One of the first instructions I got in 1970 from Central Headquarters was to get rid of all the equipment with ‘old’ imperial measures and change everything to metric. Out went the sturdy metal jugs that measured pints and fluid ounces and in came plastic jugs with metric millilitres. Many of the students I was teaching from the 1970s would be approaching fifty years old so most of the population must have discovered metric measures at some time!
Everyone was battling to understand the new decimal coins and complaining that it is a government trick to put up prices. In the classroom when the rest of the outside world carried on with the old measurements, I had to teach in metric. Milkmen delivered pints of milk in glass bottles, pubs sold beer in pint and half pint glasses and a half pint of prawns to go with it. The greengrocer priced his fruit and vegetables by the pound and he may have become one of the Metric martyrs and refused to change. Packs of lard and margarine were sold in half pounds or 8 ounces and flour was in 3 pound bags. But in the classroom we pressed forward into the future.
Our antiquated cooking books weren’t replaced so we had to translate the old system into the new, and the maths was complicated. There are 28 grams to the ounce, 454 grams to the pound, and one pint is 568 millilitres. Puzzled? So are we all.
Years later a student came up to me. What does oz mean? I thought he meant Australia, but no, he was using Delia who quaintly had maintained the old system in her recipes.
Timeline for decimalization and metrication
1971 British currency decimalised. A huge Government information campaign prepared the public for change.
1971 London schools adopt the metric system.
1973 UK enters EEC and commits to adopt the metric system
1974 Metric system taught in all British schools. Metric packaging begins.
1979 The new Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher abolishes the Metrication Board.
1980 Most Commonwealth countries have completed metric conversion. But Britain lags behind.
1995 All packaged goods sold in Britain have to be labelled in metric units.
History of the metric system
The metric system started in France and was rapidly adopted in other European countries during the 19th century. In 1960 the Conference on Weights and Measures adopted the name International System of Units (Système International d’Unités or SI) for the recommended units of measurement. A hundred years after recognising the benefits of going metric, Britain announced it would adopt metric units in 1965. Britain and the USA have yet to complete the changeover.
Imperial units, like metric ones, have roots abroad. Although the name “imperial” refers to the British codifying of units in 1824, many imperial units are based on Roman units used across Europe during the Roman Empire. Pounds and ounces have their roots in Italy and France. The abbreviation for ounce ‘oz’ comes from the Italian word onza.