A Metric England?

By The Metric Maven

As it became increasingly clear in the early 1980s that the US would not become metric, a professor of mine stated  “England doesn’t even use the English system—they’ve gone metric.” Of course, I had no idea. I’ve never been to the UK. I assumed that Britain had gone metric because the rest of the world had at that time. Then lingering doubt began to creep into my mind as the decades passed, and I began to believe that Britain had not become metric. It appeared that beer was still sold in pints, and the roads were all in miles. I vaguely heard about the “metric martyrs” and the EU throwing its hands in the air and finally giving up on metric only labeling from the UK. The BBC science programs I watched seemed to have a lot of “English” units, at least I seldom noticed metric ones (although I believe I see more used now).

Like most Americans, I figured they had done the same thing  as we in the US, they offered lip service during the world wide metric conversion, and then sat back, and never changed anything. All I had to do was look North to Canada for an example of a country which still has the Queen on its money, has the roadways all in metric, but almost everything else from cooking to housing construction appears to be in inches, feet and so on. Why would I believe that Great Britain, which had pints and miles everywhere, was metric. I really didn’t think about it much as I have enough problems dealing with the immovable and incorrigible metric object known as the USA. Worse yet, I’d read almost a century of authorities in the UK claiming the UK would become metric when the US did. I would then read US authorities over the same period claiming that we would become metric when the UK did.

Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association could not help but notice that I saw Australia as an English speaking metric country, but not Great Britain. He took exception with this view and sent proof that UK construction is in metric, which clearly it is. Still, there is that nagging feeling that metric penetration into British society was a millimeter deep. Sure, construction of UK roads is in meters, but then they mark them in miles. Sure houses may be constructed in metric, but the streets are all marked in non-metric units. Beer may come from Belgium, but they sell it in pints. The US, of course, does neither, it’s all Ye Olde English, and when it’s metric, it is immediately converted to Ye Olde English and hidden away.

Derek must have continued to sense this leftover minor metric skepticism, because it seems to have finally caused him to send me iron clad, and unquestionable proof that the everyday UK of Andy Capp is almost entirely metric. Did Derek get an official letter that certified the UK is metric, have it signed by the Prime Minister, and then notarized by the Queen? No, he send me documents which have far more authority than that. He sent me some of his “junk mail.” He sent me a small paper flyer from a place called Morrisons:

British Beef Meatballs, British Diced Chicken Breasts, British Lamb chops all sold pre-packaged in grams! Meadow Park milk is shown sold in 2 litre plastic containers—not a pottle—that.

Included in Derek’s letter is a 32 page flyer from B&Q Warehouse which looks like a UK version of Home Depot–but, from a measurement perspective, that’s where the similarity ends. Want to purchase a door for your house?  Well look no further than B&Q for doors specified in millimetres:

Unfortunately,  as Derek points out, the strange numbers (1981 x 762 mm) show that they are probably converted from non-metric sizes as they are not not nice round integers. This is a hinderance to thinking metric when building, and realizing its maximum benefit.

There is paint sold in 2.5 liter cans, others just tell you the price per litre. There are 333 x 333 mm porcelain floor tiles. Ice melt is sold in 2 kg bags. Wild Bird seed in 12.75 kg bags—the British must feed their birds well. Everywhere one looks in these junk mail flyers, there is an almost complete absence of anything non-metric. There are no side by side sizes, one in metric and the other in Imperial—it’s all metric! Very simple. I did find my nemesis, the centimeter, but only in one tiny section for door mats:

Centimeters -- Appropriately Treated Like A Door Mat (click to enlarge)

Indeed, that centimeters would be used for door mats, and they were only a pound each, actually made sense—metaphorically. The other centibad was found in the Morrison’s food flyer. But this may not be the fault of the British merchants—it looks to be the fault of the French! A seventy five centilitre bottle of wine! Here is one of the few times I can thumb my nose and say I want a proper, American, 750 mL bottle of wine–you know a fifth. For the first time ever, I can feel sanctimonious.

French Wine with questionable metric usage

The French are not the people with whom you should discuss how to most effectively use the metric system. Their use has pre-metric vestiges of the prefix cluster around unity.

Derek pointed out that a radiator is rated in BTU’s on one page, and on the other they have one which is 2kw, which should be 2 kW of course—but my heavens, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything with kW on it in the US like this. I’m baffled by the fact that the flyers often don’t have spaces between the numbers and units, as evidenced below:

BTU?—perhaps that’s why it’s on sale?

When I look at these flyers, it makes me rather envious, and think that if the US was this metric, I would just stop blogging and go outside to play. It then struck me just how frustrating it must be to have metric all around, but not on the roads, or in the pubs. It would be a constant non-metric reminder one would see everyday when they left their residence. It would also seem more and more absurd as time goes by. I’m extremely envious of Derek’s junk mail, but it’s clear the UKMA has plenty of non-metric fires to deal with before Britain becomes completely metric. Here in the US?—well, my junk mail is metricless.


My friend Pierre keeps me informed on all matters culinary with an emphasis on metric versus Olde English. He sent me a graphic of a deep fryer with this comment:

Commercial fryers, like what McDonalds uses to make french fries are sold by volume. Like, there are bigger and smaller capacity ones.

Can you guess what unit of measurement one might use to specify them?

They are sold by the pound. That’s right. They are sold by how many pounds of oil they hold. This is a 14lb unit, which I’m sure you knew already by looking at it.

So, next time you are in Safeway …. , pick up a pound of frying oil for me, wouldja?

Here is a link to the fryer about which Pierre so eloquently opines. But there’s more! Pierre also checked out oils he might like me to supply for him, should I feel that generous, and indeed you can note that one will purchase a 35 lb box of oil, and not one using Olde English volume measures:

And just in case you think the labeling has liters on it. Here is a close-up of the bottom label:

So, should any of our friends from the UK decide they want home-made fish and chips on a visit to the U.S., and want to do it themselves, you now know the proper US units to use when using a fryer here.


19 thoughts on “A Metric England?

  1. There is a huge misconception about beer sales in pubs being in pints. This is only true for beer from the tap. If your favourite brand is not on tap but they have it in a bottle, they will pour it from the bottle into a 570 mL glass. There are no real pint glasses for sale. The amount in the bottle will be 500 mL exactly. Hard liquor sold in pubs or restaurants comes in increments of 25 mL and 35 ml.

    Alcohol content is also measured in “units”, where units are 10 mL or 1 cL.

    Derek is right, the majority of the economy is metric as far as what is designed, engineered and produced. Yet Luddites manage to ignore all of this and pretend otherwise giving a perception of the UK not being metric.

    Luddites will go to the deli counter and ask for pounds. They will get increments of 500 g. All the clerk has to do is ask if this is OK? Most will say yes and walk away with a metric amount different from what they asked for. This has been going on for years now, so everyone is use to it.

    Roads are all designed and engineered entirely in SI. Signs may state yards, but those yards are really metres, so in effect the yard is just another name for the metre. Miles on signs are increments of 1.6 km. On some highways are driver location signs, these are used primarily by construction crews, but also by the public to locate to police the location of an accident or other situation. They are all in metres. And irony of ironies, the petrol is sold only by the litre.

    I wonder if the true manufactured size of the door is 1980 mm x 760 mm and the marketing people converted it to inches, then rounded it to the nearest inch and back converted it to the nearest millimetre instead of the original. This industry works to centimetre precision and whole centimetres would be the target values.

    • > The amount in the bottle will be 500 mL exactly.

      Not always true. Bulmers Cider comes sold in 568 mL bottle, which is 1 imperial pint.

      • The author was talking about beer though, rather than cider. I’m not aware of any beer sold in 568 ml bottles although Bombardier did switch to this size a few years ago when they relaunched the brand. That didn’t last very long and they are back in 500 ml bottles now.
        Ciders are found in 568 ml bottles though as you note (and indeed are labelled as such, not as a pint). Curiously this trend was started when Irish ciders became popular (Magners and Bulmers) a few years ago, so ironically the soft imperial sizes of ciders are a result of the retention of the pint in Ireland.

  2. The UK metric battleground is on the roads, which remain in miles and MPH speed limits, as I found in my visits to Scotland (2009)and England (last year ). Consumer products are fully metric. Australia, which I visited in 2007, is entirely metric, indeed a metricationist’s dream, right down to the sewer cover force in kilonewtons.

    One really scary sign I saw in Scotland was a speed limit sign that looked exactly like the ones I saw in Germany: a white sign with a number within a red circle, and nothing more. No need to ask that the German sign meant kilometers per hour. When I asked in Scotland, what units these represented, I was told that they were in miles per hour! This might be perilous to a visitor from the Continent, or even from Northern Ireland to Ireland, the latter having fully metricated its highway signs in 2005.

    • When driving into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, there is a sign that states the speed limit is now posted in MPH. And likewise when entering the Republic of Ireland, there is a sign stating that they are in km/h.

      The real problem, at least for me, was when I rented a car in Dublin and drove to Northern Ireland, there was no MPH on the speedometer. So I had no clue how fast I was supposed to go when the speed limits were in MPH.

      • Last year I was in Northern Ireland and picked up a hire car at the airport. Surprisingly it was a southern registered car, and had a speedometer marked in km/h only, which meant that I spent a week driving around with MPH-only speed limit signs and no way (other than mental arithmetic) of relating my speed to the limit. I wonder if that would be any defence if stopped by the police for speeding?

  3. 1981 mm by 762 mm is 78” by 30”, so that’s still pretty soft metric unfortunately.

    • How do you know that the real door size is not 1980 mm x 760 mm? The advertiser may have added the extra millilmetres to make the metric numbers look silly.

      • Sadly, the current pseudo-standard door sizes indeed seem to have been converted from the previous (non-)standard of the old, “imperial” system; see, for example, here:


        (and other similar sites…).

        BTW, strange that a UK website spells “meters”, instead of “metres”; and, of course, the unit shouldn’t be directly attached to the number: for example, ideally it should be “300 mm”, and not “300mm”.

        Anyway, very good that that England now has a rather widespread use of metric measurement – except, sadly, for road signs, still in miles (what do they wait to convert them to km…?!?)…

        • An advertisement is not proof of the actual dimensions of the door. Would anyone know if the true dimensions were 1 mm different from those advertised?

          Where is the manufacturers drawing that shows the actual dimensions used to make the product, plus tolerances?

  4. About Britain, Asterix (sadly, together with Tiintin, still little known in the US…) “docet”:


    (even if, actually, at Asterix’s times, the Romans measured distances in paces and their thousands (the concept of a million was still undiscovered, sadly), alias “milia passuum”: one Roman mile = about 1.48 km…).

    Another “googled” link:


    … just to laugh a little about certain idiosyncrasies (British, etc., etc., but not only)… 🙂 🙂

    • (Just a clarification: links discovered only with Google – no “ideology”, etc. etc. shared (see the second link, especially, after a more thorough inspection), of course: i.e., what counts is only the “global” quality of the explanation…)

    • Fraid not as the wind speeds are in mph. At least he didn’t insist on giving fahrenheit equivalents for the temperatures as on my local forecast!

  5. Maven: Another good essay, one that helped those of us unfamiliar with just where in England’s culture metrication (or is it “metrification” over there?) is nowhere near complete get some understanding of such.

    However, I have one style-related question: In this essay, why did punctuation go on strike???

  6. Let’s move from England to India: With respect to the election there, one of the main candidates there is apparently bragging about his “56-inch chest”, which was quoted on the front page of today’s NYTimes.

    Thus, is India truly an SI country? Googling this along with meters/centimeters [1.40 m or 1.42 m / 140 cm or 142 cm] led to not a single hit.

    Could the Maven or someone else explain this?

    • India (also Pakistan) is officially metric but a lot of Imperial units (and native units that were redefined in terms of Imperial) remain in use. Some of the native units even have different definitions in different Indian states yet remain the norm.

      But lets be honest. For former British colonies, having trouble completing metrication seems to be the norm. Look at the US, Canada, India, Pakistan, many Caribbean islands, some countries in Africa. They hate imperialism but love Imperial (well, the US uses pre-Imperial British measures as we had OUR revolution well before 1824, and had another dustup in 1812).

      Not clear why it is a source of pride, but the anti-metric movement in the US certainly likes to pretend those pre-Imperial British units are “American” and it is patriotic to use them, much as the British like to pretend the units the Romans and other invaders forced on them are “British.”

      Of former British colonies, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa seem to have done the best job of fully adopting metric; everyone else seems somewhat stuck in the middle, although not all at the same point. Still, while some are stuck on metrication, none seem to truly move backwards towards Imperial, and no country other than former British colonies or US territories seem to use it.

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