Units of Measure index

Historical documents featuring Imperial units


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Here are various documents about weights and measures from different times. They used to be on different parts of the website, but I've decided to pull them together onto one page. I have tried to give dates where I know them, but these may be inaccurate.

1215Magna Carta
1506Stourbridge Fair cry
1590A Tudor set of measures
1588-1601Elizabethan weights and measures
1747Flour mill day account book
1822+A table of tolls
1843Bradshaw's Railway Companion (new page)
1876Trafalgar Square standard measures
1897Marlborough Gazateer
????American measuring cups (new page)
WWIIPages from 'ABC of Cookery' (new page)
1950'Modern Practical Building
1951"Multum in Parvo" Table Book (new page)
1953Pages from a post WWII ration book
ModernExercise book from Beamish Museum
Post WWIIWooden school rulers
????Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures
ModernBeverley Town Trail: Imperial units

Magna Carta

In 1215, King John of England was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta or Great Charter. This is a document acknowledging laws, rights and freedoms. Click here for more information.

Clause 35 is about weights and measures:

Una mensura vini sit per totum regnum nostrum, et una mensura cervisie, et una mensura bladi, scilicet quarterium Londoniense, et una latitudo pannorum tinctorum et russetorum et halbergettorum, scilicet due ulne infra listas; de ponderibus autem sit ut de mensuris.

Translation: There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

In a woven fabric, the selvage (or selvedge) is the uncut edge of the fabric which is on the right- and left-hand edges as it comes out of the loom.



The cry in Stourbridge Fair

Stourbridge Fair in Cambridge used to be the largest fair in Europe in medieval times. At the start of the fair, the Cry explained the rules governing the fair. This Cry is circa 1506 or 1514/15. Spelling and punctuation has been modernised. I like the fact that they had 'ropey ale' in those days, also that 'freaking' was disapproved of! Most of the units are recognisable, and I've put in links to the rest of the website, although I can't guarantee that the names meant the same in Tudor times. 'Pottle' is new to me. It is apparently half a gallon. It looks af if the last few items were after-thoughts, or perhaps amendments. Not only do they seem in the wrong order, and repeat what was said previously (in the case of the butcher's rotten meat), they also refer to the fair as a market instead. By the way, 'six shillings and eight pence' was a third of a pound.

We charge & strictly command in the name of the King of England our Sovereiqn Lord & in the name of my Lord Chancellor of the University of Cambridge that all manner of scholars, scholars' servants & all other persons in this fair and the precincts of the same keep the King's peace & make no fray, cry, awtasse, freaking or any other noise by the which insurrections, conventicles, or gathering of people may be made in this fair to the trouble, vexing and disquieting of the King's liege people or letting of the officers of the University to exercise their offices under the pain of imprisonment & further punishment as the offence shall require.

Also we charge and command that all manner of Scholars and Scholars' servants wear no weapon to make any fray upon any of the King's people neither in coming nor in going from this fair under the pain of banishment.

Also we require and command that all manner of strangers that come to this fair, that they leave their weapon at their inns that the King's peace may be the better kept and for the occasion ensuing of the same, under the pain of forfeiting of their weapons, and for their punishment as the offence shall require. And that every innkeeper give that warning to his guests at their first coming: to leave their Weapons in their inns under the pain of punishment.

Also we charge and command that all common women and misbehaving people avoid and withdraw themselves out of this fair and the precincts of the same immediately after this cry, that the King's subjects may be the more quiet, and good rule may be the better maintained, under the pain of imprisonment.

Also we charge and command in the King's name of England, and in the name of my Lord Chancellor of the University, that all manner of bakers that bake to sell that they bake 2 loaves for one penny and a farthing for another of good paste, good boulted and lawful size after as grain goeth in the market. And every baker that baketh to sell have a mark upon his bread whereby it may be known who did bake it under the pain of forfeiture of his bread.

Also that all bakers shall obtain and keep such sizes of bread as shall be given them by the officers of the university under the pain of forfeiture of their bread if it hap any baker to be found faulty in any article pertaining to unlawful bread according to the King's laws, that then such bakers after three monitions shall be imprisoned and punished according the laws of our Sovereign Lord the King.

Also that no brewers sell into this fair nor anywhere within the precincts of the university, a barrel of good ale above two shillings, nor a barrel of hostel ale above twelve pence, no long ale, no red ale, no ropey ale, but good and wholesome ale for man's body under the pain of forfeiture, and that every brewer, have a mark upon his barrel whereby it may be known whose it is under the pain of imprisonment and fine at the discretion of the officers of the university.

Also that every barrel of good ale hold and contain fourteen gallons, thirteen gallons of clear ale and one gallon for the rest and the hogget seven gallons that is to say six gallons and one pottle Of clear ale and the residue of rest under the pain of forfeiture and for the punishment after the discretion of the officers of the university.

Also we command that the beer brewers shall sell a kilderkin of double beer in this fair for two shillings and a kilderkin of single beer for twelve pence.

Also that no tipper nor gannaker sell in the said fair, nor within the precincts of the university, a gallon of good ale above four pence nor a gallon of hostel ale above two pence, And the beer brewers a gallon above four pence and a gallon of single beer above two pence under the pain of twelve pence for every time.

Also where great detriments, hurts and deceits hath been to the King's subjects in times past by reason of false and unlawful measures brought by potters and other persons to be sold and bought in this fair and the precincts of the same in avoiding therefore the said hurts and untrue measures, we strictly charge and command that every potter and all other persons that bring such pots to be sold in this fair or precincts of the same that they and all other from henceforth sell and buy true goods and lawful measures as gallons, pottles, quarts, and half pints under the pain of imprisonment, and there to remain till they have made fine at the will of the said officers.

Also if any brewer or beer-brewer be found faulty in any of the premises after that they have been in times amerced, then the said brewer shall be committed to prison, there to remain till he have fined at the pleasure of the officers of the university.

Also that every tippler and gannaker that selleth ale in this fair that ye have the measure well and lawfully sealed and assized according to the standard of the university, and that every gannaker and beer-brewer that hath beer to sell have a sign at the booth whereby they may the better be known under the peril of imprisonment.

Also that any vintner that hath wine to sell in this fair as white wine, red wine, claret wine, gascon, malmsey, or any other wine, that they sell no dearer than they do in London except an halfpenny in a gallon toward the carriage, and that every vintner have their pots and their measures sized & ensealed after the standard of the university under tbe pain of forfeiture & their bodies to prison.

Also that all persons that bringeth ling-fish, stockfish or any other salt-fish to sell in this fair or within the precincts of the same that they sell no rot fish, no brynt fish, no resty fish, but good lawful and wholesome for man's body under the pain of forfeiture of their fish and their bodies to prison.

Also that all manner of persons which hath salmon, herring or eels to sell in this fair that the vessels called butt, barrel, half barrel, and firkins, they sell none of them afore they be seen and searched and that the butt hold and contain eighty-three gallons, well and truly packed upon pain for every butt, barrel, half barrel so lacking their said measure six shillings and eight pence And that the great salmon be well and truly packed by itself without any meddling of any grills or broken bellied salmon with the same & that all small fish called grills be packed by them self only without any meddling upon pain of forfeiture and lofting of six shillings and eight pence for every butt, barrel and half barrel so found faulty contrary to the statute of the parliament in the which statute these points and other more be more plainly expressed.

Also that any pikemonger that bringeth fresh fish to sell in the fair, as pike, tench, roach, perch, eel or any other fresh fish that the fish be quick and liveish and of size and bigness according to the statute thereof made under the pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison.

Also that every butcher that bringeth flesh to sell in this fair that he bringeth no rotten flesh, no murrain, no sussners, but lawful and wholesome for man's body and that every butcher bringeth the hide and the tallow of all such flesh as he shall kill to sell in this fair And that every butcher bringeth with him the liver and the lounds Of all such beasts under the pain of forfeiture.

Also that every baker that baketh horsebread to sell, that he selleth three loaves for a penny after good and lawful size and after such size as shall be given them, by the university, and that it be made of good peas & beans & other lawful stuff, upon the pain aforesaid.

Also that all brown bakers, as well as innkeepers as other, observe and keep such size of horsebread as shall be given them by the said officers, under the pains and punishments as of other bakers is rehearsed.

Also that all persons that selleth by measure as by ell or by yard woollen cloth or linen cloth, silk, worsteads sized and ensealed that they have their ells and their yards sized and ensealed after the standard of the university under the pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison.

Also that all persons that selleth by measure as by bushel, half bushel, peck or half peck as coal, salt, mustard seed or any other thing that their bushels, half bushels and pecks be sized and sealed after the standard of the university under the pain of imprisonment and more punishment as the offence shall require.

Also that all persons that selleth by weight have good and lawful weights sized and ensealed and to agree with the standard weights of the university under the pain of imprisonment and for their fine as it shall please the officers of the university.

Also that no man shall regrate none of the foresaid things as ling fish, salt fish, stock fish, herring, salmon, pike, tench, wax, flax, osmund, rosin, yarn, pitch, tar, cloth, nor none other thing of grocery ware or any other merchandise in this fair under the gain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison & to make fine as it shall please the officers of the university. And he regrateth that buyeth any of the said things afore rehearsed or any other manner of merchandise of any man in this fair and selleth again the same thing in the said fair enhancing the price of the said thing more that it was before.

Also if there be any person that will sue by personal action either for debt, victuals, injury and trespass or think themselves wronged in any of the premises or otherwise, let him come and complain to my Lord Chancellor's Commissary and other officers of the university which shall hold and keep courts daily and hourly in this fair during the same to the intent that he shall be heard with lawful favour, right and conscience and after the liberties of the same.

Also that every butcher that bringeth flesh to sell in this market that they bring no rotten flesh &c, ut supra.

Also that every butcher that bringeth to sell in this market that they sell none of the tallow of all such beasts as they shall bring to sell in this market, but to such Rasment and tallow-candellers as are dwellers within the said university and precincts of the same, & they to make the said tallow in good and lawful candle so that the said university and town of Cambridge be nowise disappointed but the better served and that they sell not a pound of candle above a penny, and that the said butcher sell not a stone of tallow above eight pence.

Also that every innkeeper that keepeth inn that he have his bottles of hay well and lawfully made and sized and that every bottle weigh seven pound & that they sell not less than three horse loaves good and lawful for a penny under the pain of punishment after the discretion of the officers of the university.

Also that every carrier that bringeth wood to sell in this market that they bring good wood, and if it be faggot let the faggot thereof be well filled and sized & that every faggot be full seven foot long and every faggot to have two bounds & thirty-one faggots in a load well filled after the said length under the pain of forfeiture.

Also that every collier that bringeth charcoal to sell that every sack called a quarter sack holds eight bushels, saving that they be allowed for the culm and breaking by the way after the discretion of the officers of the university under pain of forfeiture.

Also that every person that bringeth grain to sell in the market that they open not afore ten of the clock nor to stand after one of the clock under the pain of forfeiture.

Various measuring devices These measuring instruments were displayed at the re-enactment of Stourbridge Fair in Cambridge. The scales has a two pound weight on it, with a one pound weight holding some paper down. The smaller weights (ounces) are in a small container. A yard rule is balanced across the scales. On the left, the leather case with two handles holds something called a butter measure which actually was used to check grain quality. It is made of metal and acts rather like taking a core sample. You plunge it into the sack of grain, and it picks up a sample of grain near the bottom. This can be pulled out and checked.


A Tudor set of measures

There was an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK) in honour of Cambridge's City Charter in 1201. This included a splendid painting, illustrated with men in academic gowns, with information about weights and measures. It was dated 1590 (which is a little odd, since Elizabeth was queen at the time, and it refers to 'the King'). Some of it was in Latin. Here is the English part. I've typed this in capitals and Roman numerals because that was how the original was written. The spelling is original as well!

THE CHARGE OF THE CLERKE OF THE MARKET
THE COURT FOR ALL MENS WEIGHT, MEASURE AND INTELLERS AND CRAFTSMEN

III BARLY CORNES MAKE A INCH
XII INCHES MAKE A FOOT
I FOOT AND A HALF IS A CUBIT
II CUBITS ARE A STEP
II STEPS AND A HALF ARE A PACE
II PACES AND III FOOT ARE A ROD
XL RODS ARE A FURLONG
VIII FURLONGS ARE A MILE
III BARLY CORNES MAKE A INCH
XII INCHES MAKE A FOOT
III FEET ARE A STEP
III FEET MAKE A YARD
XVI FEET AND A HALF MAKE A ROD
IV RODS IN BREADTH } MAKE AN ACRE
XL RODS IN LENGTH }
XXXII GRAINES TAKEN OUT OF THE MIDEST OF THE WEATE EARE, MAKEST A PENNE, CALLED A STERLINGE.
THE KING OUR SOVEREIGN LORD BY ASSENT OF THE LORDES SPIRITVAL AND TEMPORALL AND THE COMMONS IN THIS PRESENT PARLIAMENT ASSEMBLED, AND BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE SAME ORDAINED, ESTABLISHED , AND ENACTED THAT THE MEASURE OF THE BUSHEL CONTAIN VIII GALLON OF WHEATE AND EVERY GALLON CONTAIN VIII L OF WHEATE OF TROY WEIGHT, EVERY POUND CONTAIN XII OUNCES OF TROY WEIGHT AND EVERY OUNCE CONTAIN XX STERLINGS, AND EVERY STERLING BE THE WEIGHT OF XXX11 CORNES OF WHEAT THAT GREW IN THE MIDST OF THE EARE OF THE WHEATE.
IT IS ORDAINED AND ESTABLISHED THAT NO MAN SHALL BRING INTO THE REALM OF ENGLANDE OF WHAT CONTRY SOEVER, NOR MAKE WITHIN THE SAYD REALM A TUN OF WINE, EXCEPT IT CONTAIN OF ENGLISH MEASURE CCLII GALLONES, THE PIPE CXXVI GALLONES, THE TERTIAN     GALLONES, THE HOGSHEAD LXIII GALLONS, THE BARRELL OF THE HEARINGS AND ELES XXX GALLONS FULLY PAVRED, AND THE BUTT OF SALMON LXXXIV GALLONS.

ANNO R HEN VI II CA 11

HEREIN WITHIN THIS REALME AT THIS DAY TWO KINDS OF WHIGHTS, THE ON CALLED TROY BY WHICH IS WEIGHED GOLD SILVER AND BRASS. THE OTHER CALLED AVERDUPOISE WHEREBY ALL OTHER THINGS BE WEIGHED. THERE IS USED ALLSO TWO KINDS OF MEASURE, THE ONE FOR ALE AND BEERE, THE OTHER FOR WINE, OYLE AND HONY.

There are several points of interest:

I suspect that all this might have led to some arguments!

A correspondent has told me:
"Elizabeth 1 ordered a brass yard to be made in 1601 in accordance with a standard measure and copies were distributed to 58 market towns around the kingdom. This yardstick was later measured in 1797 using more scientific methods and found to be 36.015 in. These were the standards as decreed by Elizabeth in 1601 and came into widespread use at that time:"

4 grains of barley1 finger (thumb width or one inch)
4 fingers1 hand
4 hands1 foot
3 feet1 yard
1760 yards1 mile

The odd thing about this is that there are 4 hands to a foot, and therefore 16 inches to a foot, which seems weird. Also, there are 4 grains of barley to the inch instead of 3 (as in the above example). However, elsewhere it's said that Edward II decreed that an inch was 3 barleycorns laid end to end. Perhaps these 4 barleycorns were side by side to make an inch. There is a different unit called a finger which was 4 and a half inches. That must have been the length of a finger rather than the width.



Elizabethan weights and measures

This is in the Science Museum in London. The description says:

"Elizabethan weights and measures 1588-1601. These are standard measures for volume, weight and length, made on the instruction of Queen Elizabeth I between 1588 and 1601. Elizabeth's standards were sent to 60 English cities so that - for the first time - all merchants could share the same definition of measurement units.

The queen had recognised that a common set of measurement standards across the country was crucial to commercial expansion, and her reform of Britain's system of weights, measures and currency was wide-ranging."

Elizabethan weights and measures


Flour mill day account book

This is a page from a 1747 flour mill day account book for a Philadelphia Quaker miller named Thomas Livezey (1723-1790). The columns are headed C (hundredweight), Q (quarter) and # (pound). The last column is Tare. This is the weight of a container, which subtracted from the gross weight gives the net weight.

There are also some references to money, as pounds, shillings and pence.

The hundredweight is the long hundredweight of 112 pounds. This can be worked out because the way that the total is reduced to the correct units. Also the tare is in pounds. This is totalled in the first account as 208, which is reduced to 1 Cwt 3 Qtrs 12 lbs, and subtracted from the previous total (which must be the gross weight) to give the net weight. I originally read the pound column as lb, which is the British abbreviation, but I am assured that the correct abbreviation would be # at this time.

Flour mill day account book

With thanks to Herb Lapp who is researching this miller and his accounts.



A table of tolls

This notice is on the side of a toll cottage. Toll cottages were provided on turnpike roads in the 18th and 19th centuries for the collection of tolls from passing traffic. The money was used to repair and maintain the road. This cottage was originally from Beeding, built on a new road established in 1807. It has been moved to the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum - a great museum, thoroughly recommended, especially in good weather.

Near the end, it says "3,G,4,C,126." This refers to the Act authorising the tolls. It means The third year of George IV, chapter 126. This would be 1822, so the notice must be more recent than this.

The prices are in columns headed 's' (shillings) and 'd' (old pence). Wheel sizes mention inches and a dog is allowed to pull a barrow up to a hundred yards before it must pay toll!

A table of tolls



Trafalgar Square standard measures

On the north wall of Trafalgar Square (London, UK), you will see three metal notices, set into the wall.

The top notice gives one foot, two foot and a yard (two feet) marks. The inch is marked as well.

The next notice says:

IMPERIAL STANDARDS OF LENGTH
PLACED ON THIS SITE BY THE
STANDARDS DEPARTMENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE
BY PERMISSION OF THE COMMISSIONERS OF
HER MAJESTY'S WORKS AND PUBLIC BUILDINGS
MDCCCLXXVI

The bottom notice says

STANDARDS OF LENGTH
AT
62 FAHRENHEIT

The date is 1876. The marks are made of metal, and expand and contract with temperature.

Along the bottom of the wall is marked a standard chain and a standard pole or perch.

Imperial Standards

Closeups of the notices:

Imperial Standards
Imperial Standards
Imperial Standards

Imperial Standards

The standard chain is marked out along the bottom of the wall with metal plaques with this notice above it.

Imperial Standards

The standard pole or perch is also marked out along the bottom of the wall.

Imperial Standards Imperial Standards
Imperial Standards



Page from 1897 Marlborough Gazateer

The tables on the right are fairly conventional, but the units for the different commodities on the left are fascinating! Last, drum, seam, truss, dicker, tierce, as well as the usual suspects. Apparently, you need to watch out in London, as a stone of meat only weighs 8 pounds, although a country stone of meat weighs the more conventional 14 pounds. Never trust those Londoners! On the right, it states that an ell is 5 Qrs. 'Qr' is a quarter of a yard. It is the same length as a span.

1897 Marlborough gazateer



Customary Measures

This comes from an old reference book, 'Modern Practical Building, Volume IV' by Harry Newbold, from Caxton Publishing, London, first published in March 1934, this text was the 3rd edition December 1950.

1 bag or sack of plaster (London measure) - 14 pounds or 1 bushel
1 bag or sack of Portland cement - 200 pounds, 2 centals, or 2 bushels
1 bag or sack of lime - 186 pounds or 3 bushels
1 bundle of laths - Approx. 125 laths
500 bricks - 1 load of bricks
1 load of earth or ballast - 1 cubic yard
1 load of lime - 32 bushels
1 pig of ballast - 56 pounds
1 scam of glass - 120 pounds
1 faggot or fodder of lead (London) - 2184 pounds
1 faggot or fodder of steel - 120 pounds

Here are some more commodity units: scam, faggot, fodder, cental! On the volume page, there are different definitions of a sack or bag, and a load, without specifying the material. I have also had an email about a lime works in Derbyshire in 1794. This produced 114,138 loads of lime, or 5706 score and 18 loads. This means that there are 20 loads to a score. Also apparently there are 8 bushels to a load - yet another value for a 'load'!



"Multum in Parvo" Table Book

Click here for "Multum in Parvo" Table Book - a book of tables used by school children in 1951.



Post World War II ration book

Perhaps this is not part of a units of measure website, but it is a piece of history. I was born on 28th May 1953, and this was my ration book. Obviously I didn't use these rations myself, but my mother breastfeed me, so these were extra rations for her. You had to register with particular shops to buy the rationed food from. This is not the whole book, but pages from it. Rationing was finally abolished shortly after I was born.

Ration book Ration book Ration book



Exercise book from Beamish Museum

This is the back of a replica exercise book bought at Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum, "where the past comes to life". It is obviously modern, but presumably a reprint of an old exercise book. Unfortunately it doesn't say how old the original is. This is very like the exercise books of my childhood, except it was always "rod, pole or perch". Beamish is a wonderful museum - go and see it if you can!

Exercise book



Wooden school rulers

Modern school rulers are often made of transparent plastic with centimetres, and, if you're lucky, inches in tenths. The old wooden rulers of my childhood were more interesting. One side was centimetres (and if we knew nothing else about centimetres, we knew that 30 cms was less than a foot). One side was inches in tenths. But since it wasn't transparent, the other side was marked. This one, below, has inches in sixteenths and twelfths.

Wooden school ruler Wooden school ruler

The ruler below is older and has more fractions. The front is centimetres and inches in tenths. The back (luckily clearer) has quarters, eighths, sixteenths and twelfths of inches. It even has a simple protractor. Not that I ever heard of anyone using the protractor!

Wooden school ruler Wooden school ruler Wooden school ruler



Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures

These standard measures in Birmingham presumably served the same purpose as the Trafalgar Square standard measures above. I'm afraid that I don't know how old they are. I believe that they were moved from a previous location, but I can't remember where. Now they are in Victoria Square, outside the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and along side Birmingham Town Hall. They are set into the ground. I walked over them while trying to find them!

Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures Victoria Square (Birmingham) standard measures



Beverley Town Trail: Imperial units

This is part of the Town Trail in Beverley, East Yorkshire, showing Imperial units of length, volume and weight. It is modern.