Chapter 1: England
Although few people in Britain under the age of about 60 will have a comprehensive understanding of the Imperial system of measurement that was used before metrication, traces are still in everyday use, particularly for travelling distances, weights of people, and measures of beer.
However, even those older people probably only retain the most widely used weights and measures. In the period 1485 – 1625, the system of weights and measures was far more complex.
It was the responsibility of local justices of the peace, or the town corporation both to set local trading standards and enforce them.
Bear in mind that the weights and measures differed from town, and all the modern equivalents given below are only to provide a general idea.
There were three basic systems of weight measurement. Standard was the Avoirdupois Scale, in which a pound, designated lb from the Latin ‘libra’, was divided into 16 ounces (oz). The ounce was sub-divided into 16 drams.
14 pounds made a stone, two stones were a quarter, four quarters (112lb) equalled a hundred weigh (cwt, where c is the Latin symbol for 100), and, finally, 2240lb or 20 cwt was a ton.
Avoirdupois was used for most everyday goods – grain, lead, stone, sand etc.
For fine metals, the Troy Scale was used. A troy pound was lighter than an avoirdupois pound and was used for precious metals and gemstones. The troy pound consisted of 12 ounces, each of 20 pennyweight (there is a link here to the relationship with the monetary pound – more here – hence the symbol dwt with the d standing for the Latin denarius), and a pennyweight could be sub-divided into 24 grains. In total, a troy pound was the equivalent of 5,760 grains, whilst an avoirdupois pound was a full 7,000 grains.
Finally, there was the Apothecaries’ Scale. This was the same as troy weight, but went down to even smaller measures. The ounce consisted of 8 dra(ch)ms, which in turn were each equal to 3 scruples, whilst a scruple was 20 grains.
Whilst most of us are familiar with the 12 inches to a foot still used in daily life, these two measurements are part of a larger scheme. The inch, a Roman measurement, is approximately the length of the thumb from the first knuckle to the tip. Occasionally, it might be measured as three barleycorns in a row, but usually, the thumb was taken as indicative.
3 feet made up a yard, 5 1/2 yards were a pole, sometimes called a perch or a rod, 40 poles equal a furlong, after which distance a ploughing ox needs a rest, and 8 furlongs make a mile. 3 miles make a league. Another way of subdividing the mile was into 80 chains, each of 100 links, where a link was equal to 4 poles.
It should be noted that miles and leagues were differently measured across Europe.
The basic unit of measurement was the acre. A standard acre consists of a strip of land 1 furlong in length, by 4 poles in depth. In theory, this was the amount of land that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen in a day. Because land does not come in neat blocks of 1 furlong in length, the other way to measure was to divide into square feet, which multiplied up to square yards, square perches (30 ¼ square yards) and roods (4 perches).
Whilst an acre could be ploughed in day, it was not sufficient land to keep a family. Yields were much lower before the introduction of rotation in farming, and artificial fertiliser. It was estimated that a family required 120 acres to subsist for a year. This was sometimes measured as a ‘hide’, a carucate or a ploughland. The hide was, in turn, divided into 8 oxgangs or bovates, or 4 virgates. Obviously, a hide will differ depending on the quality of land.
These are even more complex, and difficult to comprehend, as items that we would now think of measuring by weight, were often measured by cubic capacity. For example, corn was sold by the gallon. Depending on where you were in the country, the gallon might consist of different amounts. It was not standardised until 1826.
A gallon of corn had different cubic capacity from a gallon of ale (282 cubic inches), which was different from a gallon of wine (231 cubic inches).
Liquids were more consistent. The terminology was the same as the Apothecaries weights, but with 20 minims equal to 1 fluid scruple, 3 fluid scruples to the fluid dram, 8 drams to the fluid ounce, 5 fluid drams to the gill, and four gills to the gallon.
For grain and other dry goods, 4 gills equalled a pint, 2 pints were a quart, and 4 quarts were gallon.
Over a gallon of dry goods, there were the peck (2 gallons), the bushel (4 pecks), the strike (2 bushels), the quarter (8 strikes) the wey or load (5 quarters) and the last (2 weys.)