back search


Hampshire Trading Standards

The Trading Standards Service in Hampshire : A short history

Written to mark the centenary of the County Council in 1989

Newspapers, radio and television carry more and more mentions of the work of Trading Standards Officers, and it is easy to suppose that the Trading Standards service began only recently. This is far from the truth. The origins of the service are in the enforcement of legislation on Weights and Measures, the start of which goes back before the Norman Conquest.

This article aims to outline the tangled history of what is now Hampshire County Council's Trading Standards Service, with some lighter stories along the way.

The enforcement of Weights and Measures legislation is still a core part of Trading Standards work in this country. Its importance is still recognized in the manner in which new trading standards statutes usually provide that enforcement shall be by the 'local Weights and Measures Authority', which in Hampshire (and throughout the 'shire counties') is the County Council.

There is a long history of legislation in this country on weights and measures. It started before the Norman Conquest, and runs throughout the medieval period. The main problem which the laws tackled was that of standardisation of weights and measures - making sure that a pound or gallon in Winchester was the same as in Worcester, Warwick or Westminster. It sounds a simple enough task to arrange, but in fact it took until the early years of this century, the principal reason for this being that the early statutes made little provision for anyone to enforce the laws, and without enforcement, things went on as before. An amusing instance of this lack of enforcement occurred in relation to a type of scale called the bismar or auncell, which was much used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly by merchants in the wool-trade. This type of scale was at best highly inaccurate, and at worst an open invitation to commit fraud. In 1348. Edward III outlawed it, but it continued in use even after further Acts of 1352 and 1360. Eventually, in 1428, the Archbishop of Canterbury threatened anyone using it with excommunication. That finally finished off the auncell, but subsequent Archbishops have, alas, shown less interest in Weights and Measures enforcement!

Returning to the quest for consistent units of measurement, here is an extract from a letter which appeared in the 'Monthly Review' of the Incorporated Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures in 1893: 'A gallon is not a gallon. It's a wine gallon, or one of three different sorts of ale gallon, or a corn gallon, or a gallon of oil! and the gallon of oil means seven and a half pounds for train oil, and eight pounds for some other oils. If you buy a pipe of wine, how much do you get? Ninety-three gallons if the wine be Marsala, ninety-two if Madeira, a hundred and seventeen if Bucellas, a hundred and three if port, a hundred if Teneriffe. What is a stone? Fourteen pounds of a living man, eight of a slaughtered bullock, sixteen of cheese, five of glass, thirty-two of hemp, sixteen and three-quarters of flax at Belfast, four and twenty of flax at Downpatrick. It is fourteen pounds of wool as sold by the growers, fifteen pounds of wool as sold by the wool staplers to each other. There are seven measures in use to define an acre. A hundredweight may contain a hundred, a hundred and twelve, or a hundred and twenty pounds. A hundredweight of pork is eight pounds heavier at Belfast than at Cork. A man may live by selling coal at a less price per ton than he paid for it at the pit mouth. A ton of coal at the pit mouth varies from twenty-two to twenty-three hundredweight of a hundred and twelve pounds each. Of cheese, thirty-two cloves (of eight pounds each) make a wey in Essex, 42 in Suffolk. We walk in this United Kingdom by means of four sorts of miles, an English mile being 217 yards shorter than a Scotch mile, and 480 yards shorter than an Irish mile, and the geographical mile being another measure differing from all three. Our very sailors do not mean the same thing when they talk of fathoms. On board a man-of-war it means six feet, on board a merchant-man five feet and a half, on board a fishing vessel five feet.'

It is interesting to note the confusion over 'pipes' of wine: a statute of 1423 had defined the pipe as 126 gallons, and this had been confirmed by a statute of Queen Anne in 1706. Clearly, short measure was the norm in the wine trade!

Even as recently as 1937, the American 'Journal of Science' could report (with evident relish) that the British 'sell pickled cod by the barrel, trawled cod at so much each, hooked cod by the score, crimped cod by the pound, shrimps by the stone, soles by the pair. Dutch smelts by the basket, and English smelts by the hundred. Butter in Ireland is sold by the cask and the firkin, in England by the pound of 16Ozs., by the roll of 23OZS., the stone, and the hundredweight, which is not 1001b. as in Canada and the United States, but 1121b. A load of straw is 1,2961b., of old hay 2,0161b., and of new hay 2,1601b., though it is not specified when the hay becomes old. A firkin of butter is 561b., a firkin of soap is 641b, and a firkin of raisins 1121b. A hogshead of beer is 54 gallons, but a hogshead of wine is 63 gallons.'

If we consider that in 1215. Magna Carta had declared that: 'there shall be but one measure of wine throughout the realm, and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn, that is to say, the quarter of London; and one breadth of dyed cloth, russets, and haberjects, that is to say, two yards within the lists. And it shall be of weights as of measures’, we can see that seven hundred years of enforcement had not had a lot of effect! Eventually it was recognized that the deficiencies in the system could not be tackled without allocating resources for effective enforcement. The Weights and Measures Act 1834 therefore provided for the first time for the appointment of 'Inspectors of Weights and Measures' - the first official use of this title. To this day, Trading Standards Officers are still known by the older name, particularly to shopkeepers, publicans and other traders who use weights, measures and scales.

In Hampshire after the 1834 Act, the Municipal Boroughs of Andover, Portsmouth, Southampton and Winchester, as well as the County Magistrates sitting in Quarter Sessions at Winchester had a responsibility for appointing Inspectors of Weights and Measures, many of whom were also police constables.

At this time, there was no need for an Inspector of Weights and Measures to have passed any examination on his knowledge and competence. Nor was there satisfactory central control over the many local authorities, to ensure that proper and uniform enforcement was provided over the whole country. This latter point was tackled in the Weights and Measures Act of 1878 which gave the Board of Trade, part of central government in London, powers to regulate the discharge of duties of local officers and control over their standard weights and measures. This function has continued to be exercised by the Board of Trade's successors, later the Department of Trade and Industry.

The next major change was the Local Government Act of 1888. The Act provided for the first time for an elected County Council to take over many of the administrative responsibilities of County Justices of the Peace and other ad hoc bodies. By the same Act, County Borough Councils were created as the local authority for the larger centres of urban population. In Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton were County Boroughs, and Bournemouth (part of Hampshire until 1974) became one in 1900, following its rapid increase in population in the 1880's and 90's.

The Local Government Act almost coincided with the Weights and Measures Act 1889, which came into force on 1st January 1890. It prevented smaller boroughs such as Andover acting as Weights and Measures authorities, and also provided for an examination to be set by the Board of Trade for Inspectors of Weights and Measures.

The Weights and Measures Authorities in Hampshire as at 1st January 1890 were the County Boroughs of Portsmouth and Southampton, with civilian inspectors, and the City of Winchester and the County of Southampton (or Hampshire) with police officers carrying out the weights and measures duties. Bournemouth took responsibility for its weights and measures enforcement from 1891, with a civilian inspectorate.

Transporting the Inspector and his equipment was a problem quickly tackled by the Hampshire County Council in the early 1890's, a decision which inspired a columnist in a Christchurch newspaper to write as follows:

'More Taxes for Hants!

Each inspector of weights and measures under the Council is to be provided with a horse and dog cart, and to arrange for stabling, etc., and power has been given to the General Purpose Committee to employ an assistant for each inspector. Sir William King said this decision was the result of twelve months' thought, and the pony and trap were to enable inspectors "to make surprise visits in their districts".

What do surprise visits mean?

Surely Sir William King does not think our shop keepers are a set of rogues! We have not yet heard of any respectable tradesman giving short weight in Boscombe, Bournemouth, or any of these parts.

But this increased taxation will suggest increase of prices or not such good weight as our tradesmen have been giving.

As to the assistant, why not engage the inspector's wife to drive out in the pony and trap upon fine days and pay her a good salary to do her shopping in carriage style?

Or let the inspector have a footman in livery to do it for her, and give him the salary and the wife to drive.

Cannot the Hants County Council supply the tradesmen with a pony and trap and an assistant. This would be very acceptable.'

Whatever the columnist's reservations, it seems that transportation for inspectors was subsequently provided, as there is a (possibly apocryphal) story that an assistant to a Weights and Measures Inspector at Basingstoke was given the sack for failing to feed the inspector's horse !

The old County authority quickly saw the advantages of motor transportation, as this report from the 1922 Municipal Journal shows: 'GOOD SERVICE-Hampshire County Council proposes to purchase another car for the Weights and Measures Department. The department now has a car which was purchased in 1913, and has run 47,000 miles at an average cost of 3.5d. per mile, or, including the original cost of the car, 4.9d. The car carries three persons and a quarter of a ton of standard weights.'

From these figures it would appear that the car cost about £275. Records still exist showing the purchase in 1925 of a Morris Oxford for the Basingstoke office for the outlay of £294 9s 6d. In later times it became standard for inspectors to provide their own motor cars and to be paid a mileage allowance. But though this greatly aids the inspector's task in carrying heavy testing equipment, some authorities were more cautious in their arrangements for inspectors' transportation. A 1949 report from the Portsmouth borough describes the pursuit of a coalman driving a horse and cart by an inspector and his assistant on bicycles! (In those days, coal-lorries had to carry weights and scales to facilitate any weighings by an inspector.)

Until well after the Second World War, the work of the Weights and Measures Inspector was mainly concerned with the physical weights, measures and scales used by traders. Apart from spot checks at the premises where the equipment was used, there were, for many years up to 1963, annual 'stamping stations' in towns and villages. Traders would bring their weights and scales to the church-hall or the like, for testing and, where necessary, adjustment.

The division of Hampshire between the boroughs and the old 'county' authority created some interesting legal problems. A City of Southampton inspector, for instance, was in pursuit of a coal lorry inside the City, but the coalman made for the 'border' at high speed. Once over he stopped, and informed the inspector that as they were outside the City, he was powerless to take action on the short weight sacks which were on the vehicle. Now a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as the coalman learned, because the City of Southampton and Hampshire County had a 'reciprocal agreement' to authorise inspectors to work on the 'border areas' of the neighbouring authority, in order to minimise problems with such cases of 'hot pursuit'. The coalman was successfully prosecuted.

With all this emphasis on the accuracy of equipment, it is surprising how little the early Weights and Measures Acts regulated short weight and measure. From early days there was an offence for 'fraud in the use of a weighing (or measuring) instrument,' but prosecutions were rare as it was difficult to satisfy a court that actions were fraudulent rather than merely careless. The first commodity to be controlled so that short-weight was an offence without proof of fraud was coal (1889). Food was not covered until 1926, but even then only retail sales were controlled. Ballast was added in 1936, and only in the 1963 Act were the offence sections widened to cover any short-weight or short-measure sale. (Before this, prosecutions could sometimes be taken against goods with an incorrect written quantity declaration under the Merchandise Marks Act 1887, the forerunner of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968.)

One case where a neat fraud was uncovered concerned the sale of plums at a Hampshire market. Several purchases were found to be short-weight even though the scale could be seen to be showing the declared weight, and was accurate when tested. It was finally noticed that often the stall holder would look at the plums in the bag as he handed them to the purchaser, and say 'Oh, there's a bad one there. I'll change it'. The 'bad' plum was eventually found behind the stall: the 'badness' was due to its being hollowed out and filled with lead !

The Weights and Measures service changed little until the 1960's, though gradually more and more statutes were added to the inspector's armoury. The Petroleum Act of 1871 gave him responsibility for the licensing of retail sites storing petroleum (and calcium carbide, much used for acetylene vehicle lamps in the early days of motoring). The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875 was the beginning of the inspectorate's ever-growing concern for quality as well as quantity. The Act empowered inspectors to sample food and drugs for adulteration, and from it developed the complex legislation which now controls the composition, purity and labelling of foodstuffs. The Explosives Act 1875 regulated the storage of explosives on retail sale. These days, these include fireworks, marine flares and shotgun cartridges. The Merchandise Marks Act 1887 has already been mentioned, and provided some regulation of the accuracy of written descriptions of goods. The Fertilizers and Feeding Stuffs Act 1893 was concerned with the quality of agricultural materials. In all these areas the legislation has developed over the years and is still enforced by the Weights and Measures Authorities - in Hampshire, the County Council's Trading Standards Service.

The Food Act 1984 and the many sets of regulations made under it, provide a large measure of control over the composition, purity and labelling of food, as indeed was the case under its predecessor, The Food and Drugs Act 1955. While nowadays much of the Trading Standards Officer's task in enforcing food law consists of advice to food manufacturers, not so many years ago there was widespread adulteration of staple foods, and on one occasion in the days when milk deliveries were made from a bulk tank, and the milkman drew off the milk for delivery in a measure which was tipped into a container provided by the purchaser, one milkman was observed to adulterate the milk in the tank with water. The inspector then purchased a formal sample of the milk from the milkman, and the Public Analyst certified that the sample contained added water. When the case was heard in court, the milkman addressed the magistrates: 'Your Worships, that milk was as right as rain.'

Another original excuse was heard in a case where the bottles of spirits on sale in a pub were found to be under strength. The landlord claimed that water must have got into the bottles when the fire brigade used their hoses to put out a fire at his pub!

The Trading Standards Service continues to respond to changes. The current range of legislation enforced is far wider than anyone could have imagined a hundred years ago. The Service’s responsibility now extends to over 200 Acts and numerous Regulations.

Yet alongside the ever-increasing detail and complexity of laws, Trading Standards Officers have to combat some tendencies in humanity which never change. Over the last twenty years or so, the Trading Standards Officer has had to deal with more and more activities on the fringes of organised crime. The best example is the practice of "clocking" (reducing the mileage indications on second-hand cars); in many cases this practice could be charged as an offence under the Theft Act, but it is simpler to prove offences under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. Courts no longer regard this as a "technical" infringement, and more and more "clockers" round the country are receiving heavy fines and imprisonment. In the last two years, Hampshire's Trading Standards Department has taken cases resulting in a sentence of six months' imprisonment, and fines totalling £42,000, as well as many other smaller fines.

Another practice which is indistinguishable from organised crime is "counterfeiting", where a product well-known to consumers, and often selling for a high price, is cheaply copied so as to be almost indistinguishable from the genuine product. Examples are many, extending from consumer goods like audio cassettes, clothing and perfumes, to industrial components, and even aircraft brake-pads! Here, action by Trading Standards Officers may be necessary to protect the public's safety as well as their pockets.

Many recent changes in the law have been as a result of European Directives becoming a part of the UK law. In particular this has meant a vast increase in the Department's work on the safety of goods. The old legislative approach whereby the UK Government made regulations covering a few classes of goods with perceived safety risks (e.g. toys, electrical goods, prams, oil lamps) has been radically altered, so that now there is a duty to supply safe goods of almost all descriptions. The Trading Standards Officer must therefore be ready to investigate the safety of any type of consumer goods.


In this section…