Back in the early 70’s Britain went metric. Feet,inches and yards based on a root of 12 were thrown out in favour of the metric system of millimetres and metres rooted in units of 10, 100 and 1000.
Metrication swept aside Gunter’s Chain – yes the measure called a “chain” was actually a physical chain measuring 66ft (there were 80 such in a mile) and yes we did have to measure land area with this when I first started land surveying (if you didn’t know this is the measurement between the stumps at either end of a cricket pitch but I digress). Gunter’s chain was developed in 1620 remaining in use until metrication.
In his book “Measuring a meridian” first published in 1874 – Jules Verne describes the exploits of a group of men who were measuring a meridian in South Africa. A meridian is an imaginary line, a great circle, running through both poles around the earth. Famously the 0deg (longitude) meridian runs through Greenwich in London from which all time is measured.
In this book Verne writes of men struggling with keeping the chain horizontal and constantly measuring the temperature to take into account the expansion of the chain – it was afterall metal and would expand and vary, thereby making the measurements in error as compound measurements were taken.
This archaic and yes, quirky and vaguely romantic form of measurement was swept aside with metrication. In those heady days of the 70’s Gunter’s chain was replaced with steel or even fibreglass reinforced plastic 30 metre tapes, or they would have been had we have had any.
In the early 70’s, I can’t remember the exact year but I think 72, 73, I worked for C.Bryant and sons (Bryants) building and civil engineering contractors of Birmingham. Bryants had been awarded the contract for part of the huge “Chelmsley Wood” housing area to the South East of Birmingham near to Marston Green.
In my youth Chelmsley Woods were exactly that, woods, with blue bells amongst the trees in the spring and wonderful rhododendrons.The area also included large swathes of farm land heading over towards Water Orton, Castle Bromwich and Coleshill.
The ensuing mega-estate was divided up into a number of areas and each of those into sub areas. And I was working on Area 13a abutting the M6, which was being built at the time.There were about 1000 houses in this section alone. One block of which was destined to be constructed using a metric system. And the task befell me, as one of the handful of engineers on the site, to set out this particular block.
I asked for a metric tape but there were none thus the dimensions of the metric block were converted to ‘Imperial Feet and Inches’ and set out using an imperial tape. The block was positioned in virgin farmland measuring in imperial dimensions in order to do so. The levels of the block were all calculated and put in using a level and an Imperial staff.
We were told this was the first metric block of houses in Great Britain. I have no doubt the final precast concrete structure, called “System 4 Metric”, was constructed in metric using metric tapes and rules but the foundations were solidly imperial, or at least converted to be so.
A great fuss was made over the launch of this block of houses. The City Architect, Alan Maudsley (later to be arrested and charged with corruption for his dealing with other architects and contractors) arrived on site with a bus load of folks from the City Architects department. Alderman Beaumont-Dark, later Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark* (died 2006), a stock broker, MP and former Birmingham City Councillor was also present. He ceremonially buried an imperial measuring staff (used by me) into the foundations of this block before the superstructure started. Chris Bryant, the managing director of C.Bryant and Sons was also there. (Chris Bryant went on trial at the Old Bailey denying two counts of plotting to bribe Maudsley.)
In the foreground George Tilbrook (in the lighter suit) is being spoken to by the City Architect. Alan Maudsley.
Cllr Beaumont-Dark laying the imperial measuring staff into the foundations of the first metric houses in Great Britain.
Cllr Beaumont-Dark putting the finishing touches to the slab after burying the imperial staff.
2nd left George Tilbrook site manager/agent.
3rd left Allan Senior Engineer from Scunthorpe.
4th Chris Higgins engineer from Evesham.
5th left Ernie Harris engineer from Walsall way.
The remainder are groundwork crew including shuttering carpenters.
The Man with the staff is Joe from Norther Ireland. He was my chain man.
I was the engineer on the block and the photographer
It was a sordid time for the construction industry in Birmingham, but through it all houses were built and the industry appeared to be booming in and around the city.
You can see the layout of the houses drawn onto the ground floor slab and the re-finished part of the slab where the staff was buried.
A lot of the names have gone from my memory after these years. But George Tillbrook was the site manager. At the time he live in Nuneaton. Allan was the senior Engineers who came from Scunthorpe. Chris Higgins was part of the engineering team ( He was from near Evesham).Ernie Harris was also an engineer on site. My Chain-man – the engineers assistant – was called Joe and he came from Northern Ireland.
Sadly I’m not on any of these pictures as I was the photographer. My car is though. It’s the white VW Beetle in the first picture.
In passing. We, the technicians and tradesmen who turned all of this into reality were invisible to this motley crew. I remember not one comment made to me or my colleagues from anybody on that day.And certainly no recognition for suffering the interminable mud and bitter cold and rain in which we worked. Such is the lot of the working man I suppose.
There is a certain Schadenfreude in knowing what we now know. We may have been cold and wet at times but it was more than compensated by the glorious summer mornings, even the crisp winter days and we were free of the corruption surrounding the construction industry in those days.
The row of metric houses taken recently
The block of houses pictured recently. There is no sign of anything indicating the importance of this humble row of houses. Hopefully that may change.
*Further ignominy…This year -2013 – Sir Anthony’s son, Nicholas Beaumont-Dark, was given a 12 month sentence for downloading child porn.