Measures used in different trades


These accounts have been sent me by different correspondents. They are about British units used in different trades (and sometimes by other countries). Sometimes I have added a comment of my own, which will be in italics. If you have any similar information, especially from your own experience, do let me know. There are also units used in different trades in some of the historic documents.


I spent much of my life as a bricklayer, and struggled through the transformation from Imperial measures to metric. What a fiasco! Try repairing a wall made with bricks measuring 9 x 4 + 1/4 x 3 inches with bricks measuring 225 x 100 x 75 millimetres - you'd soon see what I mean. (In fact, both sets of measurements actually refer to a brick and a single mortar-joint - 1 horizontal (or bed) and 1 vertical (or perp [perpendicular]). Thus the sensible 'four to a foot' rule governing height (courses) became the somewhat absurd four to 900mm rule, and I might add that brickwork took an abrupt dive in quality from that point onwards.

One archaic measurement that still clung on was in what is known as "gauged" brickwork. The term refers to the very thin 'perp' joints seen in Victorian and Edwardian arches (and earlier) - esp. those 'flat arches' so prevalent in older houses. I was lucky enough to build quite a few in my career - viz- and they were a fascinating challenge! The bonding agent was a liquid lime-putty, and the joint was very thin. In fact, I don't recall a numerical value for it because it was always referred to as a 'sixpenny joint'; that is, the thickness of a sixpence edge-on. We all used to carry a few 'tanners' to use as a gauge when laying or (more crucially) setting out this kind of work. As mentioned, the arch was made using 'soft' bricks called 'rubbers' that were cut into the characteristic, wedge-shaped voussoirs using a frame saw with a blade of twisted wire. Once cut, the bricks were rubbed to size on a piece of granite paving stone and then 'joggled' with a comb-hammer - which means that a recess was cut in the back of the brick, resembling an open-ended 'frog' which extended almost as far as the underside face or intrados. Once the arch had been carried over the opening, the resulting cavities (visible at the top, or extrados) were filled with the lime putty, thus bonding each brick into the whole. It's interesting to note that the jack arch was never laid entirely horizontal, despite the (incorrect) info in the above article.  This is simply because a totally flat arch of this type will actually appear to be slumping, due to an optical illusion. Thus - and this brings us back neatly to your subject - we used to 'spring a lath' across the temporary support used in construction, and the rise at the centre was equal to the thickness of a lath. i.e. one quarter of an inch. (Picture a strip of wood cut to fit tight between the uprights, causing it to bow upwards, with another short strip used to measure the bow in the centre.) It was all done by 'rule of thumb', ha ha ha!

Mallorca boatbuilding

As a naval architect, I was interested by an oddity of measurement I encountered in a shipyard in Palma, Mallorca. This was in 1991, and an old shipwright who specialised in woodwork in the yard explained to me that the smallest measurement that they bothered with (traditionally) was an eighth of an inch. As my Mallorquian was (and is) pretty poor (i.e. non-existent) and his English only marginally better, I assumed he meant 3mm, but on further "discussion" he insisted it was 1/8th of an inch, and demonstrated this on an Imperial  rule we had on board (it was a British boat we were working on). He did tell me the Mallorquian word for this, but I couldn't begin to pronounce it even then, let alone recall it now. There is a very old tradition of wooden boatbuilding in Mallorca, and the Balearics have had many rulers and international influences over the centuries, but quite how they ended up with this anomaly I don't know.

Chilean and Argentinian artisans

I was in Patagonia, Southern Argentina in 1962/3, and the Chilean and Argentinian artisans there used a 'pulgather' as a unit of measurement, and they used Imperial rulers graded in inches to measure them. The translation from the local Spanish dialect is 'thumb'. The width of a thumb is about an inch. I believe this unit may also be used in Spain and other former colonies of that country.

Non-metric units in France

Imperial measurement is still used in France, of all places, for the measurement of ploughing. Primarily the depth of ploughing is measured in "pouces" or inches, and occasionally the width of the furrow is also in pouces although there is a trend nowadays to use a metric width with an imperial depth, due I believe to the manufacturers being forced to sell their ploughs in metric dimensions. The farmer decides the depth he will plough and as this dimension is not controlled by Brussels he still uses pouces for the depth. I conduct business with farmers in France and although they all talk of pouces I have never found any French farmer who uses an imperial ruler and consequently I carry some dual imperial/metric tape measures to give away as 'freebies' whenever my contact mentions pouces. In French pouce means thumb as well as inch and in the respect of measurement the use of one word for both definitions is perhaps sounder than the English use of different words. Since the replacement of the franc by the euro with its associated inflation, rural France has been very much against the EU, particularly in the south (although they welcome the largesse with grasping hands), and the farmers enjoy cocking a snook at Brussels at every available opportunity. Hopefully pouces will remain the ploughing depth measurement for a while longer. I have no knowledge of the use of imperial measurement in other Mediterranean countries, but your correspondent from Mallorca has found at least one other metric country where this dimension is used. Even after 200 years Napoleonic law has not suppressed all the old ideas.

Words meaning 'pound' are still used in both France ('livre') and Germany ('pfund'), but now they mean half a kilogram (which is fairly close). Apparently before French metrification, they had a unit of length called 'pied du roi', or 'foot of the king', which was 1.066 English feet.

This article about Imperial Measures in the BBC Magazine website says that "The English foot, for example, is almost identical to the Japanese Kanejaku, and both are as long as the sole of an average man's shoe. The Kanejaku is 11.83 inches." This is not because they are connected, but because they are both based on the same thing, a man's foot.

Wool trade

I worked in the wool trade from 1946-1949 after I left school. I worked in the sorting and blending department away from the noise of the carding and spinning departments. We dealt in the finest lambswool and also cashmere. We had 30 pounds to a tod and 8 tods made a pack. I spent my last year with the firm in the blending section so did a lot of weighing.

Agricultural unit of volume in France and Ireland

The jointée is an obsolete term in French agriculture. This term means the amount of grain you can scoop up with joined hands (not a handful, a cupped hands-full) and was once an official term that is still in older dictionaries. There seems to be a similar unit in Early Irish Farming, a mám, defined further as holding 1,000 grains.

However, in British weights, an ounce avoirdupois was 437.5 grains, which were originally grains of wheat. Now, I would have thought that someone could hold a lot more than two ounces of wheat in both hands, cupped. So I suspect that a mám was a single handful. If anyone knows anything about this, please let me know.

Metrication in the UK building trade

Metrication in the UK is discussed in this website, and this was close to my heart as a quantity surveyor in the building industry, where we went metric as long ago as 1970. Fortunately for us builders this wasn't hard to grasp - 4" and 6" pipes were changed to 100 and 150mm; 3", 4", 6" and 9" concrete blocks were readily changed to 75, 100, 150 and 225mm; the tonne was near enough a ton to be understandable; likewise the cwt bag of cement became 50kg, again near enough to be understandable. And your bit of 4" by 2" timber was easily understandable as 100 x 50mm. The metre was a bit of a stretch to match it to a yard, but kerbstones that were a yard long are now made as 900mm.

One thing that has never changed is door sizes. Doors were always 2'3", 2'6" and 2'9" wide, and mostly 6'6" high (some older external doors are 6'8", but this is related to old, bigger brick sizes - another story!), but these sizes have been retained albeit expressed in millimetres. The alternative would have been for manufacturers to continue to make the old sizes for refurbishment projects, whilst also producing the same doors in a range of metric sizes.

One other exception - lead sheet was always described as the the weight per square foot, i.e. 3lb lead, 4 lb lead and so on. To give an easily understandable conversion, this was changed to Code 3 and Code 4 lead and so on. No doubt there is a metric way of describing different weights/thicknesses of lead, but unlike the examples I gave above, it would not have been  easily related to the well known imperial descriptions.

Having said that, glaziers managed the easy transformation of glass being given in weights per square foot -  24 oz, and 32 oz being the basic ones were, with perhaps a slight change in their actual thickness, changed to 3mm and 4mm.

One final point though - unlike the retail trade and teaching in schools, the building industry doesn't use the centimetre. Measurements are given either in millimetres or metres; there is a fair bit of flexibility in what is used, a room could be dimensioned as 4185 or 4.185 and it's obvious from what it is describing whether the dimension is millimetres or metres. But there would be a fair bit of confusion if the centimetre (or indeed the decimetre - does anyone use that?) were used as well.

English agricultural units

I bring the following to your attention:

In Shropshire, certainly 1940s & 1950s. the weight of a pig was measured in score ( 20lbs).

On the Somerset Levels in the 1960s the following were used for contracts for land drainage activities;
Dredging the ditches measured in chains (Gunter's)
Weedcutting (both in the stream and on the bank) in ropes (a wagonner's 20 ft rope)

Another correspondent:

Pigs were measured in scores more widely than you suggest.  In Newark cattle market, (which serves mainly Notts, Derbys & Lincs although buyers from supermarkets also attend), used scores up to decimalisation.  The easy conversion  £1 per score = 1s per lb was, thereby, lost.

A score usually means the number twenty. See my numbers website.

British shoe manufacture

I have worked in the shoe repair trade for 50 years, and the thickness of sole leather is measured in irons. There are 48 irons in 1 inch, and the average thickness of a normal leather sole on a gents shoe is between 8 and 10 iron.

This is not a measuring system that is fading into obsurity, like many others, but is very much alive, and is in general use in the shoe manufacure and repair trades.

However now that we are 'Europeans', it expected that we operate in millimetres rather than irons, but it is a difficult task to change the ways of an established method , especially with the older generation.

This is purely a British measuring system. I am an agent for a German tannery, and "irons" are totally alien to them.

Mexican small volume measure

I have lived in Mexico for many years, it being of course a metric country; however in many country markets away from the towns there is a common volume measure for dry goods, which is called a "sardine" ("sardina" in Spanish) used by simple country folk to measure out small items such as nuts, cherries or beans. They use a used flat oval sardine tin (without its top) to scoop out the berries from the pile then using a piece of wood they skim off the excess level with the edges of the tin. There you have it. A sardine!

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