Surveyor's chains

A Surveyor’s chains

Solicitors, Conveyancers and HM Land Registry staff all have something in common, and it’s a requirement to be familiar with odd types of land measurements. Some of this is down to Britain’s rather dysfunctional relationship with metrification and its very long obsession with recording land ownership which began with the Domesday Book.

Anyone who has ever had to register land for the first time will be familiar with parchment deeds, and old conveyances, with their various and often ambiguous maps at all kinds of scales.

The Registry began its work in 1862 when England measured its land (and several other nations’ land as well) under the  “Imperial” system; with its feet, inches, miles, furlongs and conversion factors such as 5280 feet to a mile, and 22 yards to a chain. Metrification was discussed in Parliament as early as 1818, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the Government decided to support metrification. Even today, as applications whizz into the Registry via the internet, plans still arrive hand drawn in feet together with centimetres, and with no scale in sight! While HM Land Registry staff are good at deciphering all kinds of plans, sometimes the lack of any identifiable feature will defeat us.

All staff that carry out mapping work are now issued with two things, a computer and a set of scale rulers. Five rulers in all which cover such scale ranges as 1:500, 1/16th in: 1ft and 1/2500ft. The computer mapping system converts scales for us, but the mapping is done using computerised drawing tools.

The History Bit

The great measurers of the ancient world were the Egyptians. It was from their Cubit that the inch, foot, and yard evolved, which were inherited by the Greeks and Romans. The Romans knew that if you want a great empire, you need reliable measurement and introduced the Roman mile (5000ft) to England during their occupation. No doubt, this was subject to protests by the indigenous Britons about strange foreign measurement coming over here and imposing itself on our measurements of “as far as a crow flies” and “just past the standing stones”.

The Anglo-Saxons changed Roman measurement by introducing the German foot (13.2”) which was amended in the 13th century and has never changed since. It became the base unit for linear measurement and divided into four palms or 12 thumbs (no fancy scale rulers for the Anglo Saxons, it was all fingers and thumbs back then). The word inch derives from the Anglo Saxon “Ynch” and is three barley corns. I dread to think what a professional surveyor’s pockets would have been full of in those days!

The Rod (used for surveying land) was 16 1/2 feet long, just the same as it is now and is also known as the perch or pole. The pole is still in use as a measurement of allotment gardens.

In 1620, the clergyman Edmund Gunter developed a method of surveying land accurately using what became known as Gunter’s chain; this was 66 feet long and from the practice of using his chain, the word transferred to the actual measured unit. While no longer used in surveying, the chain survives as the length of a cricket pitch, being the distance between the stumps.

Talking of chains, these were once an integral part of HM Land Registry’s work. Ralph Weaver, retired mapper and HM Land Registry surveyor wrote this about one of the more unusual jobs at HM Land Registry, the chain boy:

“A strange creature, once employed by the Registry was the chain boy. At one time, mappers (in what was then called Plans Branch) had to be conversant with the theory and practice of ‘chain surveying’. The tools required for this task consisted of a field (note) book; red and white ranging rods; survey nails and hammer; chalk; tape measures and the aforementioned chain, together with ten sharp pointed iron rods called ‘arrows’. These were not used to defend surveyors from marauding dogs and children, but to keep a count of the number of chain lengths between two fixed points on the ground. Most of this equipment was carried round the survey site by the chain boy, either by hand or in a civil service issue canvas bag.

“The step from Plans Assistant to Assistant Superintendent required the passing of two exams. The second exam was a practical test on surveying and afterwards drawing up a map of the area surveyed. Candidates for the practical test were allocated a chain boy (or even a chain girl) from the more junior Plans Assistants. The chain boy would set off dragging the heavy chain behind him, through nettles, across swamps, dodging traffic on roads, until he reached the finish point. At the end of each chain length he would push an arrow into the ground, which would be picked up by the candidate so he knew how many chain lengths he had to count. If the chain boy was directed to cross a pond which sat in the middle of one test site (at Penn, near Amersham), the candidate would most likely fail and have to re-sit the test again the following year!”

In the 1990’s, surveyors had moved to long leather bound tape measures and by the 2000’s were using electronic surveying tools. Now surveying is carried out by our colleagues in Ordnance Survey. No longer will you find HM Land Registry surveyors clambering over fences in nettles, being chased by cows, and spending wet days in steamed-up cars eating their sandwiches and drawing up plans.

Things have moved on at pace; the days of chains, rods, and inches in mapping are passing away. Almost all plans are created on computers and scales and measurements are normally metric. Ordnance Survey and mapping at HM Land Registry is racing into the 21st century, “It’s a brave new world, that has such measurements in it.”


Alison Lowe
By Alison Lowe,
Customer Relationship Manager at HM Land Registry