Updated Wed, 19-Sep-2012
Origins of the counties
During much of what we call the Saxon period, the British Isles were divided into a number of warring kingdoms. This page deals mainly with England, because that is what is mainly covered on this web site, but so far as genealogy is concerned, the differences in other parts of the UK are not very significant.
Although the word county is derived from the Norman French comté, the
boundaries of Norman counties corresponded in most respects with those of the
Saxon shires of the immediate pre-Norman period. Many of them were in turn based
on much older tribal districts, which are reflected in names of Celtic origin
such as Cornwall, Devon and Kent.
The shires of the more northerly east and midlands were formed later by the Danes, and named after the local military centre in each case (Bedford, Cambridge, Derby, Huntingdon, Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton, Nottingham and York). The counties of the west midlands were formed by the king of Wessex after he invaded the area which had been the kingdom of Mercia.
The remaining counties of northern England were created by the Normans to produce a reasonably uniform system across the whole of England.
Various forms of county names
In total contrast to the system in the USA, the word "county" is not a part of the name of English counties, with the sole exception of County Durham, where it precedes the main part of the name in the same way as in all Irish counties. The American form of having the word "county" after the main name is always wrong in referring to a county in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Many, but by no means all, have the syllable "-shire" as the last part of the name, and in a few cases this was once normal but is slowly being dropped. Examples of counties which are losing or have lost their suffix in this way are Devon(shire), Dorset(shire) and Somerset(shire).
Old documents consulted by genealogists will show the usage which was normal at the time they were created, often differing from what is used now. (Purely naming conventions, not changes in boundaries) Counties which took their names from a major Town within them, such as those created by the Danes listed above, were often referred to, for example, as The County of Nottingham, meaning the whole of Nottinghamshire. A particularly confusing example of this is the common naming of Hampshire as The County of Southampton; and has even been found abbreviated to "co south". Co. is commonly used in old documents as an abbreviation for the word county.
Abbreviations & sub-divisions
Another source of confusion for those not familiar with English county names is the use of abbreviations. Most counties are subject to frequent abbreviation of their names, although there are a few exceptions. Here is a list of the traditional counties, with their normal abbreviations, if any - in parentheses. Each one is preceded by its Chapman Code, the standard 2 or3 character abbreviation used by genealogists:
(BDF) Bedfordshire (Beds.)
In addition, two other well-known areas have at times (pre-1974) had their own county Councils. These are London and the Isle of Wight. Also, Monmouthshire, now in Wales, was for several centuries legally a part of England - but not legitimately, in the view of many Welsh people!.
A coloured map showing the locations of these counties can be seen on the Association of British Counties web site, as well as those of Scotland and Wales.
The administrative sub-divisions of Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Sussex and Yorkshire were from 1888 to 1974 effectively independent counties. Lincolnshire was divided into three pieces, known as Parts of Holland, Parts of Kesteven and Parts of Lindsey (the full name being, for example Lincolnshire Parts of Holland). Suffolk was split into East Suffolk and West Suffolk, and Sussex similarly into East Sussex and West Sussex. Yorkshire, like Lincolnshire, was split into three pieces (in this case called Ridings), their names being East Riding of Yorkshire, North Riding of Yorkshire and West Riding of Yorkshire.
The north eastern part of the traditional county of Northamptonshire was from 1888 until some time between 1923 and 1965 also an independent county known as The Soke of Peterborough; it later became a part of Northamptonshire and was transferred to Huntingdonshire in 1965. Also an independent county for most of that period was the northern part of Cambridgeshire (called The Isle of Ely), and also London (until somewhat later).
At a detailed level there have been
numerous changes to county boundaries over the years. In some cases these have
been to tidy up historic anomalies, such as tiny detached pieces of one county
being entirely surrounded by another. Such changes have taken place piecemeal
over many years, with some such detached areas surviving to as recently as 1974
(notably the northern piece of Worcestershire containing the Town of Dudley,
which was entirely surrounded by Staffordshire). Certain areas, particularly the
West Midlands, have undergone numerous changes, some Towns having been in as
many as three different historic counties at different times.
In addition to the shifting boundaries described above, most of the larger Towns and cities were at various times granted what was known as "County Borough" status. A County Borough functioned as a separate unit, independently of the county in which it was geographically situated. This system was started in 1888, when all Towns and cities with populations in excess of 50,000, plus a few others, became the first such units.
To confuse the issue further, in 1974 a total review of county boundaries took place, which led to the elimination of all remaining detached parts, the combining of some counties, total elimination of others, the introduction of new county names in some places, and the end of all County Boroughs. Major conurbations became independent "metropolitan" counties, each including a number of Towns which had effectively merged by natural growth. An example of such a new Metropolitan County was West Midlands, which combined the industrial areas of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley and several other Towns, reducing the size of the neighbouring counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire in the process.
The 1974 changes, because of their scale, lead to much confusion among genealogists, especially those resident in other countries, when trying to locate the homes of their ancestors and the likely location of records. The whole of north Berkshire, for example, was transferred to Oxfordshire, so old records relating to such Towns as Faringdon speak of its being in Berkshire, but modern gazetteers say it is in Oxfordshire. Similarly, Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and the Soke of Peterborough were all absorbed into Cambridgeshire. Middlesex and large pieces of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey were absorbed into London. Similar events took place also in Yorkshire and Lancashire, while further north the maps were almost completely redrawn.
In 1997/8 many, but not all, of the 1974 changes were reversed. Although the name County Borough was not revived, the effect was, and this time the independent status was not confined to urban areas. New local authorities called "Unitary Authorities" took over all local government functions in their areas, just like the old County Boroughs and in many cases identical to them in area. This happened in a piecemeal fashion however, with no unitary authorities being created in some areas, but in the extreme case of Berkshire the whole of what survived the 1974 shake-up was split into unitary authorities, so Berkshire as an administrative unit no longer exists.
Other administrative areas
Hundred and Wapentake
These are similar sub-divisions of counties, introduced in the 10th century primarily as a unit of taxation but also having administrative, judicial and military functions. The two names relate to the division of the country into the Danelaw in the north, where the term Wapentake was used, and the Anglo-Saxon south which used the term Hundred. The name Hundred relates to the original size of 100 hides of land (roughly 12,000 acres on average, but very variable).
Most Parishes were originally the area served by a local church, and were (still are in many cases) synonymous with the Village in which the church was situated, although outlying dwellings and farms away from the main Village were normally included. It must be realised, however, that Parishes varied enormously in size, some, especially in the wilder, uncultivated areas, extending for many miles. In some areas a single Parish covered a great number of separate Settlements (up to 35 in one Cheshire example). Urban Parishes in older cities tended to be small in area, with quite a number of separate Parishes within a single City (over 40 each in Norwich and York, for example), whereas newer cities tended to have a single Parish despite their large population, until they were split up in the middle of the 19th century.
Parishes also varied greatly in age. Although most mediæval Parishes had been formed by 1200, many were already hundreds of years old by that time. Many more were formed during the great growth in population in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The concept of a civil Parish was introduced in Tudor times, when they were given responsibility for upkeep of highways, caring for the poor and for the less serious aspects of law enforcement. Where the Ecclesiastical Parish was reasonably small in population it normally corresponded with the civil one, but if the Ecclesiastical Parish was very large it was divided up into a number of civil Parishes.
Like the counties, Parish boundaries showed abundant anomalies, detached parts being quite common. However, in 1894 a new Local Government Act revised the entire structure, dividing the rural areas of England and Wales into 14,000 Parishes with most of the anomalies and detached parts removed, although in most respects the boundaries followed the old civil Parish boundaries. From that time, the affairs of the Parish were controlled by an elected Parish Council. This is the one part of local government structure which survived the 1974 and 1997/8 reorganisations without significant change. In urban areas Parishes remain as Ecclesiastical units only since 1894, although the legislation bringing in the latest changes give residents the option of having civil Parishes in their parts of urban areas if they choose to do so.
The above paragraph states most of the anomalies and detached parts. There is one known anomaly. The particular case is at Romsey in Hampshire, where there is still one Parish entirely surrounded by another! Romsey Extra Parish (which one assumes covers a rural area) entirely surrounds Romsey Infra Parish, which more or less coincides with the small Town of Romsey. John Parker, a member of Romsey Extra Parish Council, points out that many Parishes which were created, by the demotion of small boroughs cover relatively small urban areas, by the 1997/8 reorganisation, were given the option - which many, including Romsey Infra, have taken up - of being called "Town Councils", with the chairman of the Council given the title of "Mayor", although their powers remain identical to those of other Parish Councils.
It should also be added that the Church of England still has its Ecclesiastical Parishes, quite separate from the civil ones, the governing bodies of which are now known as "Parochial Church Councils". Some large Ecclesiastical Parishes have a second, subordinate, church or chapel to help cope with the numbers of people or the extended area; such a church or chapel normally has responsibility for a defined area within the Parish sometimes known as a Chapelry. Genealogists need to be aware that it is these Ecclesiastical Parishes, not the Civil Parishes, which maintain the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, although in most cases the surviving older registers have been deposited with the local county record office.
Naming a Parish in Relation to Its County, Etc.
Poor Law Unions
One of the most important duties placed on Parishes by the Tudor reforms was the care of their own paupers. Since there was no social security of any kind, this was the only way the sick, disabled and elderly could survive although the church, mainly through abbeys and monasteries, had provided some poor relief prior to their dissolution by Henry VIII.
While this certainly helped those it was aimed at, it also placed a financial burden on the Parish, for which they had to tax their more affluent members. The impact of this naturally varied from place to place, depending both on the ratio of paupers to wealthy citizens and on the general prosperity of the area concerned.
One particularly serious effect was that Parishes were naturally very unwilling to accept into their midst anyone from another area who was likely to become a charge on the local finances. In consequence, severe restrictions were placed on the freedom of ordinary people to move around the country. The 1662 Act of Settlement defined more clearly the responsibilties of the Parish and provided a means for people to move in search of work while being able to provide written evidence that they would never become a charge on the community to which they moved. This led to large numbers of court cases in local Quarter Sessions and the production of Settlement Certificates. These certificates, as well as detailed records of the courts, where they survive, provide invaluable resources for genealogists and family historians.
The entire system was revolutionised in 1834 by the Poor Law Amendment Act. This created a system of Unions, each consisting of a number of neighbouring Parishes who jointly were required to finance the relief of poverty in their areas, so spreading the load a little more fairly. Each Union was run by an elected board of guardians, many of whose records survive. By 1865 all Unions had set up a workhouse within their area in which to house paupers. Many of the buildings erected for this purpose still survive - often as hospitals. The system remained largely unchanged until the introduction of some aspects of social security on a national basis, such as old age pensions, from 1908 onwards. The entire system was transferred from the Parish unions to national government in 1919, but some workhouses continued in operation until the introduction of the modern welfare system by the National Assistance Act of 1948.
Mid-19th century boards and districts
During the middle part of the 19th century more and more functions were put onto local government organisations to relieve the many problems which were emerging with the growth of population, industrialisation, and urbanisation. However, instead of using existing administrative units to carry out these new activities, a new set of boards and districts were created for each one, often with boundaries overlapping those already in existence. Each of these new authorities required elections to choose its members and each raised its own finance by imposing a local tax (often called a Rate).
Thus separate bodies existed to maintain highways, to provide and run schools, to provide sanitation, to provide burial facilities, etc.; in some places even the provision of hospitals and of the medical staff to operate them were provided by two separate authorities. The system, for want of a better term, was basically that a separate board was created for each function, with separate elections, separate finances, separate officials, separate premises from which to operate, etc. The waste and incompetence was tremendous. From the genealogical and historical research point of view, it is worth remembering that each of these bodies kept records, many of which survive.
Most of this chaos was cleared up in 1888, when most of the local boards were
transferred to the County Councils, set up by the Local Government Act of that
year as elected bodies with reformed boundaries. Poor Law unions (until 1930),
School Districts (until 1902) and Sanitary Districts (until 1894), however,
continued their independent existence a little longer.
Boroughs have, from pre-Norman times, been Towns and cities which have received a charter granting them certain privileges, mainly but not exclusively concerned with the control of various commercial activities within their boundaries. Such charters could be issued (in mediæval times) either by the monarch or by the local lord of the manor in which the Town was situated. The latter were normally "seingeurial boroughs", having only a limited degree of independence from the lord of the manor. Those with corporate status had more complete independence from the lord of the manor, but the details of their powers varied enormously, depending on the detailed wording of their charters, which were all different.
Corporate boroughs were administered by a Corporation, which consisted until 1835 of leading Townsmen appointed for life, with vacancies filled by appointment by the existing members. From 1835 this system was replaced by elections for three quarters of the members, with the old system of appointment remaining for the other quarter. The appointed members were known as Aldermen, an office which remained (but not with life-long tenancy) until 1974. (One quarter of the members of county Councils were also appointed Aldermen from 1888 to 1974.) The electors in corporate boroughs, and the people actually running the seigneurial boroughs, were known as Burgesses. In some places lists of Burgesses survive; it is perhaps worth mentioning that although women could not vote in Parliamentary elections in Britain until 1925, nevertheless they could be, and sometimes were, Burgesses, at least in the 19th century and perhaps earlier.
The office of Mayor has existed almost as long as there have
been boroughs. In past times this was a powerful office, the Mayor being the
most important man in the Town, but gradually the powers have been reduced until
today the Mayor of a Town functions as (at least in theory) a politically
neutral chairman of Council meetings, and as a public figurehead, and is elected
by Councillors from among their own members. In boroughs officially recognised
as cities (i.e. having a charter to say they have that status), the equivalent
person is known as the Lord Mayor, but his functions are virtually identical. In
the 21st century the old idea of having an executive Mayor (subject to regular
direct election) has been revived in a few places, starting with London.
Urban and Rural District Councils
In 1894 county areas outside boroughs were divided into Urban and Rural Districts, normally following the boundaries of the Sanitary Districts. Each such district had an elected Council, and its functions and structure were almost identical to those of the Boroughs, but they did not have aldermen or Mayors. The rural districts were further subject to division into Parishes, now with elected Parish Councils (except very small places which had a Parish meeting instead).
Definitions of types of Settlement
There is often confusion as to the correct terminology to use for a Settlement. What is the distinction between a Hamlet and a Village, or between a Village and a Town? What constitutes a City? This section is an attempt to clear up the confusion, so far as that is possible. By a Settlement it is meant a group of dwellings (i.e. more than one), possibly with other buildings.
First it should be made clear that for most purposes the only one of those terms with a definite fixed meaning is the City. A Settlement is a City if it holds a charter from the monarch to say so, and not otherwise. There is no other reliable indicator of City status, which is applied to large and small places alike, although I am not aware of any particularly small City which is not the location of a cathedral (but there are small places with cathedrals which are not cities).
At the smallest end of the range, a Settlement would normally be called a Hamlet if it did not possess the simplest trappings of community life, such as a church or an inn or public house or a school or a post office or other shop.
A Village would normally possess all of those things, but there are obviously intermediate cases which have some but not others. The loss of some such facilities from a Village which once had them all would certainly not lead to people changing the way they speak of it.
The distinction between a Village and a Town is probably even more vague. Population is certainly an element. A place with fewer than about 1,500 residents is unlikely to be called a Town by anyone, while one with over 5,000 will rarely be called a Village (but there are exceptions). If a place has an ancient regular market or fair it will almost certainly be called a Town - if it is not a City - even if it is quite small by modern standards. A small Town is much more likely than a Village to have a definite commercial area at its centre, with a variety of shops, some of which may be quite specialised, whereas in a Village, shops will be few and tend to be general stores selling a mixture of groceries, hardware, newspapers and other items, often combined with a post office. If a Village is at the larger end of the population range, then it will usually consist of a small older core with a considerable recent expansion, often inhabited by commuters who live in the Village but work in a nearby larger Town.
Despite all that has been said, there are certainly some places which are ambiguous in this respect. Lynton, in north Devon, for example, together with its neighbour Lynmouth and a few outlying areas is for administrative purposes a Parish. However, it has a most imposing Town hall, a definite commercial centre in each of the two main constituents, and a Mayor to chair the Council's deliberations, but the inhabitants nevertheless refer to it as a Village. The population varies from about 1,500 in winter to ten times as many or more in the summer tourist season.
Another, very different ambiguous area, Stopsley, was once a typical hill-top Village a few miles outside the Town of Luton in Bedfordshire, but was long ago (1933) absorbed by the Town. Nevertheless the inhabitants of this part of Luton still refer to the old Village centre as "the Village", and a book on the history of Stopsley, published on 21st October 1998, refers in the blurb on the cover to "The Hamlet of Stopsley"!
Other names for particular areas
In addition to the general names for specific types of place or local government unit as described above, other terms are used to name particular areas of the country. This section lists a few of them.
The Black Country is the industrial area of south east Staffordshire, north east Worcestershire, north west Warwickshire, and south Shropshire. It is centred on the Town of Dudley, and gained its name from the results of the massive atmospheric pollution produced by local metal-working industries, especially in the 19th century. Buildings and trees (where any survived) were black with soot, the stars were never visible in the sky, any washing hung outside was black with freshly deposited soot long before it was dry, and life expectancy was unsurprisingly short. County boundaries in the area always have been complex and subject to many changes.
Forest of Bowland is an area of wild moorland bounded in the east and south by the River Ribble (which separates it from the Yorkshire Dales), in the north by the River Lune and in the west by The Fylde. It is (on pre-1974 boundaries) partly in Lancashire and partly Yorkshire.
The Dales is the name given to most of the more northerly section of the Pennine Hills. It consists of high moorland interspersed with a series of fast rivers flowing east to the North Sea. Each river valley is a dale, named after its river (e.g. the River Swale runs through Swaledale). The Yorkshire section is a National Park, called the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but further north the Dales continue into County Durham, Westmorland and Northumberland to Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans to keep out the marauding barbarians across the border in Scotland.
East Anglia is usually thought of today as being the round bulge on the east side of England, extending from the Thames estuary northwards to the large rectangular shallow inlet called The Wash. On this definition it consists of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, with Cambridgeshire sometimes also included. However, a more strict definition based on the boundaries of the ancient kingdom would restrict it to the counties of Norfok and Suffolk, plus the eastern part only of Cambridgeshire and the north-east corner of Essex.
East Midlands is a largely but by no means exclusively industrial area, as one might expect located to the east of the West Midlands. It includes the counties of Derbyshire (although the northern, moorland, part is sometimes excluded), Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire.
Fenland is a term applied to an area of low-lying, very flat land (some of it below sea-level) in eastern England. A fen is an alkaline marsh, distinguishing it from a bog, which is always acidic. Although nearly all of it is now drained and is a very fertile agricultural area, historically it was a place of marshes extending as far as the eye could see and well beyond. The counties parts of which comprise it are almost all of Cambridgeshire, all of Huntingdonshire, parts of west Norfolk, south Lincolnshire and part of north Bedfordshire. Drainage has resulted in shrinking of the soil, to the extent that some rivers, notably much of the Norfolk part of the Great Ouse, flow well above the surrounding land and are contained only by massive earthen embankments. The Isle of Ely, miles from the sea, is so-named because it was originally an island in the surrounding miles of fens.
The Fylde is a short broad peninsula in Lancashire, bounded in the south by the estuary of the River Ribble, in the east by the Pennines, in the west by the almost entirely urban coastline of Lytham St. Annes, Blackpool, Cleveleys and Fleetwood, and in the north by a stretch of north-facing Irish Sea coast known as Over Wyre. The area is very flat, corresponding with its name, derived from filde, meaning plain.
The Home Counties are those counties surrounding London. These are Essex (note the overlap with East Anglia), Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent (that sequence is going anti-clockwise from the Thames estuary). Sussex is also sometimes included. The origin of the name is obscure.
The Lake District is an area of lakes and mountains in north-west England. It includes England's longest (Lake Windermere) and deepest (Wastwater) natural lakes and highest mountains (Scafell Pike, Scafell, Helvellyn and others). It includes the whole of Westmorland, a great part of Cumberland and a small piece of north Lancashire (pre-1974 boundaries - using post-1974 boundaries it is entirely in Cumbria).
The Peak District is the southern part of the Pennine Hills. It is an area of high moorland, with deep, often very picturesque valleys and occasional gorges, mostly situated in north and central Derbyshire but also extending into Staffordshire, Yorkshire and just a little into Lancashire (using pre-1974 boundaries). It was the first National Park to be defined in Britain.
The Weald is the name given to the area between the North Downs and the South Downs in south east England. The word weald is an Old English word meaning "woodland". The downs mentioned are two ridges of chalk hills, running very roughly east to west across - mainly - Sussex and Kent, but meeting at the chalk hill plateau of north Hampshire and Salisbury Plain. They meet the sea at Dover (North Downs, forming the famous White Cliffs) and near Eastbourne (South Downs, forming the high cliffs of Beachy Head). The Weald itself was once heavily forested and a centre for making charcoal for use in smelting iron.
Welsh Marches are the counties making up the border area of England adjacent to Wales. The name comes from the old word "march" meaning border. Normally included are Cheshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, with Monmouthshire (in Wales since 1974) normally also included. This was an area of great strategic significance in the early mediæval period, before Wales was conquered and pacified.
West Country is a term applied to the counties of south west England as a group. The counties normally included are Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, and very often Hampshire and/or Gloucestershire are also included. It corresponds very roughly with the ancient kingdom of Wessex, and is sometimes given that name.
West Midlands is the name given to the larger industrial area including the Black Country and surrounding Towns and cities such as Birmingham, Coventry and many others. In 1974 a "metropolitan county" of this name was created to administer the area.
Wirral is the roughly rectangular peninsula in north Cheshire (until 1974) lying between the estuaries of the rivers Dee and Mersey. The 1974 changes to local government boundaries transferred the northern half to the new Metropolitan County of Merseyside with the status of a Metropolitan Borough named Wirral, with the southern half retained in Cheshire with the title of Ellesmere Port & Neston District, but usually known as South Wirral.
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