Rent An Allotment And You’ll Rent So Many Poles Or Perches. For They Are How Allotments Are Measured.

Poles and perches are an archaic for of land measure that, though it has been legally repealed for all other purposes in the UK, is still used for allotments!

In gardening history, the terms Poles and Perches were used interchangeably, both referring to the smallest standard area unit in the Acres – Roods – Perches system. They measured 5½ yards by 5½ yards and was commonly used for measuring and subdividing fields and land.

Ploughmen, Poles And Perches

The word “Pole” originated from the wooden pole used to measure the sides of this unit. It was long enough for a ploughman to guide oxen in the front row of his plough-team and short enough for the ploughman’s boy to carry. An alternative term, “Perch,” might have come from balancing the pole on the boy’s shoulder, similar to a bird on a branch.

To add some confusion, the pole was sometimes called a rod, becoming the standard unit of length for shop frontages when new streets were laid out. The terms Rod and Rood could also be confused, especially considering old spelling habits. Roods, usually a unit of area equal to 40 Perches, Poles, or Rods (properly speaking, Square Rods), had an additional little-used unit of length called a Rood, which was either 7 or 8 yards, occasionally the same as a Rod.

Rood Churches?

The term “Rood” is mostly associated with church features, meaning a cross as displayed on Rood Screens which commonly sat between the congregation and altar. Its use in the A.R.P. system may have derived from it being a quarter of an acre, symbolising the division of an acre into four by making two slices in the form of a cross. This act of division could even have had religious significance, blessing the field as it was divided among villagers for agricultural use.

Closely related to the Rood is the Furlong, originally a ‘furrow-long,’ representing the length of 40 Poles or 220 yards. This measurement was the amount of land that one plough-team could plough in the daylight hours of one day. Furlongs are still used on racecourses as a measure of distance.

The standard representation of a Rood and the Acre from which it is cut usually measure 220 yards in length and 5½ or 22 yards in width. However, in the field, where land was measured with a known length of chain, the shapes of fields were fluid. The division by four, regardless of the pattern of cuts, might have held spiritual overtones.

Although smaller areas, subdivisions of the Rood, were often measured using the Pole, the use of chains became popular, leading to the Chain becoming an official unit of length. Gunter’s Chain, 4 Poles or 22 yards in length, gained popularity due to its ability to measure areas. Named after Edmund Gunter, 1581–1626, it was divided into 100 links.

While Chains have become obsolete in the UK, they are still widely used in the U.S.A., particularly for measuring the acreage of public lands.

In the UK, the terms Rods, Roods, Poles and Perches were abolished by the Weights and Measures Act of 1963. Despite this, some terms like “Oh, we’re poles apart!” persist in common language. Furlongs and Acres, originally varying in size, became standardized units of area under an Act passed by Edward I. Although still a legal unit in England today, Acres are rarely used officially and are slated for repeal in the near future.

Spare the rod and spoil the child may not be about beating a child with a rod or stick but be about the length of the rod used when ploughing. If we reduce the size of the rod so the child can carry it easier then we have both spared the rod and spoiled the child! There are probably also phrases like this that apply to small boys and chimneys but I’ve not looked for any!

More Land Measurement Confusion

The hide was another measure of land that goes back to the Danelaw and before. It originally represented the amount of land sufficient to support a household and was traditionally taken to be 120 acres (49 hectares). But it varied depending on the quality of the land.and was more to do with the value, esewpicially taxable value, of land. The taxable value being measured in money or kind such as manpower for the army. It’s where we get the word geld from. Geld was a land tax, though the same word was also used to mean to castrate a horse and is where the term gelding comes from. 

The hide’s exact method of calculation is uncertain, but no doubt derived from the ability of the land to produce food, firewood, and other rural products essential to everyday life and war.

In 1086 hidage assessments were recorded in the Domesday Book.  of 1086. By equating the produce from the land into money can see that land producing £1 of income per year tended to be assessed at 1 hide.

Hides were subdivided into yardlands or viragates. Danelaw recorded this as two oxgang .. which takes us back to seeing how all measures revolved round the oxen that ploughed the land. It was roughly equivalent in area to a carucate, a unit used in the Danelaw to denote what a plough team of eight oxen could handle in a single annual season. The influence of Danelaw is clear in the English language with different measurement words being used in the north of England than the south where the Danes didn’t rule.

Poles And Perches: Key Points

  • Poles and perches were used interchangeably as the smallest unit of area in the acre/rood/perch system. They measured 5.5 yards x 5.5 yards.
  • The terminology stems from the physical wooden poles used to demarcate the land areas.
  • There was some confusion historically between rods, roods, and perches due to similar names and fluid measurement conventions.
  • Chains gained popularity for their decimal-friendly dimensions, leading to the chain becoming an official unit of length.
  • Though these old units were abolished in the UK in 1963, some lingo persists, like “poles apart.”
  • The physical acts of dividing and measuring land related to agricultural practices and may have had spiritual/religious connections.
  • Despite being formal abolished, acres, rods, poles and perches are still used informally in the UK and chains are still used for public lands in the US.
Tag” Understanding Rods, Perches & Poles

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Rods, Poles & Perches

  1. Brian Sidaway says:

    Chain is still the length of a cricket wicket

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      Yes, and many other old measures still exist today. Measures as simple as pints and miles.

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