Richard North, 04/05/2021  

On 1 January 2000, there were world-wide celebrations for the dawn of a new Millennium. Then, on 18 March, the last significant phase of compulsory metrication was completed in the UK, when the Price Marking Order 1999 came into force, implementing Directive 98/6/EC.

The effect of this, amongst other things, was to remove pounds and ounces as lawful units of measurement for the sale of goods sold "loose from bulk". From that moment onwards, for a British market trader to sell a pound of apples or tomatoes – or even bananas - became a criminal offence.

It took only until 4 July 2000, in a Sunderland market, for council officials supported by two policemen to converge on a fruit and vegetable stall owned by Steve Thoburn (pictured), to seize his scales. His offence had been to ignore the new order and continue to sell his wares by the pound, as his customers preferred, rather than in the approved metric measurements.

This was the ?rst time the EU's new law had been put to the test, the culmination of the process of compulsory metrication which had been imposed on Britain without Parliament ever being consulted.

With Thoburn in the national headlines, and through the efforts of his fellow marketeer-turned publicist, Neil Herron, the legend of the "metric martyrs" was born. It attracted massive nationwide and international publicity for the anti-EU cause.

When a case taken by Sunderland Council against Thoburn reached the High Court, its decision in 2002 reaffirmed the supremacy of EU law. Metrication thus became cause celebre in the growing Eurosceptic community, more so when in 2004 Thoburn died prematurely at the age of 39.

His funeral and the subsequent wake at the "Stadium of Light", home of Sunderland Football Club, was attended by many devoted followers. Thus the "metric martyrs" acquired cult status. Their efforts did much to shift political sentiment in the North-East of England against the EU.

Thoburn, however, went to his grave with a conviction against his name, leaving Neil Herron determined to secure a posthumous pardon. And now, nearly 21 years later, Herron's efforts seem, finally, to be coming to fruition.

This is according to the Telegraph which, a couple of days ago ran an "exclusive" story under headline: "Scales of justice tilt in favour of pardon for 'metric martyrs'". The sub-head ran: "Convictions of traders for selling wares in pounds and ounces could be disregarded, meaning shops may again be free to use the measurements".

This, it seems, is being handled at the highest level. Ministers, we are told, are working on plans to pardon the "metric martyrs", all five of the market traders, including Thoburn, who were eventually convicted for selling their wares in pounds and ounces.

We are also told that a change of law is being contemplated, which will mean that retail shops and markets will be allowed to decide for themselves whether to sell goods in imperial measurements alone, instead of being restricted to "supplementary indications".

As well as Steve Thoburn, there were two other market traders, Colin Hunt and Julian Harman, and fishmonger John Dove, who were all convicted in 2001 for selling produce in Imperial measurements. Greengrocer Janet Devers – the fifth "martyr" – was convicted in 2008.

Although the campaign to pardon the "metric martyrs" has been ongoing, the plan is to formally re-launch on 4 July, times for the exact 21-year anniversary of the day that Thoburn's sets of imperial scales were seized.

Letters have been sent to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, the Foreign secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Robert Buckland, the Justice secretary, asking for them to be pardoned.

Already, though, work is under way. Officials at the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department are looking first at how they can repeal the legislation under which the five were convicted. Once that has taken place, the martyrs or their families would have to apply to the Ministry of Justice for a "disregard" of their convictions.

Within Whitehall, there is some sympathy for this process. One of these wonderfully anonymous government sources says: "It is ridiculous that a greengrocer cannot sell pears in imperial measures".

But it is not just anonymous sources who are being helpful. Johnson himself made a pledge on the 2019 general election campaign that he would lift the EU's ban on shops selling in imperial measurements, saying: "We will bring back that ancient liberty. I see no reason why people should be prosecuted".

The last pardon – known as a Royal Prerogative of Mercy – was for computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing, whose 1952 conviction for gross indecency was overturned in 2013.

Thoburn was convicted of two offences under the Weights and Measures Act 1985 for selling bananas using scales that had been "de-stamped" by a Trading Standards officer because they were only able to weigh in imperial measures.

That same year Hunt was convicted of six offences under the Price Marking Order 1999 for failing to display a unit price per kilogram. Dove and Harman were also convicted of two offences under the same order, and of two offences of using a scale that was only capable of weighing in the Imperial system.

Speaking before his death from heart failure in 2004, Thoburn said: “All I wanted to do was give my customers what they wanted. "I’m not a hero, I'm just a hardworking man. If customers wanted me to sell fruit in kilos, I'd sell fruit in kilos. In my world, what the customer wants, the customer gets".

Now, the Telegraph has interviewed Thoburn's daughter Georgia, 24, whose mother Leigh died aged 43 in 2016. She told the paper, "My Dad was just an ordinary market trader who became an extraordinary, reluctant hero".

She added, "My Mam was his rock and supported him all the way despite the initial concerns. I want to pick up the mantle and take forward the call for the pardon to finally clear my Dad's name".

Colin Hunt, 72, is now a restaurateur in east London. He is just as enthusiastic about developments. "I will be pleased if my name is eventually cleared and remember fondly of how much support we received from the great British public and the press at the time", he said.

Julian Harman, 62, is another one who has changed his occupation. He runs a removals and furniture business in Cornwall, and added: "I feel that justice needs to be finally served, especially posthumously for Steve". "It is still galling that we were treated in such a way and criminalised for such 'heinous' crimes as pricing Brussels sprouts by the pound", he said, "when we see real criminals committing real crimes being given nothing more than a slap on the wrist".

Janet Devers, now 77, who had to pay nearly £5,000 in costs and received a criminal record after a prosecution brought by Hackney council, added: "To be singled out and persecuted and have my scales seized still to this day beggars belief". She added: "A total waste of public money and peoples' time, especially when it was going on all over the country and at a time when the Government and the EU had effectively abandoned enforced metrication".

Devers says: "To think that I stood on that stall in all weathers five days a week at the age of 66 and all the council were bothered about was taking me to court for using imperial scales", adding: "I look forward to the day that we can say we have been pardoned and look back with pride on the way the British public rallied behind us".

And so, it looks very much if we are to see a small, but significant Brexit bonus. There was never any good reason to impose compulsory metrication on the nation. The two systems, Imperial and metric, can easily co-exist at their different levels.

Turning the use of Imperial measures into a criminal offence was a false move and was always going to serve the eurosceptic cause. Even the BBC entertained the thought that it had contributed to the 2016 referendum victory.

For myself, I was at the "Stadium of Light" in 2004. I have no doubts about Thoburn's influence, and the work of Neil Herron. Now, the very least Johnson can do is make the metric martyrs' convictions history.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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