Saturday, 14 June 2008

1 bushel basket = 53 pounds = 18 quarts canned

Weights and measures

Far more confusing a language was used for weights of catch, probably deliberately. The very richness of dialect suggests the kind of slight of hand and trading wiles that would have been employed on the harbour front.

Already the Parliamentary enquiry of the 1730s had discovered that a Winchester bushel was a third less than the weight of an oyster bushel; as used in Billingsgate market. At the same time The Amsterdam pound was also 40 grams more than an English pound.

Linguistically the terminology was nothing short of genius. For the buying of spat on the Thames the measurement was a tub, which was the same as a bushel which was 21 gallons 1 quart and 1/2 a pint. Then there was a wash, being a quarter of a tub and was used by oystermen selling spat to the merchant. But then a wash was equal to a peck, while a nipperkin was one sixteenth of a tub and a bucket was one third of a wash or one and half of a tub. This was not a trade for the unwary or uninitiated (indeed to protect their jobs, in the 1800s the Essex oystermen instituted a seven year apprenticeship which was an early form of trade union closed shop to keep the business in the family as the Kentish men had done).

The language was different again from wholesale to retail. The merchants used a prickle, marked by a seal on a basket of oysters to denote half a tub. But in Winchester, Hampshire they had their own terms calling two quarts a pottle, a more commonly used term then for fruit and vegetables and ironic for the city that would later rule on the weight of a bushel in 1826 with the result that an American bushel and an English bushel are not the same either.

A tierce, was borrowed from the wine trade, and contained 42 gallons.

At Billingsate market, all fish was sold by the tale (sic) except salmon which was sold by the weight and oysters and shellfish which were sold by…the measure.

This drinking song The Barley Moe celebrates such linguistic chicanery. Each verse has to change the weight of measure and add on the last one:

It starts out as

Now here's jolly good luck to the quarter gill
Good luck to the Barley Mow
Jolly good luck to the quarter gill
Good luck to the Barley Mow
Oh, the quarter gill
Fetch in a little drop more…

And ends up eventually, presumably after a sip at each verse, with…

Jolly good luck to the company, good luck to the Barley Mow
Here's good luck to the company, the daughter, the cooper,
the brewer, the daughter, the landlady, the landlord, the full ton
the half ton, the barrel, the half barrel, the gallon,
the half gallon, the quart pot, pint pot, half pint, gill pot,
half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and the brown bowl.
Here's good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow

Good luck, to the Barley Mow, indeed.