How well do you know the counties of Britain? At one time every town and village in Britain was located in one of 92 counties, with many of the names of the counties ending in ‘shire’. Where was Banffshire, Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Montgomeryshire, Sutherland or Westmorland? And Middlesex? Well that used to include most of London north of the Thames including Westminster and the West End, apart from the City of London. And where are the counties of Barsetshire, Hallamshire, Midsomer, and Trumptonshire?
From 1888 to 1965, local government in England, Scotland and Wales was based quite closely on the boundaries of historic counties but as a consequence of the numerous reforms of local government since then, few local authorities now have an area anything like the historic county in which they were previously located.
Although twenty-seven county councils still exist in England, most cities and many large towns are not governed by the county council for the area in which they lie. Portsmouth and Southampton once part of Hampshire are now unitary (all-purpose) councils in their own right. The same goes for Blackpool and Blackburn in Lancashire, Bristol in Gloucestershire, Maidstone in Kent, Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, Plymouth in Devon, and so on. The list is long. And in Scotland and Wales, historic counties were merged from 1974 onwards, so for example Powys County Council in Wales was formed from three historic counties, and Highland Council in Scotland was formed from the whole or part of seven historic counties.
Many public agencies, such as some police and emergency services, and voluntary bodies such as wildlife trusts, are still based on historic counties and are named after them. And so too are cricket teams and local radio stations. But in 2010, the Royal Mail deleted county names from its Postcode Address File database, which lists every address in the UK. There is an interesting article here on the BBC website about the confusion over historic and administrative counties.
The Association of British Counties (ABC) exists to promote ‘the use of the historic counties as a standard geography for the UK’, and you can find out more about its aims and the counties here. You can use the map above to find the historic counties mentioned at the start.
One notable exception to the diminution in the status of historic counties is Rutland. Once the smallest county in England, and first mentioned in 1159, Rutland (motto Multum in Parvo or ‘much in little’) was abolished in 1974 and it became part of Leicestershire as a district council. In 1997 however, Rutland became a separate county again, and the council has the name Rutland County Council.
There are lots of counties that you won’t find on the ABC map. Here are some of them, most coming from literature or TV, and a surprising number from the novels of Agatha Christie.
Barsetshire – the setting for the series of mid-19th century novels Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, Also as the setting for the series of 29 romantic and satirical novels by Angela Thirkell, and as the supposed location of St Trinians School in the original comedy films
Borsetshire – a county in the Midlands, location of the village of Ambridge in the long-running BBC radio drama The Archers
Diddlesex – used in the satirical Punch magazine in the 1840s as the abode of an ex-servant who becomes rich, and in the 1890s to Parliamentary consideration of the ‘East-West Diddlesex Railway Bill’. Also the ‘North South East West Diddlesex junction’ song in the Gilbert & Sullivan opera Thespis, referring to a shadily run railway company
Downshire – the location of the village of St Mary Mead in The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Ffhâgdiwedd – a county borough of South East Wales, the setting for the science fiction and mythological novel Waliens – Close Encounters of The Welsh Kind by R W Finlan and Darren Bowker-Powis (more…)