There has been an exchange of views on Facebook recently about alterations to signs in Southend-on-Sea carried out by “activists” over a decade ago. This has provided an opportunity for Metric Views to restate the legal position and to discuss other related issues.
In around 2002, “Imperial vigilantes” covered 32 circular signs on Southend Promenade showing distances every 500 metres with labels in miles and furlongs. Their activities are the subject of a recent discussion on the Active Resistance to Metrication facebook page: http://tinyurl.com/od7konz
The original signs with metric distances did not conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD), but would have been authorised under Town Planning legislation. Readers may not be aware that the Town and Country Planning (Control of advertisements) Regulations are neutral on measurement units: historical, Imperial, metric – all can be permitted. However, the TSRGD permit only miles, yards, feet, inches and, in limited circumstances, metres. There is no mention of furlongs.
The legal position is set out here: Advice on when metric signs are legal
But in addition to the Regulations, there are surely other matters to take into account when providing signage. For example, competitive cyclists and those of us who followed either the Tour de France during its successful visit to Britain last year or the Olympics in 2012 will know that cycling events are measured, both speed and distance, in metric. For hobby runners, 5 km and 10 km are both popular distances, known as “5k” and 10k”. For walkers, a favourite map is the Ordnance Survey (OS) Landranger series at a scale of 1:50000, or 2 cm to 1 km. And if you wish to pin point your position anywhere, not just on on Southend Promenade, you might use the OS kilometre-based National Grid, adopted in 1940.
The law, cyclists, runners, walkers. All were given scant consideration by the Southend “vigilantes”.
So what might be the aim of the “vigilantes” in re-introducing the people of Southend to the furlong, which, although it lives on in literature and on racecourses, ceased to be legally authorised in 1978? Indeed, what is a furlong?
The furlong is about 200 metres (or exactly 201.168 m). The name furlong derives from the Old English words furh (furrow) and lang (long). Dating back at least to early Anglo-Saxon times, it originally referred to the length of the furrow in one acre of a ploughed open field (a medieval communal field which was divided into strips). The system of long furrows arose because turning a team of oxen pulling a heavy plough was difficult.
And the acre? Imagine a rectangle one furlong by a tenth of a furlong, and that is an acre. Which takes us to Gunter’s chain, introduced in 1620 and a tenth of a furlong or about 20 metres long. The chain is divided into 100 links of 7.92 inches. A square link is exactly one hundred-thousandth of an acre and one ten-thousandth of one square chain.
Gunter’s chain reconciled two seemingly incompatible systems: the traditional English land measurements, based on the pole and the number 4, and the newly introduced system of decimals based on the number 10. Since an acre measured 10 square chains in Gunter’s system, the entire process of land measurement could be computed in decimalised chains and links, and then converted to acres by dividing the results by 10. A welcome simplification in the days when sums were done by hand.
Well, perhaps the people of Southend will welcome that information. On the other hand, they might find it easier to remember that a furlong is about 200 metres and that an acre is about 4000 square metres.