HC Deb 04 May 1864 vol 175 cc1-12

Order for Committee read.

Moved, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Mr. W. Ewart.)


observed, that there was a very general feeling in the country in favour of uniformity of weights and measures, but it was desirable that that object should be accomplished by much more simple machinery than was proposed by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart). Englishmen were not, in his opinion, prepared to give up their ancient system, to which they had been so long accustomed, for one bearing foreign names, the introduction of which, if sanctioned by the House, would not be so easily accomplished as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imagine. He did not see how their foreign trade would be extended by the adoption of that system; because, in most of the foreign countries with which they traded, the metric system did not exist. Even supposing it was introduced in this country, he did not see how they could introduce it into their colonies. How were they to compel its adoption by the colonies or in India, where there was a strong opposition to such measures? He did not think that either the external or internal trade of the country would be promoted by the introduction of the metric system. All that was required by the agricultural interests was uniformity in the system by which their produce was bought and sold. The great majority of the buyers and sellers were practical people; and it was for such persons, and not for scientific men, that the House should legislate. As matters stood, however, he could but think that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) had confined his Bill to a pro- posal for rendering the weights and measures of the country uniform; according to the system now in force, he would have received general support. The common sense of the country was against the adoption of the metric system, and when the Question was put that the Speaker should leave the chair he should say "No."


considered that the principle of this Bill had been already sufficiently discussed, having been twice affirmed by the House. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Chester (Mr. Humberston) said he preferred a simple system, but the great merit of the metric system was its preeminent simplicity. The present system was confused; and, therefore, they sought to introduce the simpler system, not only on account of its intrinsic merits, but because other countries had adopted it. As to the colonies, the fact was they could not adopt the metric system because we prevented them. Many of the eminent firms in England had been obliged to adopt the system, by reason of their extensive dealings with other countries, and they found it to work well and satisfactorily, and by reason of its simplicity they were enabled to carry on their business with a reduced staff. There was a letter in The Times to-day, signed "Decimal Point," only the point was omitted, in which he supposed the latest arguments against the metric system were embodied. It was said the English yard was as good as the French metre, and no doubt they might have done the same thing with the yard as with the metre if they had been foremost in the field; other nations would have taken to the system with our yard for its unit; but the question now was, whether they could force other nations to adopt our yard in lieu of their already adopted metre. The chief advance made by the metric system was neither the application of the decimal or any other system of notation, but the adoption of a single unit, whether yard or metre, of all measure, linear, or of area, of weight, or capacity. The internal trade of the country required the adoption of an universal standard as well as the external trade. He conceived that none would be more benefited by the introduction of this simple system than the agricultural interests. A bushel of corn, or rood of land, had become unintelligible terms, and every transaction was in uncertain measures and intricate calculations. The common sense of the country was not against this simpler system, any more than the common sense of the House, which had twice affirmed the principle. It only required to be known, and was sure of adoption. Legislation was wanted only to give legal force to contracts made in its terms.


said, he must deny that the principle of the metric system had been affirmed by the House. The Bill had only been allowed by the courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade and the House to be read a second time in order that the question might be discussed in Committee.

Motion agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 (The Use of Metric Weights and Measures allowed.)


said, he objected to the words in line 10, That from and after the passing of this Act the weights and measures of the metric system shall be legal weights and measures. A clause of that description could not come into operation until there existed in the country a power of verification by comparison of metric weights and measures in use with an authorized standard. In fact, the clause involved that most important question, whether they were going to establish a new national standard, and to have copies of it sent through the country, in order that Inspectors of weights and measures might have the opportunity by comparison of verifying the metric weights and measures. They did not proceed in reference to a national standard by mere enactment. They had, first of all, a Commission of competent men to ascertain—in fact, to make the standard. There was no metre in this country which they could take as authoritative without careful examination by a competent Commission. When the Houses of Parliament were burnt, the national standard yard was destroyed. But they proceeded to restore it—not by a simple enactment saying that something should be a yard, but by appointing a Commission consisting of some of the most scientific men in the kingdom, who carefully, by comparison with copies of the standards which existed, restored the national standard yard which was now deposited in the Exchequer. Now, in regard to the me- tre, they were in a somewhat similar position. They would have to proceed by a careful inquiry by a Royal Commission, and make a metric standard. They did not know what a metre was. They were told it was to be found in Paris, and that a metre had been deposited in the Royal Society half a century ago, but had it ever been ascertained to be correct? Great changes took place in metallic substances, and who knew whether the metre in the Royal Society was correct? They seemed to be proceeding without proper information. They could not declare that certain weights and measures should be legal until they had first of all made their standard. They proposed to enact that certain weights and measures called metric should be legal; but what were they? The answer ought to be, "They are certain weights and measures which correspond with a standard deposited in some State Department." They had not deposited any standard. They had not made any standard. Therefore they were proceeding too rapidly. His hon. Friend ought first of all to have provided that a national standard should be constructed and deposited in a State Department, and that Inspectors and others under the Weights and Measures Acts might have, the opportunity of comparing and verifying other weights and measures by reference to it. That appeared to be a very necessary preliminary. His opinion was that his hon. Friend would do better not to attempt to establish any new national standard. He should merely confine himself to enacting that contracts should not be deemed invalid on the ground that the weights and measures therein referred to were metric weights and measures. If a new standard metre were now constructed, and copies sent to all the considerable towns of the kingdom, it was doubtful whether any retail trader would at this time go to the expense of providing himself with a metric set of weights and measures, at a cost of £30 or £40, merely upon the chance that some customer might prefer to buy his tea or sugar by metric weights instead of by ounces and pounds He doubled whether, in the retail trade of this country, the metrical system would ever voluntarily be adopted. He hoped, therefore, that his hon. Friend would act upon the suggestion which he had made.


said, he had been one of those who, when it was proposed to make the metric system compulsory, con- sidered it would be proceeding too fast; but he now thought that, if the House adopted the Bill as it stood, they would be proceeding too slowly. He had anticipated some of the objections of the right hon. Gentleman, and had given notice of Amendments which he thought would tend to improve the Bill as a working measure. There would be a great difficulty in at once enacting that the standard of the Royal Society should be the legal standard of the metrical system, as there was no law governing that society in its care of that standard, and therefore one of the Amendments suggested that the Bill should enact what were the equivalents between the metrical system and the present recognized standards. That being done, another clause should authorize the Government to prepare standards, and six months would be sufficient time for the preparation of those standards, to be kept in the Imperial exchequer. Then as to the distribution of exact copies of the standards throughout the country, he really did not see that that would be so expensive a proceeding as to cause any alarm in that House. If the course he had suggested were adopted, the public would acquire a theoretical and practical knowledge of those standards, and in time they would be so well informed of them that it would be agreed that their use might be made compulsory, which would be an enormous gain to the country.


said, that from his experience of the working of the metric system in France and Russia, he was convinced of its great advantages. He had been particularly impressed by the facility and the rapidity with which it was applied even in the most uncivilized parts of the latter country. He had very little doubt that, after a few years' experience of its advantages in England, the House would be able to pass a measure which would render its adoption compulsory. He admitted that the system would not become general until it was made compulsory; but that not being possible at the present moment, he thought the Bill was the beat that could be devised to further the adoption of the metric system.


expressed his approval of the metric system, which would be a great convenience to farmers in their corn transactions. He had always been a friend to the adoption of the principle contained in the Bill, which was so simple that it only required the lapse of a short time to convince the people that the decimal system was the simplest, and would in the end be found the best. Nothing could be of greater advantage than the establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures throughout the country.


said, it would be necessary in the first place that they should obtain a proper standard. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) said that the Royal Society had a proper metre which was deposited there in 1816, and that that would serve as a standard; for himself he knew nothing of it, but it was obvious that, having been there for half a century, it would not be advisable to adopt such a standard off hand. Three Commissions or Committees had formerly been appointed on this subject, all of which had arrived at different conclusions. Until they had a proper standard furnished he did not see how they were to make any satisfactory progress in this matter. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) proposed by one of his Amendments to define exactly what a metre was, and he declared that it was 39.371 inches. With all respect he could not regard the hon. and learned Gentleman as a decisive authority upon such a point, especially when he remembered that various commissions of savans had reported diversely as to the standard metre of France. Previous inquiry must take place before Parliament could pass any enactment upon that subject.


said, he had not ventured to define the equivalent of the metre, but had taken it from the Bill before the House. The exact proportion of those measures was a subject for very grave consideration, but with the enormous body of the civil service at their back, he thought it would not be a very difficult matter for the Government to ascertain the exact proportion between the metre and an English yard in inches and decimals. Considering the immense sum paid for the civil service, that was not too much to: expect from them. He did not undertake to establish the precise equivalent, but held that the figures proposed to the House were to be taken simply as representing a principle.


said, he was astonished to hear the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, that he did not know what was a metre. His predecessor had experienced a similar difficulty, and it appeared that the Government, with all the civil service at their command, had not been able to solve the difficulty. If the right hon. Gentleman had only run over to Boulogne he would have found a standard, for there was not a town in France of any importance where the standards of weights and measures were not kept. He really thought that, considering our entente cordiale with France, though it might not be what it was two years ago, had his right hon. Friend written a polite note to the Minister of the Interior, he would have obtained the necessary information. But the right hon. Gentleman, with all his ability, was not of an inquiring turn of mind, and had been content to remain as ignorant upon the point as he was last year. The right hon. Gentleman was surrounded by savans, and he had told the House that three sets of savans had reported upon the point, but had not been able to agree. If the right hon. Gentleman would procure a set of weights and measures from France, there would be no difficulty in reproducing them without the aid of savans. The Board of Trade, however, did not like trouble, nor did it approve any measure that was likely to give trouble. Any ordinary mechanic who worked with square and rule would solve the difficulty; but let the right hon. Gentleman keep clear of the savans, for, like the tailor of Laputa, who made his coats on mathematical principles and never fitted anybody, our savans could never do anything except in the most scientific and therefore most incomprehensible manner. He thought the Amendments of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) might be adopted, leaving it to the Board of Trade to discover the actual relations between English and French measures. When that was done, the result could be inserted in the Schedule.


said, he was not aware that in the corn markets of the West Riding of Yorkshire any difficulty was experienced with the present modes of measurement, however much it might be otherwise in Leicestershire. There was at present a standard in every town and county in England, and there was no difficulty in ascertaining what it really was. The usual mode of selling was by the load, consisting of three bushels, and the bushel of corn was fixed at 60lb. weight, so that no metric system was required lo make those bargains intelligible. He could not help thinking that this Bill, as a permissive measure, would create much more confusion than at present existed.


thought that a simplification of the weights and measures throughout the country was very much required, and in that opinion he was borne out by the evidence of the witnesses who had been examined before the Committee, of which he had been a member.


begged to express his gratification that the opposition of the Government had been confined to so small a point. The legalization of contracts in this country under the metric system was the pith of the Bill, and as the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had expressed his readiness to introduce clauses for that purpose, he would advise the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) to accept that offer if he could not carry his Bill in its entirely. In reference to the remarks of the noble Lord the Member for East Retford (Viscount Galway) he said, that in his county there were thirty-six different bushels, and he was informed that in Lancashire there were more than double that number. With respect to the creation of a standard, there could be no difficulty in obtaining an actual metre from Paris, and the clauses of the Bill would not come into operation until the metre was ascertained. The great advantage of the system was, that if they once got the metre they had ascertained the whole system. No other standard was required, every kind of measure being taken from that one unit. Copying an existing standard was not required, as when the standards were destroyed with the Houses of Parliament, fresh calculations were required to enable them to be replaced. A Royal Commission, therefore, would be of no use. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) spoke of enacting a scale of equivalents, but the Bill as it stood did that. If the Bill could not now be carried through the House on account of the Members not being sufficiently acquainted with the subject, he should advise its promoters to accept the proposal of the Government, which would place the measure in quite a new position before the country. Once legalized, the system would soon recommend itself; and then, whatever further provisions might be found necessary, would be more easily adopted.


said, he must complain that his right hon. Friend had given him no notice of the views with which he regarded the Bill or of his intention to op- pose it. He thought he was entitled to such information in common justice and courtesy. The metric system was used in different parts of the country, and all the Bill proposed was to legalize what had been done under it His right hon. Friend, without notice, had proposed an Amendment which was opposed to the whole Bill. He had tried to sound the right hon. Gentleman as to his intentions, but the right hon. Gentleman only replied in an oracular manner. "I shall be ready for you," The standard now in the possession of the Royal Society had been sent from France, and had been used on various occasions. The standard he proposed to introduce would unquestionably be one that could generally be applied. He would ask his right hon. Friend if he would agree to the appointment of a Commission for the purpose of determining a good standard, and whether he was prepared to bring in a Bill to legalize contracts made upon the metric system, because if he would do so he would withdraw the Bill now under discussion, believing that the Government would be enabled to bring forward a better measure than any which could be introduced by an individual Member of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman would not do so, no other course remained open to him but to proceed with the Bill.


said, he was sorry that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) seemed to think that he had been taken by surprise in the matter, do had never said that he would bring in a Bill on the subject. He had said that he should have no objection to propose a clause to something like this effect:— That notwithstanding anything contained in any Act of Parliament, no contract should be doomed invalid or open to objection on the ground that the weights and measures therein expressed were those commonly known as the metric weights and measures, and that the table (to be annexed) should be deemed to set forth the equivalents between the imperial and metric systems, Legalizing contracts expressed in metric terms was a very different thing from establishing a new national standard. The one he was prepared to do, but the other he could not support. To establish a new standard, leaving all the present weights and measures in operation, would not tend to the simplification of commercial transactions. They had for years been trying to secure uniformity, and if it could be accomplished, it would be most desirable; but custom and usage were stronger than Acts of Parliament in such matters He was not sanguine that the permissive sanction of a system would lead to its introduction. He had no wish at present to go beyond the recommendation of the Astronomer Royal, which was not for a new national standard, but only for a recognition of the relation between foreign measures and our own standard. He could not agree to the establishment of a new standard, as proposed by the Bill. If his hon. Friend would defer his Bill until he had seen the clauses which he proposed to submit, he would be able to decide whether or not they met his views. The object of his hon. Friend was to legalize contracts expressed in the terms of the metric system, and the clauses referred to would do that.


thought that the object of his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) would be attained if he accepted the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade.


said, it was rather hard that his unfortunate Bill should be treated so summarily when it had already been on the paper for more than a month. Would his right hon. Friend consent to the appointment of a Commission in addition to laying the clause upon the table?


said, he could not give any undertaking of that nature without conferring with his Colleagues. The proposal he had made was a reasonable one, and beyond it he was not pre pared to go.


said, that he had been a little puzzled to understand his right hon. Friend's distinction between a Bill to declare that certain contracts under a certain system of weights and measures should be legal, and a measure declaring that such contracts should not be illegal. He knew that his right hon. Friend had a very discriminating mind, and was sometimes able to perceive subtle distinctions where he must confess that he himself was at fault. In the present instance, he had not been able to gather the full purport of the distinction made. There was another difficulty through which he could not see his way. He understood that his right hon. Friend proposed that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart) should put the Bill in the form he suggested, and that he would give, on the authority of the Board of Trade, certain equivalents representing the relative proportion between the French and English weights and measures, but his right hon. Friend did not answer the question how he was going to ascertain the standard that would be satisfactory. He wanted to know from his right hon. Friend how he was to get the table of equivalents. If his right hon. Friend would satisfy the hon. Member for Dumfries that he was prepared to give those equivalents, and to put the Bill in a form that would carry out the object he contemplated, he would advise his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries to postpone the measure in order that his right hon. Friend might propose the Bill in his own form, on the understanding, however, that his right hon. Friend would supply the House with the information they required, and which could only be ascertained authoritatively from the Board of Trade. If that were done, they could, before the end of the Session, have the Bill in a form that would satisfy his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, and would attach to his right hon. Friend the responsibility as well as the credit of being the author of it.


remarked that in his opinion the difference sought to be established was merely one between fact and principle. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Milner Gibson) had simply asserted a fact, whereas the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Cobden) wished to establish a principle.


said, that upon the understanding that his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was prepared to undertake what he had proposed to the House, he would move that the Chairman report Progress.


begged to second the Motion of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumfries (Mr. W. Ewart), as his right hon. Friend had agreed to bring in a clause legalizing the employment of the metric system, and had undertaken to propose the true equivalent between the metric system and the imperial standard in use in this country. On that understanding he would leave the Bill in the charge of his right hon. Friend.

House resumed.

Committee report Progress; to sit again on Wednesday next.