Jason Clarke Antiques

Rare First Year Governmental Standard Yard Measure by Bate London - 1824


For sale a historic 1824 Brass Governmental Standard Yard by Robert Brettell Bate

This imperial standard yard measure was manufactured in the same year that the new Imperial Standards were enshrined into British law by George IV in 1824 and is comprised of a solid brass bar which measures a yard in length (36 inches). In differentiation to any others I have seen, this example comes complete with its own integral stand which has been minutely engineered to fit the length of the bar. This larger square shaped bar of brass has an upstand at either side and a fluted base in order that the yard can be held tightly at either end and removed as necessary. The two ivory grips on the bar allowing for some hand tension to be exerted for removal.

The bar itself is marked with the indenture number 317 as is the front of the base. The base also bears engraving stating, “Imperial Standard Yard – 1824” with the maker’s name, Bate London to the right and County of Wilts to the left denoting which Governmental County for which it was intended.  

The reverse of the base is also engraved with an inch scale with the first and last inch divided into hundreds of an inch, the second inch divided into twelfths of an inch and the third inch divided into sixteenths of an inch.

The upright ends which hold the yard in place are numerously stamped with exchequer marks up to 1879 and also bear the royal ciphers for George IV, William III and Queen Victoria.

This is a truly rare example of a standard yard and is from the same batch of measures as are separately advertised on my website, the following detail will I hope help in explaining why these pieces have more than ordinary appeal.

The maker, Robert Brettell Bate was a very high quality manufacturer of scientific instruments working in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. Born in 1782, to a family of Bankers in Stourbridge, he initially travelled to London to become a Haberdasher under his Uncle Robert Brettell. His Aunt, Mary Brettell had also moved to London some years before after meeting and subsequently marrying Bartholomew Sikes an excise officer who had been working in Stourbridge. It was the latter circumstances that would eventually enable Robert Bate’s meteoric career.

Whilst undertaking his work for the Government, Sikes had for many years been endeavouring to make design improvements to the Clarke’s hydrometer which was considered somewhat inaccurate. His petitioning of the Government finally saw some success when HM Excise formed a committee headed up by the famous scientist William Hyde Wollaston to judge the effectiveness of nine new hydrometer designs. In 1803 at the age of 73, Sikes was finally awarded the Excise contract but died almost immediately after, leaving the Government contract award in limbo.

In 1804, Robert Bate married his cousin, the daughter of his aunt Mary and Bartholomew Sikes and through successful petitioning by the family, the Board of Excise finally agreed in 1807 to honour the original 1802 contract. Bate’s new company had premises at 17 Poultry and by 1814 he had become a member of the Spectacle Maker’s Company of London. Having not undertaken an apprenticeship in scientific instrument making, this was a somewhat unusual circumstance but clearly proves the success that the hydrometer contract had brought him by this point.

The hydrometer Act of 1818 saw Bate undertaking further saccharometer and hydrometer improvements with William Hyde Wollaston for which patents were applied. This new focus on improving accuracy resulted in a Governmental Commission being set up in the same year and eventually led to the new Weights and Measures Act of 1824 which sought to unify standards across The British Isles.

It stated in part:

“And whereas not withstanding it is provided by the Great Charter, that there shall be but one Measure and one Weight throughout the Realm, and by the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, that the same Weights and Measures should be used throughout Great Britain as were then established in England, yet different Weights and Measures, some larger, and some less, are still in use in various Places throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the true Measure of the present Standards is not verily known, which is the Cause of great Confusion and of manifest Frauds : For the Remedy and Prevention of these Evils for the future, and to the End that certain Standards of Weights and Measures should be established throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; be it therefore enacted.” 

Although the linear standards were initially worked upon by Dollond under the guidance of Captain Henry Kater FRS, it is clear from this example that Bate was commissioned to produce both the volume and linear types. Kater writes in his 1825 presentation to the Royal Society that:

“These standard yards were made by Mr. Dollond; they are of brass, one inch square. To their extremities are firmly screwed rectangular pieces of steel of the same width as the bar, and projecting above its surface. The distance between the interior faces of the steel termination is intended to be equal to the length of the imperial standard yard. To determine this distance I employed the following method:

Two bars of brass were prepared, three quarters of an inch square and rather less than 18 inches long. They were terminated by planes at right angles to their length ; and upon the upper face of each bar, very near to the end, a fine transverse line was drawn; the other ends of the bars being then placed in contact and kept so by springs, the distance between the lines was taken by means of two micrometer microscopes fixed to a bar of wood and referred to Sir G. Shuckburgh's standard scale, which scale, it has already been remarked, does not sensibly differ from the imperial standard yard.

The distance between the lines was found by numerous comparisons to be 919 divisions of the micrometer less than the standard yard, each division of the micrometer being equal to 1/23363 of an inch.

The brass bars were then placed upon the standard to be examined, their marked ends being next each other, and their opposite extremities kept in contact with the steel faces by a spring introduced between the bars, a part below the surface being cut away for that purpose. The distance between the lines was then measured by the micrometer microscope, which distance, had the standard been perfectly correct, would have been equal to what the distance of the lines in the former position of the bars wanted of inches.”

What Kater seems to be describing is something very close to the standard yard presented here, namely a brass bar held within a frame. The design is of course somewhat different to any other extant yard standards that I have seen so it may be that initially, they were produced in alignment to Dollond’s methods. I suspect that this design was somewhat expensive and also lengthy so it is likely that the design was later changed to that which is more commonly seen, a single bar of brass with divisions provided.   

Kater also mentions at the end of his publication that:

“The various standards which have been described in this paper with the exception of the yards with steel terminations are not meant for common use, but are intended to be carefully preserved, to be referred to only upon extraordinary occasions. In addition however to these, other weights as well as measures of capacity were made with great care by Mr Bate.”

Bate was also obvious candidate for producing the new Imperial Standards for Weights and Measures due to his supply of hydrometers, and Kater commissioned him in August of 1824 to create some volume measure samples for consideration.

Initial experiments were conducted in relation to the ratio of tin and copper alloy from which the measures would be produced. This alloy normally associated with the making of bells (hence the name bell bronze) had greater rigidity which creates high resonance when struck.  The famous engineer Bryan Donkin was first considered to provide the bronze castings but he declined and upon Bate’s recommendation, the engineer Peter Keir was selected alongside the brass founders JF Drury of Clerkenwell.

In 1825, Kater described his experiences of the creation of these new standards in an article printed in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. Available in full on The Royal Society website, the full transcript is too long to replicate but of this initial activity, Kater writes:

“I directed Mr Bate, an artist who, as hydrometer maker for Revenue purposes, had been accustomed to nice operations in weighing, to construct those of weight and measure. Brass being peculiarly liable to decomposition in the atmosphere of London, I directed Mr Bate to make some experiments, to ascertain the proportions of tin and copper which might produce a metal equal in hardness, and which might be worked with the same facility as hammered brass; and after some trials it was found that a mixture of 576 parts of copper, 59 of tin, and 48 of brass, afforded a beautiful metal, which possessed the qualities I sought.

Considerable difficulties arose in casting the bushel; out of twelve, only five proved sound enough for use; but by varying the process, they were at length procured sufficiently perfect. Much credit is due to Mr. Keir, the engineer employed by Mr. Bate in turning the bushels, for the beauty and perfection of his work.”


The sheer amount of detail involved in creating these new standards was incredible. The basis for this new system was provided by the earlier comparison by Sir George Shuckburgh of numerous historical standards kept at The House of Commons and Bate was required to become involved in producing some very fine and accurate instrumentation before he could even attempt the final product as the effects of heat and pressure on both the water and metal had also to be accounted for. Amongst this instrumentation, it is known that he created fine balances, a thermometer which could accurately measure to a tenth of a degree and even undertook the construction of an air conditioned room at his premises (which by this time were further expanded to 20 & 21 Poultry) to ensure the uniformity of atmosphere required.  

Given the huge amount of work involved, it is unsurprising therefore that from the date of the 1824 Weights & Measures Act, the main Governmental standards weren’t immediately finalised, however it is clear from this yard and the accompanying volume measures I have for sale, that the production of the standards for County use did indeed begin. Anita McConnell’s book, “RB Bate of The Poultry 1782 – 1847” records a set created for the County of Haddington in the same year (whereabouts unknown) and The Science Museum also holds an 1824 City of Westminster set but these seem to be the only two other extant examples from the first year. Written records show that within twelve months of the Act coming into power, Bate produced one hundred and twenty six sets of measures for the Government and with the amount of preparatory work involved, it is likely that the majority were produced in 1825 and would have been marked as such. This yard is therefore amongst the very few that were made in the first year of the 1824 Act and produced under Bate’s personal direction.

Bate did also provide some measures to overseas Governments, in Europe an example was used for comparison against other European standards in existence at the time and a Troy pound was also used by the US Government eventually becoming the basis for the country’s coinage standards. It was perhaps small solace given that Bate was still arguing with the British Government over his costs until 1828 when finally the bill was settled. The argument was centred on Bate’s own personal costs for his efforts which the Government thought to be rather inflated but judging from both Bate’s attestations to the Government and the following approbation from Kater during his reading to The Royal society, it would seem that his expenses were wholly justified.

“I cannot conclude without bearing testimony to the unwearied perseverance, ability and accuracy, which Mr. Bate has shown in the course of a work attended with no common difficulties, and to the perfect execution of which he has devoted, for a long period, the whole of his time and attention.”

How Bate avoided financial ruin during this period is astonishing. There are numerous historical stories of hardship within the instrument making trade at this time from the assuming of Governmental contracts and although the prestige was high, many suffered at the sheer delays in receiving payment. Bate’s company did however manage to continue to produce numerous other instruments which were used by The East India Company, The Royal Navy, The Board of Ordnance, The Hydrographic Office and The Bank of England. He continued to supply the Government with measures throughout his career and was also involved in the updated Weights & Measures Act of 1834 during the reign of William IV.

His quality of manufacture led him to receive Royal Appointments from George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria for whom he acted as Optician and he eventually rose to become Master of the Spectacle Maker’s Guild in 1833. He was also known to have acted for the Admiralty as its main chart agent with numerous sub agents acting below him such as his old apprentice and instrument maker to The Royal yacht Club, George Stebbing.

The final two decades of his life (the 1830’s and 40’s) were riddled with ill health probably due to the amount of work that he was undertaking. He travelled widely across the UK and abroad for health reasons but still maintained lively correspondence with his customers. Owing to its output, the business found it sometimes necessary to buy in work from other instrument makers. Later in his career, he is known to have purchased microscopes from both James Smith and Powell & Lealand but conversely it supplied others in both the regions and in London. Bate is listed as a creditor in the bankruptcy proceedings of the famous makers William Harris and also W&T Gilbert.

Bate traded from his Poultry street addresses for the majority of his career although he moved to number 33 Royal Exchange in 1846 until his death shortly after in 1847. Bate’s widow continued to run the business until 1850 whereafter the Excise work was taken over by Dring & Fage and the Admiralty Chart side of the business went to Bate’s former employee, John Dennett Potter.

This museum quality standard yard cannot be underestimated for its historical importance from both a scientific and a social perspective and to find one from the first year of production is exceedingly rare.

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