Who are the Metric Martyrs?

The Metric Martyrs are traders who stood their ground against compulsory metrication by refusing to abandon the retail use of imperial weights and measures. The most famous is Sunderland greengrocer Steven Thoburn, who became a household name in 2001 when he was convicted of a criminal offence for selling bananas in pounds and ounces.

Mr Thoburn received thousands of letters of support, and said in 2001, “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”.

Mr Thoburn left school at 16 and went straight into his father’s fruit and vegetable business. In 1989, he started his own shop in Southwick market, Sunderland town centre, working a six-day week, starting at 3.30am each morning to buy produce from his wholesalers twelve miles away in Gateshead, and running the shop until 5pm before coming home to do his lists for the next day.

Steven Thoburn, died on Sunday, 14 March 2004, following heart failure. He was 39 years old. He was married to Leigh with three children, Georgia, Rhys and Jay.

John Dove, fishmonger; and Julian Harman, greengrocer, Cornwall

On Friday 17 August 2001 John Dove and Julian Harman attended Bodmin Magistrates court in Cornwall, charged with selling Granny Smith apples and brussels sprouts, and mackerel and pollack, in pounds and ounces. The prosecuting counsel said, to roars of laughter from the public gallery, that traders using pounds and ounces were engaging in unfair competition.

By prior arrangement, the court case lasted only one day, since no matter what verdict was returned, the case would be reviewed at the court of appeal later in the year. On this understanding, defence barrister Michael Shrimpton presented only a skeleton argument to save costs. In absence of full legal argument, the magistrates followed the Sunderland ruling against Steven Thoburn and convicted the two traders. Mr Dove and Mr Harman were each given a twelve-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £250 (reduced from a potential £2,250 each, due to their good character).

Peter Collins, market stall holder, Sutton

In March 2000, Peter Collins was the subject of an undercover test purchase by trading standards officers from Sutton Council. His offence was to sell grapes priced by the pound. According to Mr Collins, “[the trading standards officer] said I’d sold them illegally in imperial measurements and that he was going to confiscate my scales. I told him he couldn’t do that because they were my property. He said: ‘The only way you can stop me is assault’. I picked up the scales and said: ‘The only way you can take them is by assault.’ He went away with a face like thunder. They then sent me two letters, the first saying I was still failing to obey the rules and another saying I was unfit to hold a licence because of my conduct”.

Peter Collins, who had traded from his stall in Sutton High Street since 1985, was defended in court by Quinton Richards who argued that forcing Mr Collins to use kilograms breached his commercial freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Human Rights Act. Article 10 states everyone has the right to “impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. The court, however, ruled against Peter Collins. Peter said after the court case that, “I can only remember one person ever asking for anything in metric. Customers keep wishing me good luck and telling me not to give in”.

Colin Hunt, market stall holder, Woodford Green

Colin Hunt was convicted under the Price Making Order 1999 for failing to advertise prices in metric. After converting his scales to metric, he made errors converting the price to imperial and was convicted under the Prices Act 1974. He was ordered to pay over £4,000 in costs at Bow Magistrates Court on 20 June 2001. Colin Hunt, who had been the subject of test purchases in September the previous year, said, “The whole of my market uses pounds. They have to pick on one person to make an example so I was singled out. In 30 years I have never been asked for anything in kilos. The majority of my customers are elderly. They were brought up on pounds and they don’t want metric”.

Dave Stevens, butcher, Essex

Dave Stevens became the first trader to receive an Infringement Notice, issued by Southend Council, on 6 January 2000 for selling meat and sausages in pounds and ounces, from his butcher’s shop “Meat at Mandy’s” at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. Dave became an activist in the campaign to oppose compulsory metrication and received national media coverage when he smashed a set of metric scales outside the Houses of Parliament. And Dave celebrated “1,827 Not Out” at The Cricketers public house in Hornchurch on 6 January 2005, to mark the fifth anniversary of defying compulsory metrication regulations.

Gemini Fish Suppliers, Hertfordshire

In 2004, Peter Halstead and Irene O’Brien of Gemini Fish Suppliers in Codicote, Hertfordshire, turned their shop into a private club; they believed that this would circumvent metric regulations and allow them to sell fish in pounds and ounces. Customers joined by putting at least one penny in a charity box, whereupon Peter served them in imperial measurement. Peter explained: “If someone new comes in, we explain we are selling only in pounds and ounces and that, if they want to be served, they have to join our imperial club”. Although trading Standards officers visited, they did not take any action.

Irene, who had run the shop with Peter since 1977, said: “We did try to use metric, but customers found it very difficult. Then he discovered this loophole where, if we formed a club and people joined for a penny, we could still use imperial measures. We’re not planning to overthrow the government, we’re just campaigning for customers’ rights. We had customers join from miles around because they feel so strongly about the issue.”

Peter, 57, died in April 2007 when he fell from scaffolding while painting a wall; he had turned to say hello to a friend when the accident happened.

Janet Devers, market stall holder, Dalston

Janet Devers was accused of using imperial weighing scales at her fruit and veg stall at Ridley Road Market in Dalston. Trading standards officials from Hackney Council arrived with two police officers to confiscate the imperial scales, and Janet was served with a 67-page document setting out 13 charges, including selling scotch bonnets, pak choi and okra in bowls, and selling sweetcorn without a metric price. Janet was convicted of eight charges under the Weights and Measures Act at Thames Magistrates Court, given a two-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay £5,000 costs. 

Below: the original five Metric Martyrs with their campaign manager, Neil Herron, outside the Royal Courts of Justice; left to right, John Dove, Julian Harman, Neil Herron, Steven Thoburn, Peter Collins, Colin Hunt.