How many kilderkins in a hogshead – 5th February 2017

How many kilderkins in a hogshead – 5th February 2017


Inventories frequently throw up unusual words.

You may well have heard of hogsheads, but do you know now many kilderkins equate to a hogshead?  Or how many firkins in a kilderkin?  I didn’t, so thought I should find out.

It would seem that the original and largest container for beer, ale and wine was the tun.  Given the relative sizes of smaller vessels it would seem logical to imply that originally the tun must have held 256 gallons.  However, by 1347 it had already been accepted as 252 for a so long that ‘King’s commissioners could not explain the loss of the 4 gallons’ [] In 1347 King Edward III was campaigning in France, and winning a decisive victory over the French at Crecy, so one wonders how interested he was in the missing 4 gallons at the time.  However this was just four years before the creation of the Statute of Labourers in 1351, designed to suppress the labour force by prohibiting increases in wages and prohibiting the movement of workers from their home areas in search of improved conditions, so perhaps the standardisation of units of measurement was felt important within that context.

The standardised measurements continued to be the subject of later statutes.  In 1423 an Act of Parliament first standardised the hogshead, though the volume varied by locality and content. By 28 Henry VIII, cap. 14 it is re-enacted that the tun of wine should contain 252 gallons, a butt of Malmsey 126 gallons, a pipe 126 gallons, a tercian or puncheon 84 gallons, a hogshead 63 gallons, a tierce 41 gallons, a barrel 31.5 gallons, a rundlet 18.5 gallons.

So half a tun is a butt, or perhaps a pipe; a third of a tun is a tercian, or puncheon; quarter of a tun is a hogshead; a barrel is an eighth.  Who knows how a tierce (at just a little more than a sixth) or a rundlet (at nearly a thirteenth) came to be decided on.

Apart from the tierce and rundlet that all seems nice and clear and straightforward.  Wrong!  For some reason unfathomable to me these volumes apply only to wine, in fact to a liquid measure called a wine-gallon, as fixed by that English statute of 1423, where one hogshead of 63 wine-gallons is actually equal to 52 1/2 imperial gallons.  However, for other liquids the volume of your hogshead could be up to 140 gallons!  A hogshead of molasses was declared to be 100 gallons by  a statute of 22 George II.  Formerly the London hogshead of beer was 54 beer-gallons, and the London hogshead of ale was 48 ale-gallons.  The ale- and beer-hogshead for the rest of England was 51 gallons!

Let’s not forget that a 1897 edition of Whitaker’s Almanack specified the number of gallons of wine in a hogshead varies by type of wine.  A hogshead of claret holding 46 imperial gallons, one of port being 57 imperial gallons, sherry 54 imperial gallons and madeira 46 imperial gallons.

The origins of the term ‘hogshead’ are unclear, but there seems to be a suggestion that it refers to a mark on the barrel which resembled a hog’s head.  In some European countries the term ‘ox-head’ is used.

A barrel can be further sub-divided into kilderkins (from the Dutch for “small cask”).  This is equal to half a barrel.  The kilderkin is still currently used, and is the unit of choice of the Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA] for calculating beer quantities for beer festivals in the UK.

Half a kilderkin is a firkin, a fourth part of a barrel, but varying, naturally enough, according to contents.  The word ‘firkin’ dates back to the late 14th century, apparently from Middle Dutch *vierdekijn, diminutive of vierde, literally “fourth, fourth part”.  The English ale and beer firkin are now 9 imperial gallons, but when ale and beer measures were distinct a firkin of beer was 9 gallons and of ale was only 8 gallons.  Historically the terms beer and ale referred to distinct brews.  The term beer was reserved for beer brewed with hops whilst ale referred to beer brewed without hops.   In 1688 the ale hogshead was redefined to be 51 ale or beer gallons (1 William and Mary, chap 24. sec 4).  It wasn’t until 1803 (43 George II, chap. 69, sec. 12) that the ale hogshead was again redefined to be 54 ale or beer gallons, making it the equivalent of the beer hogshead.

Most English beer is bought by pubs in firkins, which hold 72 pints.

A firkin of honey was also 8 gallons, by statute of 1581, and a firkin of butter is 56 pounds (36 George III).  A firkin of soap is 64 pounds or 8 gallons.  And I can’t resist throwing in that an Irish firkin was half a barrel, or 100 pounds !

A pin is equal to half a firkin (4.5 imperial gallons).

On you will find a transcript of an act of parliament under Henry VIII which stated that no brewer of beer or ale was allowed to produce his own barrels, but these must be made by a cooper, so that standard sizes could be ensured, and ‘the greate hurte, prejudice and damage of the Kinges liege people’ should be avoided by brewers selling their wares in short measures ‘for thir owne singular lucre profitte and gayne’.

So to answer the question of my heading, there are 4 kilderkins in a hogshead, however how much liquid you actually get would depend on when, where and what you’re measuring.