The Clerk in the Country

Tuesday 28th April 2020
Leave and long furrows

Hearing the word furlough so frequently in recent days puts me in mind of the tables of measurement chanted in my early days at primary school, when I must have been one of the last generation to learn that there are eight furlongs in a mile and that one furlong comprises ten chains. Of course the etymology of these two words is quite different, furlough entering the language from a 17th century Dutch word meaning leave of absence, while furlongs have been with us for much longer, being the Old English term for length of a furrow, originally the distance a team of oxen could plough without a rest.

Within living memory, though before satellite technology, a chain was not only the unit of measurement but the means of measuring the size of fields. One end of a standard chain, or a half-chain, would be pegged at the end, dragged along the field boundary, the other end pegged, and the original end dragged past it. This is the kind of task rural labourers would be set during the winter at quiet times for arable work. Dragging a heavy chain through the cold and damp for furlong after furlong, a farm worker might have welcomed the chance to be furloughed.