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Weights And Measures (Metric System) Bill

Volume 176: debated on Thursday 21 July 1864

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(No 164) Second Reading

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

having presented a petition in favour of this Bill from the Association of Chambers of Commerce of the United Kingdom, said, that the question of weights and measures had an hereditary claim upon his support, because he whose place he so unworthily filled succeeded in carrying through the other House of Parliament many years ago a measure establishing the system of weights and measures now the law of the land. After twenty years' experience of the; working of the present system, however, his late father was so convinced of the superiority of the metric system that he was one of the first to give his adhesion to the introduction, in a permissive shape, of the metric system in this country. The former Act was introduced in pursuance of the recommendations of a Select Committee, and the present Bill was equally the result of the unanimous recommendation of a Committee of the other House composed of men of all parties. It was unnecessary to remark that the present being a permissive Bill must necessarily remain a dead letter unless it were adopted by the free will of the people; but that it would be freely adopted by all persons engaged in trade, manufactures, and science, he had not the least doubt—in fact, the petition from the Associated Chambers of Commerce, which he had just presented, seemed to place the matter beyond doubt, as the petitioners might be fairly considered as representing the feelings of all practical men in the important towns they represented. Their Lordships must he fully aware of the variety of the measures of grain, wine, and beer which prevailed in different parts of the country. In some countries a bushel of wheat was 60 lbs., in some 64 lbs., in others 70 lbs.; sometimes it was sold by weight, sometimes by measure; the mode of measuring distances varied—in short, nothing could be more confused than the present system. The adoption of the metric system would cure this want of uniformity, and would substitute for that which was inconvenient and difficult to learn a system which was simple and easy to be acquired. The adoption of this system would save half the time which was at present occupied in making calculations. The very strongest evidence had been given in its favour by practical men. Among those who recommended its introduction, and some of whom employed it in the transaction of their own business, were the late Mr. Locke, the eminent engineer, who, having found the metric system in one of his foreign contracts so advantageous, that he adopted it for the transaction of his business in England; Mr. Whitworth, Mr. Robinson of the Atlas Works, Mr. Crossley, Mr. Anderson superintendent of the gun factory at Woolwich, Sir Rowland Hill, and Professor Graham the Master of the Mint. Scientific men were equally favourable to the metric system. The Jurors at the International Exhibitions of London and Paris said, that a great part of the benefit which might have arisen from the exhibition of the raw produce and manufactures of various countries was lost to thousands of persons in consequence of the difficulty of comparing the weights and measures and the moneys of one country with those of another. Professor Hoffman and Professor Owen, in their reports as Jurors of the Exhibition of 1862, referred to the confusion and discord which existed in the systems of weights and measures of different countries. The fact was that this confusion was so great, and so much time and labour were consumed in converting the weights and measures of one country into their equivalents in a foreign system, that practically the knowledge of one nation was a sealed book to the scientific men of others. As to the facility with which the system could be learnt there was the most conclusive testimony, and Professor Leone Levi summed up its general result to be that a boy could make the same progress in arithmetic taught according to the metric system in ten months as would according to the existing method take him two years and ten months to accomplish. Considering the value of youthful labour and the short time which could be spared to education by the children of the poor, this was a matter of some importance. He entreated their Lordships not to take any step which would impose upon these children two years of useless labour, and not to aid in preventing the free interchange of the manufactures and commodities as well as of the knowledge and information of all the people of the world. The noble Lord concluded by moving that the Bill should be read a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a —( Earl Fortescue.)

admitted that there was a good deal of confusion attached to our present system of weights and measures, but desired to point out that, notwithstanding the pound had become the uniform measure by which all things were 3old, and that to introduce the metric system would be only to add another element of confusion. He would ask their Lordships whether, at this period of the Session, and, as a consequence, without due time for its discussion, it was desirable to pass a measure whose operation would be to create confusion in every market town in England? Believing that it was not, he should move that the Bill be road a second time that day six months.

Amendment moved to leave out ("now") and insert ("this Day Six Months").—( The Marquess of Salisbury.)

said, he thought the Government would not allow the Bill to pass through their Lordships' House without expressing some opinion as to its proposal. If this country had passed through such a crisis as France passed in 1789 it might not be disadvantageous to introduce the metric system; but under existing circumstances, it not being proposed to abolish the present system, but only to allow the introduction of the new system pari passuwith the old, he thought the confusion would be augmented rather than diminished. Nothing, he would add, but compulsory legislation would induce the people of this or any other country to give up the system to which they were accustomed in favour of one even more scientific and simple.

speaking solely for himself, said that he had heard no valid argument urged against the Bill, and should vote in its favour. The fact, he contended, that almost all the Chambers of Commerce throughout the country supported it by their petitions was one of great importance for the consideration of the House, for it afforded a strong proof that many persons in the mercantile world were of opinion that to them, at least, the system would be advantageous. It was said that the operation of the Bill would be to add to the existing confusion; but it was, in his opinion, impossible to do that, at all events so far as Scotland was concerned. There were "bolls" and "bushels," varying in capacity, in almost every county in Scotland. He did not suppose that the habits of the people in various localities could be very easily altered in dealing with the local system of measures; but the proposed change would, he thought, be very generally adopted in the case of large mercantile transactions, particularly those transactions with foreign countries which were so greatly on the increase. It could only be used where both parties to a contract consented; they would only use it if they thought it convenient. It was not compulsory on any one, and therefore could do no one harm; but by allowing its use the effect might be that ultimately it would elbow out the present confused and defective system. The Bill, at all events, could do no harm, and he saw no good reason why their Lordships should not adopt it.

supported the Bill, remarking that if men largely engaged in commerce wished for it, he saw no reason why the House should stand in the way of its passing.

regarded the Bill as an important step in the right direction, and he hoped to live to see the decimal system in general use. He was, he might add, an advocate of the change not only in a commercial but in an educational point of view, and he had the testimony of Mr. Chadwick, to whose efforts the half-time system—one of the greatest improvements of our day—was due, to the effect that the introduction of the decimal system would shorten the time occupied in the teaching of arithmetic by one-half.

said, it was a mistake to suppose that noble Lords on that side of the House were averse to the metric system as such. What they objected to was that a Bill of this importance should be introduced at that late period of the Session. Either the Government ought to take it up and pass it on their own responsibility, or there ought to be a Select Committee next Session to take the Bill into careful consideration. The argument that the Bill was only permissive was very much against it, for if it were right that all the weights and measures in the country should be equalized, it must be by a compulsory measure. A mere permissive Bill only added another element to the confusion.

in reply, said, that in all the countries in which the system had been introduced, its simplicity had caused it to work without any friction or opposition.

On Question that ("now") stand part of the Motion? their Lordships divided;—Contents 34; Not-Contents 23: Majority 11.

Resolved in the Affirmative: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.


Westbury, L. (L. Chancellor).Brougham and Vaux, L.
Camoys, L. [Teller.]
Churchill, L.
Armagh, Achbp.Dartrey, L. (L. Cremorne).
Somerset, D.De Mauley, L.
De Tabley, L.
Westminster, M.Ebury, L.
Foley, L.
Chichester, E.Houghton, L.
Clarendon, E.Llanover, E,
Effingham, E.Mostyn, L.
Fortescue, E. [Teller.]Portman, L.
Harrowby, E.Saye and Sele, L.
Shaftesbury, E.Seymour, L. (E. St. Maur)
Wicklow, E.
Somerhill, L. (M. Clanricarde).
Falmouth, V.
Leinster, V. (D. Leinster).Stratheden, L.
Sundridge, L. (D. Argyll).
Gloucester and Bristol, Bp.Taunton, L,
Wensleydale, L.
London, Bp.


Buckingham and Chandos, D.Hawarden, V.
Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore). [Teller.]
Bath, M.
Salisbury, M. [Teller.]Chelmsford, L.
Churston, L.
Colchester, L.
Amherst, E.Denman, L.
Carnarvon, E.Dinevor, L.
Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry)Egerton, L.
Monson, L.
Redesdale, L.
Lanesborough, E,Silchester, L. (E. Longford).
Malmesbury, E.
Nelson, E.Templemore, L.
Powis, E.Wynford, L.