Bats in the belfry

During the BBC programme “Bells on Sunday”, one of our readers noted that an unfamiliar unit was used to denote the weight of a bell.

He wrote to the BBC as follows:

“Bells on Sunday.  I’m a keen listener, however I do NOT like the continued reference to the weight of bells in hundredweights [cwt].   

Some might wrongly consider me to be an old person who is familiar with ancient units!  The BBC, by continuing to use hundredweights is NOT helping the vast majority of the population who during their school education were taught to use metric units.   As far as I’m aware cwt/hundredweight doesn’t appear in any school subject exam syllabus and curriculum material in use today nor in many of the more recent past decades.  

Cwt/hundredweights should therefore be archived – forgotten about – and bell weights ONLY expressed in kilograms.  The BBC response to this complaint might say it caters for a minority of people who are familiar with the hundredweight. However by doing this it fails in its role to educate the majority and provide meaningful information for those who do know weights in metric.”

The BBC replied:

“Thank you for contacting us about BBC Radio 4’s Bells on Sunday.

We note you are unhappy at the programme using the unit hundredweights to refer to the bells throughout the programme.

We reviewed this with the team at BBC Radio 4 who stated that as bell ringers themselves continue to use hundredweights, they find it practical to include that measurement, as many campanologists appreciate it.

However, they recently quoted both metric tonnes and also hundredweights in the Queen Camel Church broadcast, due to them being a unusually heavy rural ring of 6 bells.

Whilst we hope the above sheds some light as to why the programme refers to hundredweights, we acknowledge you may continue to feel different about this use of measurement in the broadcast. In the meantime, we have ensured both BBC Radio 4 management and the team behind Bells on Sunday are aware of your concerns via our audience feedback report.

These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the BBC and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly.

Thank you again for contacting us.”

The imperial hundredweight referred to above is 112 pounds or around 51 kg. Metric Views wonders what units are used in the USA to describe a bell: pounds or perhaps the US hundredweight (100 pounds or around 45 kg).


9 thoughts on “Bats in the belfry”

  1. In the US they would use exclusively pounds. They use pounds for everything, you almost never hear them referring to tons. In any case, in America a hundredweight is, literally and logically, 100 lbs…
    Many American equivalents to the British Imperial system changed almost the minute Europeans landed in North America. An American gallon is 8 not 10lbs, a pint being a pound of water, or 16 fluid ounces instead of our 20 fluid ounces. They must have felt this was a more logical use of such measurements.
    But what about the vast number of other Europeans that landed there? In the 17th and 18th centuries, metric measurements would not have been common in many parts of Europe, their own local units being what arrived in North America. There was some crossover in volume of things like Barrels, Bushels and the like, although even the actual amount that was in a barrel – and this wasn’t even standardised in England until quite late on, at 36 gallons, likewise a Hogshead at 54 m – until quite late in the day. Often measurements were based on the amount one strong man could carry. Either by weight, or by volume. Hence a certain certain amount of crossover.
    Just thought I would chip in!
    Bob.

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  2. Bye – responding more directly to the question of bells and hundredweight – originally, bells would’ve been cast to be a certain weight, and then been fettled to produce the right note. Since hundredweights were used in the construction of these magnificent articles, I think that’s the right answer to the question of – why use hundredweight instead of kilograms? Because it is historical. In the UK we still have the mile, based on the thousand double paces a Roman centurion would make in a day. Rather like the acre – one furlong by one chain – and the barrel and the bushel, it’s more about capacity, either literal, or eg the capacity of an average horse to plough how much land in one day before becoming too tired to do more!
    It all makes perfect sense, and to give random numbers of kilograms to what are used to be a standardised situation only makes sense if we are going to standardise everything in the world. And the poorer place it would be for that. Of course, I agree that use of metric measurement for everything to do within international cooperation seriously matters – every time. But anyone who doesn’t derive a certain amount of enjoyment when looking at imperial measurements, and how they were arrived at, maybe they are the poorer for it. Just saying…

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  3. I can’t say I get any enjoyment from units that have no meaning to me, especially when it’s very inconvenient to look up the conversion ratio and get out my calculator (perhaps because I’m listening to the radio whilst driving somewhere). I’m in my fifties and was born and brought up in the UK, but had no idea how big is a “hundredweight” until I read this article. So what if it is historical? Suppose, for example, the Wikipedia article on the Great Pyramid at Giza described it as being “280 Egyptian Royal cubits high by 440 cubits long at each of the four sides of its base” and left it at that, with no conversion to modern units? There are very few people who would have any idea how big it is from the units that would have been used for its construction. By all means quote the original units used if that is thought to be worthwhile, but then convert them into something most people understand.

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  4. Bob, I take an interest in weights and measures as you clearly do. But the old measures should best be viewed in the context of their time and preferably in a museum or a book on the subject. There is little point in telling the public on national radio or television what the weight is of a bell in a unit that is not a legal measurement and is not taught at school. It’s meaningless to most of the audience. The legal measures of the land should be used for that, with perhaps a reference to what the weight was in ‘old money’, if necessary. I agree with you that these weights are of historical interest, but they are not relevant in life today other than in an historical context.

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  5. Bob Phillips,
    You are quite wrong on the US Customary Units (USC). They didn’t come from European immigrants, they came from British colonists. These are the units that were used in England before the imperial reform in 1824, a reform the Americans refused to adopt.
    The US gallon is the British Queen Anne wine gallon of 231 cubic inches ( 3.785 L) and is not pound based. The pint is not a pound of water. A pint is 473 mL and a pound of water 454 mL. 1 fluid ounce (~29.57 mL) does not equal one dry ounce (~28.35 mL).
    The vast majority of Europeans who landed there just adopted the American units as they learned English. Some units were close to their historical units and the Europeans were use to the fact that their historical units were not standardised and varied all over the place. They just got use to one more variation and moved on.
    I don’t understand what you mean by saying a hogshead is 54 m.

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  6. This is poor reporting on the part of the BBC. When a reporter and/or editor encounter an obscure group that clings to units of the past, it is up to the BBC and other news services to translate those units into units that are standard for the country in the present as well as being the units used in education. In addition, not only for the country, but for the world-wide audience that has no historical connection to obscure units.
    It is OK to mention that that the bells were made prior to metrication and were built based on hundredweights and even give a brief explanation of the hundredweight, even to mention that it varied with time and location. But that is the extent of it and to move on to grams with a suitable prefix. No one is going to bother to learn these ancient units and the use of them can become such a turn off the viewer may cease to continue to watch the program and refrain from watching future programs.

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  7. On the following important website about campanology in the UK :
    https://www.bellringing.org/bells/
    when referring to the weight of bells there is NO mention of hundredweights.
    ‘ The average tenor weight is 510kg, although they can weigh up to 4,200kg.’
    +=+=+=
    Campanology is a niche hobby.
    This BBC programme is not solely for the followers of that hobby but for the whole country.

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  8. If the manufacturer of a bell stated that its weight was so many hundredweights, stones and pounds, I am quite happy to quote that unit followed by the metric equivalent in brackets. I tried to find price lists for modern British bell manufacturers, but failed. I did however find a price list for an Indian bell manufacturer – prices for bespoke bells were in rupees per kilogram. I found a paper on the cost of 17th Century Dutch church bells during the ages – the cost was quoted in stuivers per pound. (See http://www.beiaarden.nl/public/artikel/prijsklok.pdf – in Dutch). The pound was different from city to city – Ghent: 434 grams, Brabant: 469 grams; Amsterdam: 494 grams etc. Their 19th century analysis was done in guilders per pond (of 500 grams).

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  9. Yesterday evening I watched on YouTube an English language Deutsche Welle documentary about Christian fundamentalism in the US. The documentary references a “replica” of Noah’s Ark that was built in Kentucky (https://youtu.be/fom53HFip9I?t=1696). The documentary explains that it was sized according to the (obsolete and obscure) dimensions given in the Bible, but gives the dimensions in metres. Now why can’t the BBC do that?

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