Winchester bushel

Compare other bushels, particularly the U.S. bushel.

Download a chart for converting post-1696 Winchester bushels to liters (or, for A4 format)

A measure of dry capacity, since 1696 about 2150.42 cubic inches (about 35.239 liters). In earlier times it was slightly smaller. In Britain it was replaced in 1826 chart symbol by the imperial bushel; in the United States it is in use today.

Why Winchester?

map showing location of Winchester

Winchester is a city in southeastern England. Around 871 c.e., King Alfred the Great chose it as the capital of his kingdom of Wessex, perhaps because of town's supply of educated workers, then a function of the church. A cathedral had been built in Winchester as early as 648, and Alfred and his queen founded two more. The town's position as an administrative center continued even after the Norman Conquest (1066). William the Conqueror built a castle there, and the Domesday Book was compiled there. Not until wars of succession in the 12th century did the town decline in importance.

The golden age of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was probably the reign of Alfred's great grandson, Edgar the Peaceable (ruled 959 – 976 ce), arguably the first King of England. One of the problems Edgar addressed was weights and measures:

8. & gange án mynet ofer ealne þæs cyniges anweald, & þone nan man ne forsace.

§1. & gange án gemet & an gewihte, swilce man on Lundenbirig & Wintaceastre healde.

§2. & ga seo wæge wulle to cxx p', & nan man hig undeoror ne sille.

chapter 8. And let one money pass throughout the king's realm; and that let no man refuse.

§1. and let one measure and one weight pass; such as is in use in London and Winchester;

§2. and let the wey of wool go for 120 pence, and no one sell it for less.

A. J. Robertson, editor and translator.
The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

The above law comes from the third year of Edgar’s reign. (An Old English character that isn't available in browser fonts has been replaced with ampersands, which have the same meaning.) The translation is from Thorpe¹, revised slightly.

Winchester also seems to have been a center for manufacturing standard measures.² In any case, it became associated with standard grain measures. (The British would say “corn measures”; in British English, “corn” means grain, including wheat, barley and so forth. In the United States “corn” specifically means maize.) The term “Winchester measure”, however, did not appear in the laws until the 17th century.

1. Benjamin Thorpe.
Ancient Laws and Institutes of England.
London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1840.

2. See for example
Doris M. Stenton, editor.
Pipe Roll, 9 Richard I. Volume XLVI N.S. VIII
London: Pipe Roll Society, 1931. Under Hampshire.

Early standards

Several of the early kings distributed copies of standards to the various shires and cities: Richard I, for example, in 1197. Presumably the early capacity standards were made of wood and have decayed; in any case, none are known to have survived. The earliest surviving bushel prototype is a bronze vessel from Henry VII (made in 1497) of 2144.81 cubic inches; another made at the behest of Elizabeth I (1601) is 2148.28 cubic inches.1 Both can now be seen at the Science Museum in London. When copies of the Elizabethan bushel standard were distributed to the various counties and cities, Winchester did not receive one. The bushel standard it already had from Henry VII was stamped on the rim with crowned E’s, apparently indicating it conformed to Elizabeth’s new standard. It may even have played a role in defining Elizabeth's standard. In any case, the recycling of Winchester’s standard bushel indicates that Henry VII’s bushel and Elizabeth’s were regarded as identical at the time.

1. These values are taken from measurements made in 1931 – 32, which are more accurate than Everard's in 1696.

What is a bushel?

From at least the 13th century a bushel contained 8 gallons, and each gallon was the volume occupied by 8 pounds of wheat.

Par la discrecion de tout le royaume d'Engleterre fu la mesure nostre seignour le Roy ordenee en ceste maniere: C'est assavoir, que le denier d'Engleterre round et sanz tonsure poisera xxxii greins de froument en my le spic. Et xxd. font la unce; et xii unces font la livre, que continent xxs. Et viii livres de froument font la galone de vin. Et viii galons de froument font le bussell' de Loundres, qest la oeptisme partie du quarter.

With the concurrence of all the kingdom of England regarding measures, our lord the King ordered in this fashion: to wit, that the English penny, round and without clipping, weighs 32 grains of wheat from the middle of the ear. And 20 pennies make an ounce; and 12 ounces make a pound, which contains 20 shillings. And 8 pounds of wheat make the gallon of wine. And 8 gallons of wheat make the bushel of London, which is the eighth part of a quarter.

De composicione monete et mensurarum tempore Regis E[dwardi] filii Regis H[enrici].
MS. Cotton, Cleo. A. XVI, f. 6. 15th century. See Hall and Nicholas, page 6.

This idea of defining a unit of capacity as the volume of a given weight of a particular grain goes back thousands of years, but in many respects wheat is not the ideal substance for the purpose. As any farmer knows, the weight of a gallon of wheat fluctuates as its moisture content changes. The weight even depends upon the height from which the wheat is poured into the container. But wheat had the overwhelming advantage of being the commodity about which everyone cared desperately.

Not until a statute of Henry VII is the pound in question called a Troy pound:

that the measure of a bushel contains VIII gallons of wheat and that every gallon contain VIII pounds of wheat of Troy weight.

Act 12 Henry VII c 5.
Statutes, vol II, pages 637-638.

Thus a bushel of wheat should weigh 64 Troy pounds. Modern wheat is not the same as that of Henry VII's time, but fortunately in the 18th century Henry Norris¹ measured the density of English wheat, before modern fertilizers, pesticides and hybridization. He showed that 8 Troy pounds of wheat occupy a gallon of 239.5 cubic inches. Eight such gallons would be 1916 cubic inches, not Henry's 2144.81. In fact, regardless of what his statute said, Henry VII's bronze standard contains not 8, but 9 gallons – 72 Troy pounds of wheat. The standard was made to reflect the practice of the marketplace, where wheat was sold in heaped measures. One of Henry's bushels, stricken, would contain the same amount of wheat as 8 heaped gallons.

1. Henry Norris.
An Inquiry to show, what was the ancient English Weight and Measure according to the Laws or Statutes, prior to the Reign of Henry the Seventh.
Philosophical Transactions, volume 65, pages 48-58 (1775).

Enforcing the bushel

Continued confusion lead to more legislation, and by the 17th century the term “Winchester Measure” appears in acts of Parliament.

And that if any person or persons after the time aforesaid shall sell any sort of Corne or Grain ground or unground, or any kinde of Salt usually sould by the Bushell either in open Market or any other place by any other Bushell or Measure then that which is agreeable to the Standard marked in his Majestyes Exchequer commonly called the Winchester Measure containing Eight Gallons to the Bushell and noe more or lesse, and the said Bushell strucken even by the Wood or brim of the same by the Seller and sealed as this Act directs, he or they shall forfeite for every such Offence the summe of Forty shillings to be leavyed in such manner and such other penaltyes for want of Distresse to be inflicted as in and by the said former Act is directed by the Warrant or Order of any one or more of his Majestyes Justices of the Peace within the County, City or place where such Offence shall be committed; which said Justices respectively are hereby required and enabled to see this Statute duely executed.

22 Charles II c 8.
Statutes of the Realm: vol. 5, (1819), pages 662-663.

The modern Winchester bushel — after 1696

In preparation for the passage of a duty on malt in 1696, in the presence of members of Parliament Thomas Everard, the official Excise Gauger, and his assistants measured the capacity of the Exchequer's Henry VII standard bushel. They arrived at 2145.6 cubic inches. All were aware that money from the new tax would not be forthcoming until hundreds of new wooden measures had been made and distributed to merchants and customs agents. To facilitate the manufacture of the new measures, its dimensions were rounded off to 18½ inches in diameter by 8 inches high. In Everard's own words:

for a Cylindrical Vessel of these Dimensions will contain 2150.42 solid inches, which exceeding the Content of the Standard Bushel but 4.82 [cubic] Inches, and there being no other convenient Dimensions, without counting to the Hundredth Part of an Inch, that would come so near as these: It was enacted, in the Act¹ for Laying a Duty upon Malt,

That every Round Bushel with a plain and even Bottom, being eighteen Inches and a half Diameter throughout, and eight Inches deep, shall be esteemed a legal Winchester Bushel, according to the standard in His Majesty's Exchequer.

Thomas Everard.
Stereometry, or the Art of Gauging made Easy, by the help of a sliding rule.... 11th edition.
London: 1750.
Section XI, pages 208-209.
We are indebted to Robin Connor and A. D. C. Simpson for pointing out (in their Weights and Measures in Scotland) that this passage does not occur in editions prior to the ninth.

This event drew attention to the fact that the Elizabethan prototypes for the bushel and gallon were inconsistent with the relationship 8 gallons = 1 bushel. The corn gallon had come to be accepted as 272¼ cubic inches, but the bushel was not eight times that.

The standard for measuring corn, salt, coals, and other dry goods, in England, is the Winchester gallon, which contains 272¼ cubic inches. The bushel contains 8 gallons, or 2178 inches. A cylindrical vessel, 18½ inches diameter, and 8 inches deep, is appointed to be used as a bushel in levying the malt tax. A vessel of these dimensions is rather less than the Winchester bushel of 8 gallons, for it contains only 2150 inches; though probably there was no difference intended.

The New Encyclopedia. vol. 15.
London: Vernor, Hood and Sharpe, 1807.
Page 110.

In fact, the act of 1670 quoted above made the prototype of the bushel the legal standard, with the dry gallon 1/8th of it, whatever the capacity of Elizabeth's gallon, and as Everard said, the redefinition made the bushel slightly larger, not smaller.

Britain specifically abolished the Winchester bushel in 1824², in the act establishing imperial measure. Nonetheless, in the United Kingdom it continued to be used for such purposes as customary procedures for setting land rents, though heaped measure was abolished in 1834³ and 1835.⁴ In Australia, Victoria abolished the Winchester bushel in section 3 of the Weights and Measures Act of 1890. In New Zealand, it was abolished by section 3 of Law 30 of 1868. In the meantime, the “simplified” bushel had crossed the Atlantic and become the basis of the bushel in the United States.

1. 8 and 9 William III, chap. 22, sections 9 and 45.
Statutes, Vol 7.

Pages 248 and 256.

2. 5 George IV chap. 74.
Statutes at Large, vol 23, page 759.

3. 4 and 5 William IV chap. 49.
Statutes at Large. Vol 27.

Page 629.

4. 5 and 6 William IV chap. 63.
Statutes at Large. Vol 27.

Page 977.

want more?

R. D. Connor.
The Weights and Measures of England.
London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1987.

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