Helen, How things work, Project Updates, Volunteer Project

How things work (or not): measuring volumes of grain

One of the sources I’ve been interested in is the accounts of Burton mills, which a work experience placement was kind enough to begin working on for me last week. They cover about five years early in the 1700s and include week-by-week grain sales, wages, and expenses (particularly for horses). So far there has been nothing directly related to water management or flooding, but I know there are entries on maintenance in the Stafford mill accounts, so I wanted to be able to compare them. Because of the consistent presence of grain sales, I decided to create a graph of grain prices across the five years.

This is where the problem comes in. The grain (bread corn and malt) is given in strikes, pecks and gallons, and the cost in pounds, shillings and pence, but I want to convert this to pence per gallon. Currency is a known quantity: 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound. However measurement of volume is more variable. Strikes in particular are an obscure unit of measurement that varied regionally, so information for one county might not be accurate for Staffordshire.

My first thought was to look to court records, as the value of stolen property is always given. Values given for bushels of grain could be compared to values given for strikes, to establish a ration of bushels to strikes. However there are multiple reasons to doubt the reliability of any figures produced by this:

  • People didn’t always give an accurate figure for the value of goods to the court. Sometimes goods were devalued to present the theft as a lesser crime that it was (particularly if the thief was a neighbour or someone they knew). Sometimes the value was inflated for the court instead.
  • Courts were held quarterly for minor crimes (Quarter Sessions) and twice yearly for major crimes (Assizes). This meant that there might be a long wait for a case to be tried. Even if we know the date of the theft, we don’t know if the value given is for the grain at the time of theft, or the time of the trial. As a crop, the value of grain can be expected to vary throughout the year depending on availability and quality, so knowing the date would be useful.
  • Lack of sufficient data makes an accurate estimate hard. Although there are plenty of grain thefts, the information given is not always useable. Often this is because multiple things are stolen and value is given for the whole theft, not individual items.
  • Grain thefts seem to sometimes come in clusters in the records, so they may only be representative of times when prices are high due to crop failure or economic problems and increased desperation for food, though this can be hard to verify.

So how do I find the value of a strike? Quarter Sessions are not entirely useless. Every now and again, they yield useful titbits of information. On the 13th December, 1659 is a trial for the theft of “about 3 hoops or a strike of barley” (Q/SR/309/15). Brilliant! Roughly 3 hoops equals one strike! What’s a hoop?

The hefty, multi-volume “A New English Dictionary” possibly might be the saviour here. It gives the following values:

1 bushel = 4 pecks or 8 gallons (established legally as standard in 1826)
1 gallon = 277 1/4 cubic inches (U.K.), 231 cubic inches (U.S.)
The quantity of liquor between bands on a quart pot
1 hoop = 1 peck or 1/4 strike (Yorkshire 1674)
1 hoop = 20 quarts, 2 hoops = 1 strike (Montgomeryshire 1810)
1 hoop = 1/4 peck (1845 Ireland)
1 peck = 1/4 bushel or 2 gallons
1 peck = 554.548 cubic inches (U.K.), 537.6 cubic inches (U.S.)
1 quart = 1/4 gallon or 2 pints
1 strike = anything from 1 to 4 bushels
1 London bushel = 1 strike elsewhere (1523-34, 1609, 1759)
1 strike = 8 gallons (“Kings Standard” 1540)
1 strike = 2 bushels (1811)
1 strike = 1 legal bushel of 8 pecks (Isle of Axholme 1868)

1 peck = 2 gallons
1 bushel = 4 pecks
I’m going to choose to ignore hoops as not helping for now, and in order to resolve this confusion for the time being, cautiously treat strikes as the same as bushels, as that seems to have been a legal standard. Hopefully more information will clarify this for me, but until then, this will have to do.

If you’re interested in the mills project, please check out the call for volunteers:


– Helen


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