In England, before there were counties there were shires1. The term 'shire' dates back over a thousand years and originated in Anglo-Saxon communities of the 5th Century. The word shire meant a portion or sheared-off piece of land and simply defined a geographical or administrative area governed from a strategically or economically important settlement. In the mid-8th Century, the Kingdom of Wessex was subdivided into shires, each based on a central administrative town, though Winchester remained the capital of Wessex overall. The earliest written record we have of a shire dates from 757. This names Hampshire2, the shire centred on Hamtun, modern-day Southampton.
As the Kingdom of Wessex expanded and achieved dominance over neighbouring kingdoms to become England, the shire system spread nationwide. Each shire was administered from a central town or city by a Ealdorman or Shire-Reeve, a term that later evolved into Sheriff3. Most shires were named after their central town or key strategic settlement. The exceptions were shires that had previously been independent kingdoms or tribes. These included Sussex, previously the Kingdom of the South Saxons, Essex, formerly the Kingdom of the East Saxons, Kent, Cornwall, Norfolk and Northumbria. Following their unity under the English Crown, they assumed the role of a shire, though never actually titled 'shire'.
The Origin of County
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 the shire system was modified to reflect the system used in France. The term 'county' originates in 8th-Century France as comté, a term that defined a region of land that fell under the auspices of a Count. The Count had responsibility for the legal, military and administrative governance of his area of authority or 'county', subject to the inspection of officials of the King's court. Though the title 'Count' was not used in England, the shire was administered similarly to the French system by royal officials through whom the crown maintained a stronghold.
Six more counties were established following the Norman Conquest, including Cumberland which was conquered from Scotland in 1092, and 'shire' and 'county' became synonymous terms. The power of the sheriff was strengthened over time. By the 14th Century County Courts composed of Justices of the Peace or Magistrates had developed in order to aid the Sheriff in administering the county, acting as executor of the king's will and collector of the Royal revenue. The Crown appointed the magistrates who gradually became the main administrators of the counties. Each county also became the constituency for the elections of county members to Parliament.
The Historic English Counties
Thirty-nine counties were established in England:
Most of these same counties continue to be recognised today. The boundaries of those counties were based on geographical features such as hills, mountains, rivers and streams as well as ancient settlements that exerted power and influence on the area around themselves. Those settlements, to which in most cases the area of jurisdiction became synonymous, developed as the seats of the courts and became the county town. In the ancient kingdoms that had existed before the establishment of England, the former capital became the designated county town. As the power and prosperity of towns changed over time, in some cases the county town also changed.
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight became part of England in 1293, following the death of Isabella de Fortibus. Having enjoyed two centuries of independent rule following the Norman Invasion, the Island's knights had been keen to establish their independence. However, Edward I prevented this, establishing his dominance by making the Isle of Wight subservient to Hampshire. For the following centuries the Isle of Wight had ambiguous status, officially considered to be part of Hampshire, yet also officially separate. It even shared some characteristics with the Channel Islands5 by having its own Captain or Governor rather than Sheriff or Lord Lieutenant. The Isle of Wight even had its own king, Henry, in 1444-1446.
This particular county, located between Gloucestershire in England and Glamorganshire in Wales, is somewhat of an anomaly. Wales was claimed by the English under Edward I in 1282 and was officially brought under English administration by Royal assent in 1536 during the reign of Henry VIII. The shire system of government was thus introduced to the principality, administered by Sheriffs and Justices of the Peace. Welsh customs and the traditional powers of the Marcher Lords were abolished and the Welsh language suppressed to restrict the quasi-independence of Wales, which had been controlled by the English since the early part of the 15th Century. The seven shires of Brecon, Denbigh, Glamorgan, Pembroke, Radnor, Montgomery and Monmouth were created whilst Anglesey, Caernarvonshire, Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Flintshire and Merionethshire were re-enfranchised as shires under English administration.
The Act of Union was completed in 1543 in which Monmouthshire was officially recognised as an English county, but was still regarded as part of Wales for ecclesiastical purposes. While long recognised as the 40th English county, in 1974 it was clarified that Monmouthshire was actually in Wales, becoming part of Gwent.
Detached Parts of Counties
Owing to the gradual way the counties became established, numerous anomalies developed. This was owing to land ownership issues and areas of land that had been awarded to certain noblemen. Many of those historical counties comprised land that was entirely surrounded by another neighbouring county, detached as 'islands' from the main county unit that administered them.
Many boundary anomalies were tidied up and most small detached parts of counties were incorporated into the county which surrounded them in 1844, following the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1843. Other remaining detached areas were also tidied up in 1930 and 1931. Some detached areas, notably the northern portion of Worcestershire containing the town, and later county borough, of Dudley, which was entirely surrounded by Staffordshire and the Furness peninsular of Lancashire remained until 1974. Certain areas, owing to the alteration of boundaries, have undergone numerous changes; some towns having been located in several different historic counties at different times.
The 19th Century
The ancient system of county government, comprising centrally appointed Justices of the Peace who held legislative, judicial and executive powers, had become inadequate by the time Victoria became queen. Despite this, the traditional system remained in place until the late 19th Century.
England in the 19th Century was no longer the England of the Middle Ages. Principal changes included the industrialisation of England, the phenomenal increase and new distribution of population, the expansion of government services, the extension of the suffrage and redistribution of wealth. These necessitated the need for a new system of local government. Government became increasingly involved in local administration. Politics and law became more democratic and efficient. Elected boards controlled most public services that had become available, including education, welfare, health and sanitary works. These boards tended to represent a particular town area, or formed joint boards with neighbouring areas.
In 1888 the Local Government Act replaced rule through the courts and boards with the formation of county councils. Although sheriffs retained their judicial power, new authorities were created. These democratically-elected members were chosen to represent wards within the new council areas for a fixed term of three years. The councillors were elected aldermen6 and were responsible for the provision of services such as education, roads, libraries, planning, welfare services, policing, fire services and licensing.
1888 Local Government Act
48 new county councils were created and came into being in England on 1 April, 1889, following the Act. In the main, these were based on and mirrored the historic 39 county boundaries, with the exception of minor alterations to boundaries where detached areas of counties existed and where a town or settlement had spread over two or more historical county boundaries. County borders were changed to allow towns to be entirely within one county. Once again each county was administered from the county town or purpose-built administrative headquarters.
New authorities were created based on the geographical county, following the jurisdiction and history of their county courts. Thus Yorkshire was divided into the three Riding authorities, Lincolnshire into three parts and Suffolk, Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire each split into two separate administrative counties.
The 1888 Act saw the establishment of the County Council which remained almost synonymous with the historical county. The exceptions were subtle changes; any town which was situated within more than one county owing to natural, urban growth was placed in the county which contained the greatest proportion of the population. For instance, Tamworth had spread over the boundary from Warwickshire into Staffordshire and therefore was incorporated wholly into Staffordshire. Likewise, Todmorden had been divided between both Lancashire and Yorkshire and so was transferred to Yorkshire under the rule of the West Riding County Council.
Following vigorous campaigns for the Isle of Wight to have recognised independence rather than being considered a part of Hampshire, the Isle of Wight County Council was created on 1 April, 1890, having been fully part of Hampshire for one year from 1 April, 1889. Also following the 1888 Act, the London Government Act of 1889 saw the creation of a new county of London that came into force in 1890.
English Administrative County Councils
The new counties7 established under the 1888 Local Government Act and 1889 London Government Act in place in 1890 were:
- East Suffolk
- East Sussex
- Holland (Lincolnshire)
- Isle of Ely (Cambridgeshire)
- Isle of Wight
- Kesteven (Lincolnshire)
- Lindsey (Lincolnshire)
- Soke of Peterborough (Northamptonshire)
- West Suffolk
- West Sussex
- Yorkshire, East Riding
- Yorkshire, North Riding
- Yorkshire, West Riding
Cities Become Counties: The County Boroughs
Following the 1888 Act, England's largest towns and cities with over 50,000 inhabitants were defined as counties in their own right. These counties, known as County Boroughs, became administratively independent from the county they were geographically located within. The County Boroughs were also given the exact same powers as a county council8.
59 County Boroughs were created following the Act. Each borough was responsible for its own administration and the delivery of local services. Boroughs in London after the London Government Act of 1889 were known as Metropolitan Boroughs. Each county was entitled to have a second tier of local government under the auspices of the county council. These smaller local councils were entitled to a certain level of autonomy in the services they provided.
1894 Parish Council Acts
In 1894 the Parish Council Acts saw the formation of Urban and Rural District Councils, which as another form of second tier government also provided a limited amount of services to their inhabitants. Urban districts differed from the County Borough in terms of status as they did not have the honour of having a charter of incorporation.
Each district had an elected council, and collected income for services through levying a rate to cover both its own expenditure and that of the county as a whole. The rural district maintained the parish that held on to a limited amount of self-government, provided services such as street lighting and had an additional rate to cover their own charges. In all there were initially 270 municipal borough councils, 535 urban district councils and 472 rural district councils in England and Wales. Several of the smaller councils merged with each other over time or were upgraded from urban districts to municipal boroughs or even county boroughs.
There were many changes to the county boundaries between 1888 and 1923 to accommodate demographic changes to existing towns and cities. A number of new county boroughs were created, namely Oxford in 1889 and the London county boroughs of Croydon, East Ham and West Ham. The county borough of Hanley merged with smaller councils in the North Staffordshire area to create the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent in 1910, when Stoke-on-Trent also acquired city status by royal assent. The county borough of Doncaster was created in 1927. In all there were 109 extensions to the county boroughs, with boroughs absorbing land and population and therefore rate revenue from their rural county neighbours.
Stopping the Creation of new Boroughs
The population of England continued to dramatically increase; within four decades far more towns had populations of over 50,000 and were entitled to be granted County Borough status than had been envisioned. In 1888 there had been 59 counties; by 1923 20 new boroughs had been added, making 79 counties and county boroughs in England. The number seemed likely to continue to increase. In an attempt to reduce this, the 1923 Onslow Report resulted in the 1926 Local Government Act (London Boroughs and Adjustments). This ruled that local authorities could only become county boroughs if their population exceeded 75,000 inhabitants.
County boundaries continued to change to reflect the newly expanding suburbs. County boroughs grew at a loss to counties. Creating new boroughs became generally discouraged. Their formation was not allowed as county councils would lose both a large proportion of their responsibilities and the revenue from a large urban area. The 1945 Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act made new county boroughs only possible for those towns with populations over 100,000. This was repealed in 1949 back to 75,000, but there were no new creations of boroughs between 1927 and 1958.
In 1958 the Local Government Act made the county borough minimum population figure 100,000 again. It also created urban areas that were designated as conurbations. These were defined as areas of several local government units with high population densities and expanses of urban development where a number of towns had become interlinked. This linking was by factors including common industrial or business interests, a common centre for shopping, or education. The conurbations created were Tyneside, West Yorkshire, South East Lancashire & North East Cheshire (SELNEC), Merseyside and the West Midlands.
The 1963 London Government Act
The 1963 London Government Act saw the abolition of the county councils of Middlesex and London to form the Greater London Council. This was formed by absorbing towns within Hertfordshire, Surrey, Essex and Kent. Parts of Essex, Hertfordshire, Surrey and Kent and the metropolitan boroughs, several urban districts and the three county boroughs of Croydon, East Ham and West Ham were replaced with a two-tier structure under a Greater London Council and 32 London boroughs.
The ancient City of London continued to function as it had always as a unitary corporation along its mediæval boundaries. The GLC and its lower-tier London boroughs came into being on 1 May, 1965. With the abolition of the three London County Boroughs there remained a total of 79 counties in England in 1968.
Between 1958 and 1968 the County Boroughs of Luton, Solihull and Torbay were designated. The county borough of Smethwick was expanded to create Warley county borough. Middlesbrough merged with a number of its smaller neighbours to create Teesside county borough. Cambridgeshire and most of the Isle of Ely merged. The rest of the Isle of Ely merged with Huntingdonshire and the former Northamptonshire Soke of Peterborough.
There were a number of historical anomalies to the county system. Bristol had been given the right to call itself a county in its own right in 1393 by the charter of Edward III. Until that time, the city which dominated the banks of the River Avon9 had lain in Gloucestershire to the north and Somerset to the south. By 1888, the City and County of Bristol had been designated as a county borough, thus for administrative purposes falling outside the county structure. However for geographical purposes Bristol was deemed to be wholly within Gloucestershire, thus enabling the county to cross the river into Somerset.
This principle similarly applies to administrative counties created under the 1888 Act; York and Lincoln. Though county boroughs were not placed similarly within a recognised county created for administrative purposes, they still existed as self-governing units within Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, despite the fact that a unified Yorkshire or unified Lincolnshire no longer existed. Similarly, Teesside county borough, when created in 1968, did not enable the county of Yorkshire to cross the Tees into County Durham, though maps do depict the new enlarged authority as falling entirely within Yorkshire when Teesside south of the river Tees was formerly Yorkshire and the section north formerly County Durham.
Mid-20th Century Review and Reform: The 1972 Local Government Act
Following intensive review the biggest change to local government took place following the 1972 Local Government Act. On 1 April, 1974, the whole local government system was totally transformed. 46 new county councils occupied the whole of England. The county boroughs were abolished and reformed as a lower tier authority or absorbed with other districts to form 296 district councils. Many of the original county councils had major boundary changes to accommodate differences in population and geography or were reshaped to make them more rational.
One of the main aims of the reforms was to ensure that each county contained a population of at least 250,000. This would have some strange side-effects when creating new counties. For instance, the south coast towns of Poole in Dorset and Bournemouth and Christchurch in Hampshire had intertwined forming a conurbation. In order to keep this conurbation within the same county and to help the more rural county of Dorset meet the population targets, the two towns of Bournemouth and Christchurch were moved into Dorset rather than move the one town of Poole into Hampshire.
Although the geographical county and the administrative county were two separate entities, one historical and the latter based on Acts of Parliament, the county was reshaped, transferred, altered and absorbed. Critics at the time argued there was little consultation with how the people living within the affected areas felt about having county boundaries moved and even new counties created.
Some counties merged to form new ones, such as Hereford and Worcester. Other counties totally disappeared off the maps; Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Rutland and Westmorland. Four new counties were formed: Avon, Cleveland, Cumbria and Humberside. Monmouthshire, which until 1974 had long been officially a part of England, was returned to Wales and renamed Gwent10. Many felt that 1,000 years of county history and local identity was being disregarded.
Most large towns and cities lost their county borough status. The very largest followed Greater London's lead to form six metropolitan counties: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire. These were subdivided into 36 metropolitan districts. In 1986, the metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council were abolished. The 36 metropolitan districts, along with the 32 London Boroughs, all became single tier authorities while the two-tier system remained elsewhere in England.
Each part of England would be governed by a two-tier system, for example rural areas would be governed by a borough council beneath a county council.
Counties After 1974 Local Government Reorganisation
In the early 1970s the proposals were debated, with the borders drawn and redrawn several times. For example, a proposed South Hampshire consisting of Southampton and Portsmouth never materialised. Most local campaigns to retain the former county borders failed to influence the decision, with the notable exception of the Isle of Wight. Although the original plans had been for the Isle of Wight once more to be consumed into Hampshire, as the Isle of Wight's population is far below the 250,000 threshold, campaigners successfully pointed out that the Isle of Wight is in no way, shape or form connected with Hampshire. On 17 October, 1972, this was accepted by the campaigners for the Local Government Bill with the words:
[the] simple fact [is] that the Isle of Wight is an island... Nowhere else is faced with problems of communication with its neighbours which are in any way comparable.
The new counties11 in England following the 1972 Local Government Act were:
- Cleveland - Formerly Teesside.
- Cumbria - Replacing Cumberland and Westmorland
- Greater Manchester
- Hereford & Worcester
- North Yorkshire
- South Yorkshire
- Tyne and Wear
- West Midlands
- West Yorkshire
On 1 April, 1974, Avon, Cleveland, Cumbria and Humberside were born, linking towns together that until then had no other association with each other in an endeavour to reach the population of 250,000 figure. Humberside was particularly unpopular – a county formed from unconnected land either side of the river Humber. This was the former East Riding of Yorkshire north of the Humber and Lindsey, Lincolnshire, south of the river. Before the Humber Bridge opened in 1981, the only way to get from one side of the river to the other was either by a long car journey or by ferry. To add to the confusion, this new-formed county even contained two villages with the same name, Wold Newton.
With the exception of Cumbria, merged from Cumberland and Westmorland with the Furness part of Lancashire, the new controversial counties were abolished within 25 years. Cumbria had at least existed as a kingdom, though Cumberland and Westmorland had been recognised English counties.
The same act pushed together great swathes of conurbations into counties: Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire, West Midlands. In one night, people in Birmingham were no longer in Warwickshire but instead were in the West Midlands. This county was so-named even though there was not an East, North or South Midlands.
The 1992 Local Government Act
The 1972 Local Government Act was not popular for a number of reasons. Firstly the purpose of having two-tier local councils was unclear, as there were large degrees of overlap. Metropolitan two-tier councils had been replaced in 1986 with unitary councils and, in many other parts of England, two-tier councils were replaced with single councils; for example on the Isle of Wight, the South Wight Borough Council and Medina Borough Councils were replaced by the Isle of Wight County Council. Cities such as Southampton and Portsmouth were now governed by a single council rather than a two-tier structure.
The 1992 Local Government Act's proposals were introduced over the following five years. It saw the reinstatement of historic counties including Rutland12, Herefordshire and Worcestershire as well as the abolition of former counties, including Avon and the unpopular Humberside. Humberside north of the Humber became the East Riding of Yorkshire, also known as East Yorkshire, while the south became Lincolnshire. Cleveland was divided between County Durham north of the River Tees, and North Yorkshire south of the river. Hereford & Worcester was again split into Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
In the 1992 Act, the concept of a unitary authority was born. This was similar in structure to the pre-1974 county boroughs. Before 1992, cities including Bath and Bolton that were administered completely separately from the county council which surrounded them were still recognised as a part of Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire respectively. Since these unitary authorities were created, mainly between 1995-8 (with others created in 2009), 56 areas with the same administrative authority as 'counties' now exist, often within the larger geographical counties. Confusingly, some geographical and ceremonial counties, including County Durham and the County of Herefordshire, are now Unitary Authorities and not classed as Counties.
Counties of England in the 21st Century
These are the Ceremonial Counties, also known as the Geographical Counties of England. Those in Bold have been restored or created since 1974.
- Buckinghamshire, including Milton Keynes
- Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough
- City of Bristol (largely formerly Avon)
- City of London
- Cornwall, including Isles of Scilly
- Devon, including Plymouth
- Dorset, including Bournemouth and Poole
- County Durham, including Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees
- East Sussex, including Brighton
- East Yorkshire, including Kingston-upon-Hill
- Essex, including Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock
- Greater London
- Hampshire, including Southampton and Portsmouth
- Isle of Wight
- Lancashire, including Blackpool and Blackburn
- North Yorkshire, including Middlesbrough, Redcar, Cleveland and York
- South Yorkshire
- Staffordshire, including Stoke-on-Trent
- Tyne and Wear
- West Midlands
- West Sussex
- West Yorkshire
'County' is not only used geographically and ceremonially, but also for administrative purposes. Outside London, which is divided into Boroughs, there are currently 56 unitary authorities in England, six Metropolitan counties and 27 Non-Metropolitan Counties:
|County or Area||Type of County|
|Bath & North East Somerset||Unitary Authority|
|Blackburn with Darwen||Unitary Authority|
|Bracknell Forest||Unitary Authority|
|Brighton & Hove||Unitary Authority|
|Central Bedfordshire||Unitary Authority|
|Cheshire East||Unitary Authority|
|Cheshire West & Chester||Unitary Authority|
|County Durham||Unitary Authority|
|East Riding of Yorkshire||Unitary Authority|
|East Sussex||Non-Metropolitan County|
|Greater Manchester||Metropolitan County|
|Isle of Wight||Unitary Authority|
|Isles of Scilly||Unitary Authority|
|Milton Keynes||Unitary Authority|
|North East Lincolnshire||Unitary Authority|
|North Lincolnshire||Unitary Authority|
|North Somerset||Unitary Authority|
|North Yorkshire||Non-Metropolitan County|
|Redcar and Cleveland||Unitary Authority|
|South Gloucestershire||Unitary Authority|
|South Yorkshire||Metropolitan County|
|Telford & Wrekin||Unitary Authority|
|Tyne and Wear||Metropolitan County|
|West Berkshire||Unitary Authority|
|West Midlands||Metropolitan County|
|West Sussex||Non-Metropolitan County|
|West Yorkshire||Metropolitan County|
|Windsor & Maidenhead||Unitary Authority|
Is a county based on ancient historical and geographical factors, or changeable depending on the whim of the government in power? Should a county be altered, abolished or created? Are counties dynamic and able to change as their populations grow?
Since the Local Government Act, some would argue that, say, Blackburn is no longer part of Lancashire, because Lancashire County Council has not administered that area since 1998. However, although the ceremonial county of Berkshire no longer exists as an administrative unit, the county is more widely recognised than the six unitary authorities that make up the geographical county: West Berkshire, Reading, Windsor & Maidenhead, Wokingham and Bracknell Forest. The sixth, Slough, is now deemed to be part of Berkshire, rather than being in Buckinghamshire, as it was up until 1974, when many regions of Berkshire were transferred to Oxfordshire.
Some feel that historic counties, which for hundreds of years have been identified as places of origin, historical centres of local administration and ceremony, were abolished and disappeared off the face of the map. The traditional ceremonial emblem of the county, the High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant themselves now work within the boundaries of late-20th Century county lines. Yet on the other hand, County cricket still has teams for Middlesex and a united Sussex and Yorkshire.
The confusion stems from the ambiguous term County. This portion of land remained the standard recognised area of one's birth, residence and, indeed, administration for hundreds of years. Now, since the dramatic county changes of 1974 and the 1990s, one person can say they are from Merseyside whilst another born in the same place is from Lancashire.