy to our way of thinking entirely but we can at least point out that to them that they don't have to be anti-metrication in order to be Eurosceptic, and that by pursuing that line they only damage their credibility with irrational arguments.

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  19. Michael Glass says:

    From the correspondence reported here, Andrew Percy is not going to take any steps towards metrication. However, he might appreciate the extra safety for the public in providing bridge and tunnel heights and widths in metres in addition to feet and inches.

    His stand against metrication is well known. Therefore his support for this simple safety measure could be crucial in moving the Transport Department to bring forward this simple reform. Of course the cry would go up that this was an expense that could not be borne in these straitened times. However, the reduction in bridge strikes could be enough to result in a saving money from this small change in policy.

    If he accepts this simple proposal he could present it as a common sense and conservative way of increasing public safety. However, if he rejects this simple proposal, it would leave him open to the charge of letting ideology and false economy stand in the way of increased public safety,

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  20. Weights: Grains and drams, ounces and pounds, stones and tons. The basic unit of weight in the British system is the grain - originally based on the weight of a grain of barley (but note that money was based on the grain of wheat - and that three grains of barley weigh the same as four of wheat). This grain is the troy grain - there is no other weight of the same name. The weight of one grain is constant throughout the many different systems of British weights. As you will see below, the ounce and pound are anything but contstant, but have altered to meet circumstances over a period of over a thousand years. The avoirdupois pound is the pound in general use today. As its name implies, it was intended to be used for weighing heavy goods. This pound is of 7000 grains, and is split into 16 ounces (each, therefore of 437.5 grains). Each ounce is divided into 16 drams (which my calculator makes of 27.34375 grains each - much more fun than metric isn't it?).

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  21. Ray says:

    Phil,

    There is no mistaken belief in government circles that metrication can proceed gradually. The metric opponents who have managed to be elected or appointed to key positions in government see it as their goal not only to stop metrication in its tracks but to make concerted attempts to reverse metrication. Perfect example is the plan to reintroduce imperial teaching in the schools.

    If these opponents get their way, they will see to it that all young people are taught imperial as the primary system and grow up hating metric as they do. Euro-skepticism may just be an excuse or a trick to gain support by claiming the Europeans forced metrication on the UK. If Europe used imperial, the attitude towards Europe would be drastically different. Metric opponents hate Europe because Europe is seen as a major metric supporter and the primary reason metric has spread around the world and displaced all historical systems including imperial.

    It isn't surprising the metrication opposition came out in force at the time of scale conversion. Their quiet efforts in the past didn't stop it. They were at the end of the line and if they didn't become more vocal they would have seen the road signs converted by now. Road sign metrication is the last major area to change. As long as the signs stay imperial metric opposers see hope in a total reversion to metrication.

    The main problem for metric supporters is that they are usually associated with higher educated professionals who only care that their world is metric and they prosper from it. It is up to the non-elites to move forward on their own, not for others to show them the way. If the elites came forwarded and proclaimed to the others that a working knowledge of metric and a positive attitude for it are necessary for prosperity in the working world, maybe, just maybe the non-elite masses would listen. One would have to be a fool not to take the advice of prosperous people.

    [Ray, see response below. - Editor]

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  22. Ray says:

    Michael,

    No matter how much we may wish it, an imperial zealot is totally blinded to any metric benefits and would come forth with their own propaganda that shows using imperial only is more safe.

    The only way to bring about a change in attitude towards metrication in government is to remove from office any and all metric opponents and replace them with metric supporters. Pleading with opponents to see the light is a waste of effort, energy and time. You might as well argue with the wall.

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  23. Erithacus says:

    @Ray

    While you make some valid points you are clearly not aware of the early history of metrication in the UK. Phil is right that the politicians and civil servants in the Wilson and Heath governments in the 1960s and 70s believed (or pretended to believe) that metrication could be achieved gradually and voluntarily. The 1972 White Paper is a good example of official thinking at that time. You can read about it in "A very British mess" on the UKMA website (www.ukma.org.uk).

    As far as the current crop of politicians are concerned, I doubt whether there are many fanatical opponents of metrication in important positions. I suspect they are aware that it is a bit of a mess, but don't realise that it matters, and/or are afraid that tackling the problem will lose votes. The challenge is to convince them that it DOES matter and that it doesn't register as an electoral issue.

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  24. Wild Bill says:

    I don't know what protocols might cover this, but is there any parliamentary policy on how much the wishes of previous parliaments are to be respected at later dates? If so, Michael Gove's plan (*) to increase teaching of imperial measures flies in the face of the parliamentary decision made in 1970/71 when the planned change of our roadsigns was shelved.

    As I recall it, the sentiment was "we'll change the roadsigns when the majority of the public have been educated in metric measures". Well, obviously that time has come, or Michael Gove wouldn't have had to say what he said. But he's suggesting "fixing" the problem the wrong way about according to the parliament of the 1970's whose specific attitude was to change the roadsigns.

    If it can be pointed-out to Gove and his supporters that the (Tory) government of 1970 fully expected that in the future (i.e. now) no-one would understand the roadsigns and that they should be changed to metric at that point, then maybe - just maybe - we might see some progress.

    (*) I notice that I've heard nothing of Gove's plan for imperial education since the first word of it broke.... His own department were in furious back-pedalling mode even on the first day trying to say that existing amounts of imperial education were deemed enough and that it wouldn't result in visible changes to the curriculum.

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  25. Ray says:

    http://www.ourcivilisation.com/weight/

    This is the attitude of the metric opposer, linking metrication to the EU and imperial to British culture. The article is 14 years old but the mentality hasn't changed.

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  26. Ray says:

    Erithacus,

    I am very aware of the history of metrication dating to the 1960s. There was no pretense to believe that metrication can be achieved gradually. There was opposition to metrication from traditionalist from the beginning, doing whatever they could to sabotage any metrication efforts.

    A metric opponent holding a government office would definitely voice objections to metrication and give the illusion that the change has to be voluntary. The Commonwealth on the other hand was not handicapped by opponents clinging to a culture of empire and thus were able to silence any resistance and achieve full metrication that is benefiting these countries to this day.

    Opponents don't have to be fanatical. Opponents come in all different forms. We are only aware of the more vocal opposition but the silent majority are just as dangerous.

    The only way the less vocal opposition is going to come to realize they are on the losing side is when they continue to see metric supporters living prosperous lives that they can only dream of. When they apply for work and are tested on how well they can measure in metric and fail the test and are not hired.

    Industry is not a charity and doesn't owe anyone a living. It is up to the working class to acquire the skills needed to find gainful employment and a working knowledge of metric is one of the most important tools.

    [Ray, I think all I can say is that the facts do not really bear the interpretation you put on them. Others may judge for themselves. - Erithacus]

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