“THERE shall be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm, and one measure of ale and one measure of corn – namely, the London quart.”
A clause in Magna Carta, put before King
John at Runnymede in 1215, was among the first attempts to
standardise weights and measures across the British Isles. There
have been many since, the current primary legislation being the
Weights and Measures Act of 1985.
One way to avoid a fraudulent measure was to
have a 'standard' with an exact capacity that could be verified and
stamped. Standard measures were made in a heavy, durable material
such as bronze and kept safe by the local council. When a dispute
over measurement of wine or beer arose, a standard measure was used
to establish the true capacity of a particular vessel.
Rapid economic growth, and the emergence of
a robust tax-collecting machine, necessitated several issues of
standard weights and measures during the Tudor period alone.
Based upon the so-called Winchester standard
used in medieval times (when Winchester was the seat of
government), in 1495 the London Exchequer of Henry VII (1485-1509)
created new standards for measuring weight, length and capacity,
with the standard bushel set at 2224 cubic inches. The copies cast
and sent for use in 43 English shire towns are among the earliest
English measures extant - and the models against which all
locally-made coopered willow measures were checked.
Elizabeth I (1558-1603) issued a further set
of standard measures from bushel to half pint in 1601 (when the
bushel was set at 2124 cubic inches). This issue, sent to 57 shire
towns across England, proved so successful that these venerable
measures remained the primary standards until the Imperial system
was introduced in 1824.
Official measures from this period make
infrequent visits to the market - but two exceptional examples have
appeared at auction in as many weeks.
The first sale at new premises for Ipswich
auctioneers Lockdales included not just the two pieces of 17th century
Usolsk enamel that took the top price of the day, but a bronze
half pint measure applied with the raised lettering 16 ER
Logic has it that only around 60 of these
were ever made, and many fewer survived in public or private hands
long after 1824, so this example created plenty of interest at its
£600-900 estimate. The hammer price on March 1 was £5400 (plus 15%
The 17th century measure seen at the
Christie's South Kensington Masters
& Makers sale on March 6 belonged in a different sub
category - those produced for separate ecclesiastical or manorial
jurisdictions. Town charters, for example, often also gave the
mayor and bailiffs control of the weights and measures used as
standards for goods sold in the market.
A full 19in (48cm) bushel measure with twin
handles and three peg feet, it was applied with bronze lettering
reading Sr Bolstead Whitlocke of Henly Vpon Thames in Ye Covnty
of Oxon1671. It came for sale from the personal collection of
a furniture dealer.
A charming inscription with plenty of
research potential, a clear set of verification stamps and a
much-admired patination (the catalogue photograph did it little
justice) added to its appeal.
Providing further proof that old-fashioned collecting taste
still has capacity to generate substantial levels of competition
for the right object, five phone bidders and three strong bids left
on commission saw the estimate of £1500-2000 outstripped before it
took £7500 (plus 25% buyer's premium).