herring barrel


medieval woodcut of man packing fish in a barrel

In England and Scotland, 15th – 20th century, a unit of capacity that held 32 wine gallons (each 231 cubic inches) and had to contain at least 1,000 fish.  The herring barrel held 1000 herring in 1357, but by 1713 it was said to hold 1440 herring. Had the average herring become smaller? With the change to imperial measure, by 1855 the herring barrel was 26 2/3 imperial gallons (a difference of only 1.79 cubic inches).

In Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs ordained in 1722 that the herring barrel contained 66 Scots pints. The statute specifying the dimensions of the herring barrel in Scotland was repealed in 1963.ยน At that time, a herring barrel of Scotch cured herring was said to hold about 700 to 1,100 fish. A herring barrel of pickle-salted herring weighed about 320 pounds, of which 262 pounds were fish.

Simmonds (1892, page 193) says that the actual barrels for white herrings were made of Norway birch and ash, while those for red or smoked herring were made of fir.

1. J. J. Waterman.
Measures, Stowage Rates and Yields of Fishery Products.
Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research.  Torry Advisory Note Number 17.
Aberdeen, Scotland (?): Torry Research Station, no date (late 1960s?).

Available on the web at www.fao.org/wairdocs/tan/x5898e/x5898e00.htm


The Statute of the 13th of Queen Eliz. A. D. 1571, Chap. the 11th. Sect. 5, recites, that the Herring Fishers had been used to pack their Herrings in Barrels of thirty-two Gallons, usually Wine Measure, which has been allowed in London, and contained the same Measure of thirty-two Gallons, according to the Brass Measure delivered out of the Exchequer to the City of London, but that Measure was objected to of late, as not containing thirty-two gallons by the old Measure of Standard, which (the Act says) it never did, though the Extremity of Old Statutes in Words might be stretched to require so much; and reciting, that the barrels now used were as great as any within the Time of Memory they have been known: The Queen is therefore prayed, that it be enacted, that the said Assize of thirty-two Gallons of Wine Measure, which is about twenty-eight Gallons by old Standard, well packed, and containing in every barrel usually 1000 full Herrings at the least is, and shall be taken for, good, true, and lawful Assize of Herring Barrels, any ancient or former Law, or Statute, to the contrary not withstanding. 

This section of the Statute is in all the Editions printed in the Manner here stated, and the Record agrees with the Print, only it appears upon the Record, that the Lords and Commons consented; and the Queen gave the Royal Assent to those Petitions, although they do not appear by the Print to have been enacted, but only prayed to be so.


By the Statute 2 Henry 6, the Barrel of Herrings, full packed, was to contain thirty Gallons, that being the ancient Assize; and the Gallon then meant was the lawful Standard Gallon. In the 13 Eliz. Ch. 11 A.D. 1571, 148 years after the former Statute, the Herring Fishers applied to the Parliament, stating the Usage to pack Herrings in Barrels, which contained thirty-two Gallons of what they called Wine Measure, such as the Brass Measure delivered to the City of London from the Exchequer contained; that the said Gallon was less than the Gallon at the Exchequer; and the Herring Barrels, packed by the City Measure, should contain only twenty-eight Gallons Standard. The Queen and Parliament are, by this Representation, brought to establish the Herring Barrel to be 28 Standard Gallons only; whereas the usage of making those barrels to hold thirty-two Gallons of the City Measure, was probably to comply with the legal Assize, requiring thirty Standard Gallons, the smaller Measure of the City requiring thirty-two Gallons to be equal to thirty Standard Gallons; and thus the legal Assize of Herrings was reduced two Gallons in thirty, or one fifteenth part by not recollecting, or not attending to the Statute of the 2 Henry 6 then in Force.

Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons.
Reports from committees of the House of Commons which have been printed by order of the House, and are not inserted in the Journals. Volume II. [Lord Carysfort's Commission.]
Report from the committee appointed to inquire into the original standards of the weights and measures in this kingdom, and to consider the laws relating thereto. 26 May 1758
Page 417 and 421.

Thirty-two 231-cubic inch gallons = 7392 cubic inches. Thirty 282-cubic inch gallons = 8460 cubic inches. Twenty-eight 282-cubic inch gallons = 7896 cubic inches.

For Further Reading

Simon Smith.
The herring-busse trade: expressed in sundry particulars, both for the building of busses, making of deep-sea nets, and other appurtenances, also the right curing of the herring for forreine vent.  Together with, sundry orders of the Netherlands, for the better government of the Royall fishing, as by treatise doth more at large appeare.  All which hath bin perused by the Parliament Committee, and is appointed to bee published for the generall direction of the whole Kingdome.
London: printed by E. P. for Nicholas Bonrne, 1641.

[Trader in Fish.]
The best and most approved method for curing white-herrings, and all kinds of white fish. Containing particular directions how to slit, gut, salt, dry, and barrel them, fit for sale at home, or foreign markets.  With directions for boiling of oil.  To which is added, an exact estimate what quantity of salt will cure so many white-herrings, or any number of white fish of any kind.
London: Joseph Davidson, 1750.


In Germany, 20th century, a unit of mass used for herring, = 100 kilograms (approximately 220.462 pounds avoirdupois). 

United Nations, 1966.

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