Specific counties, etc,. will be mentioned only by way of examples, partly to keep this page to a reasonable size and partly because I simply don't know all the details of the changes in names and boundaries that have taken place. Where I become aware of them I will point to other sources of such detailed information. If you know of such sources, or if you find any errors on this page, or would like it expanded to include some additional related material, please let me know.
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. Essex, Middlesex and Sussex were the lands occupied by the East, Middle and South Saxons respectively, while Norfolk and Suffolk were similarly the areas of the North Folk and South Folk of the Angles' kingdom of East Anglia.
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.
The origins of the Welsh counties are explained on Glyn Hale's excellent website.
Many, but by no means all, have the syllable "-shire" as the last part of the name, and in a few cases this was normal use once but is slowly being dropped. Examples of counties which are losing or have lost their suffix in this way are Devon(shire), Dorset and Somerset.
Old documents consulted by genealogists of course show the usage which was normal at the time they were created, often differing from what is used now. (I am speaking here purely of naming conventions, not of changes in boundaries, which are covered below.) 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; I have even found this on a will abbreviated to "co south".
Co. is commonly used in old documents as an abbreviation for the word "county" or the words "county of".
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. Each one is preceded by its Chapman code, the standard 3 character abbreviation used by genealogists:
(BDF) Bedfordshire (Beds.)
(BRK) Berkshire (Berks.)
(BKM) Buckinghamshire (Bucks.)
(CAM) Cambridgeshire (Cambs.)
(CHS) Cheshire (Ches.)
(CON) Cornwall (none)
(CUL) Cumberland (Cumb.)
(DBY) Derbyshire (Derbys.)
(DEV) Devon (none)
(DOR) Dorset (none)
(DUR) County Durham (Durham or Co. Durham)
(ESS) Essex (none)
(GLS) Gloucestershire (Gloucs. or Glos.)
(HAM) Hampshire (Hants.)
(HEF) Herefordshire (Hereford)
(HRT) Hertfordshire (Herts.)
(HUN) Huntingdonshire (Hunts.)
(KEN) Kent (none)
(LAN) Lancashire (Lancs.)
(LEI) Leicestershire (Leics.)
(LIN) Lincolnshire (Lincs.)
(MDX) Middlesex (Middx.)
(NFK) Norfolk (none)
(NTH) Northamptonshire (Northants.)
(NBL) Northumberland (none)
(NTT) Nottinghamshire (Notts.)
(OXF) Oxfordshire (Oxon.)
(RUT) Rutland (none)
(SAL) Shropshire (Salop)
(SOM) Somerset (Somt.)
(STS) Staffordshire (Staffs.)
(SFK) Suffolk (none)
(SRY) Surrey (none)
(SSX) Sussex (SX)
(WAR) Warwickshire (Warks.)
(WES) Westmorland (Wmld.)
(WIL) Wiltshire (Wilts.)
(WOR) Worcestershire (Worcs.)
(YKS) Yorkshire (Yorks.)
In addition, two other well-known areas have at times (pre-1974) had their own county councils. These are London (Chapman code LND) and the Isle of Wight (IOW, Chapman code IOW).
A coloured map showing the locations of these counties can be seen on the main GENUKI web site, as well as those of Scotland and Wales, with their Chapman codes (the genealogists' three character reference).
Also shown on the GENUKI map are the administrative sub-divisions of Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Sussex and Yorkshire. These sub-units 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 (Chapman code ERY), North Riding of Yorkshire (Chapman code NRY) and West Riding of Yorkshire (Chapman code WRY).
Unfortunately the URL for the map has changed a number of times making my link from this page fail. To avoid this in future I have taken a copy of the map (52,705 bytes) to include here. Please see Riley Williams's copyright notice on the same page as the map.
The north eastern part of the traditional county of Northamptonshire (shown on the GENUKI map as being the northern part of Huntingdonshire) 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).
There is at least one early case of one county being totally absorbed by another. The county of Winchcombeshire, which equates fairly closely to the Hundreds of Cheltenham, Cleeve, Kiftsgate, Slaughter and Tibaldstone, and parts of Bradley, Deerhurst and Tewksbury, was absorbed into Gloucestershire at midnight as the date changed from 1099 to 1100.
Some people may wonder why I have not included Monmouthshire in the above list. This is because the idea that it was for a few hundred years a part of England is a myth. It has always (since it was created as a county) been a part of Wales. This subject is explained in depth, with extracts from original documents, on John Ball's excellent Welsh Family History Archive.
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. This process has continued from time to time, with Bedfordshire, for example, ceasing to exist as an administrative unit in 2010.
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.
In the above paragraph I say most of the anomalies and detached parts. It did say all, but my attention was drawn to one anomaly which still exists, and this suggests to me there may be others. The particular case is at Romsey in Hampshire, where there is still one parish entirely surrounded by another! Romsey Extra Parish (which I assume 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, who drew my attention to this, also reminded me that many parishes which were created, by the demotion of small boroughs or otherwise 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.
I should also add 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, with the subordinate/daughter church or chapel often called a "chapel of ease". 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.
A tything, occasionally referred to in old records, was a sub-division of an eccelsiastical parish. It was a basis for some taxation prior to the nineteenth century reorganisation of local government. Tythings were sometimes named to suggest who was entitled to receive the relevant tax or tythe, but in other cases took the name of the hamlet (normally only one, sometimes less than one, such as a single farm) which the tything covered.
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.
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.
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, if not quite, 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.
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.
I live in another, very different ambiguous area. Stopsley was once a typical hill-top village a few miles outside the town of Luton, 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"!
The Black Country is the industrial area of (pre-1974) 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.
Craven is an area of the Yorkshire Dales subsequently adopted as a district council's official name.
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 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. 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 Cambridgeshire (almost all of it), Huntingdonshire (all of it), 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 an island in the surrounding miles of fens. Incidentally, a fen is an alkaline marsh, distinguishing it from a bog which is always acidic.
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 (I am told by a kind correspondent) as Over Wyre. The area is very flat, corresponding with its name, derived from filde, meaning plain.
Halfshire was a hundred of north-east Worcestershire. It included Dudley and three other detached parts.
Hallamshire is the area around and including the city of Sheffield, in south Yorkshire. So far as I know, there has never been a county of this name, but this large industrial city set in a river valley in the midst of wild moorland is a very distinctive place.
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.
Vale of York is a roughly rectangular piece of fertile lowland running north-south between the North Yorkshire Moors and the Dales.
The Weald is the name given to the area between the North Downs and the South Downs in south east England. 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 (the word weald is an Old English word meaning "woodland") 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. Normally included are Cheshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, with Monmouthshire (in Wales) normally also included. This was an area of great strategic significance in the early mediæval period, before Wales was conquered and pacified. The name comes from the old word "march" meaning border.
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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