The Counties of Britain – Fact & Fiction


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.

The division of Britain into 92 counties goes back to mediaeval and feudal times starting with the division of the Kingdom of West Saxons, now referred to as Wessex, in the 8th century. All the historic English and Scottish counties were established in one form or another by the 12th century, and the Welsh counties by the 16th century.
© The Association of British Counties

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.

The Warden, the first of Anthony Trollope’s novels set in Barsetshire, was published in 1855. This is Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire first printed in Michael Sadleir’s Trollope: A Commentary in 1927. Sadleir was a British novelist, literary historian and book collector, who specialized in 19th century English fiction, notably the work of Anthony Trollope. Sadleir later re-drew the map so as to make it more consistent with the descriptions in the Barsetshire books

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

Glenshire – the location of the seaside resort of Dilmouth in The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Hallamshire – the most southerly shire of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, thought to be an area roughly equivalent to the part of present-day Sheffield that lies west of the rivers Don and Sheaf, though modern Hallam has come to mean that part of  Yorkshire in the foothills of the Peak District and southwest of the River Don. The ancient county gives its name to the Parliamentary constituency of Sheffield Hallam, to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, to one of the two universities in the city, as well as to numerous local institutions, business’s, and sports clubs.

Hexhamshire – an ancient county in northern England originally one of the districts of the Kingdom of Northumbria, eventually incorporated into Northumberland in 1572

Hullshire – a county of England from 1440, when Hull was made a county town in the reign of Henry VI, until 1889 when it was abolished.

Isle of Ely – a county associated with the city of Ely formed in 1889, and previously part of Cambridgeshire. The bulk of the area was merged with adjacent Cambridgeshire in 1965 to form the county of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, which then became Cambridgeshire in 1974

Ledshire – a county in the north of England, the setting for Summer Term and A Young Man’s Fancy by Susan Pleydell, and the name of a county in the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth

Kenneth Tynan in 1966. Tynan (1927-1980) rose to prominence after he became the theatre critic for the London Observer in 1954. Tynan was highly critical of what he called ‘the Loamshire play’, a genre of English middle-class country-house comedies set in the fictional county which he felt dominated the early 1950s stage. The plays were always set in the large lounges or drawing rooms of local worthies and staffed by country bumpkins and supercilious butlers. Tynan saw the plays as ‘a glibly codified fairy-tale world of no more use to the student of life than a doll’s house would be to a student of town-planning.’

Loamshire – used by the British Army to provide examples for its procedures using the fictional Loamshire Regiment. For instance how to write an Army address or how to set out specimen charges. The county is the setting for the romantic novelFelix Holt, the Radical, by George Eliot. The regiment is also mentioned in the novels Men at Arms and Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh, as the regiment of one of the characters in the 1943 romantic drama war film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and as the ‘Royal Loamshires’, the regiment of Bulldog Drummond, the hero of the stories by Sapper, the pseudonym of British solder and author Cyril McNeile

Mangelwurzelshire – used in the collection of satirical works The Book of Snobs by William Makepeace Thackeray that first appeared in Punchin 1846

Melfordshire – the location of Market Basing in By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Mertonshire – the setting of The Horses of Diomedes in The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

Middleshire – used in Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley and Hercule Poirot’s Christmasand A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Mortshire – the location of Backwater Hall in the Edwardian based novel The Other Statue by Edward Gorey

Midsomer – the setting of the TV detective series Midsomer Murders, in which, by 2012, 265 murders had taken place. Many of the villages in the series have Midsomer in their name, and the setting is inspired in part by the real county of Somerset, and specifically the town of Midsomer Norton. The county town of Midsomer is Causton.

Naptonshire – the setting for Home Defence training simulations of the 1970s, some of which were carried out at the Civil Defence College at Easingwold in North Yorkshire

Oatshire – a county bordering North Wessex, used in the 1966 novel Paper Lives by Compton Mackenzie

Radfordshire – a county close to or bordering the fictional counties of Glenshire, Southshire and Middleshire, the setting for St Mary Mead in some of the Miss Marple novels and short stories by Agatha Christie

Richmondshire – an existing local government district, but not a county, of North Yorkshire created in 1974 and which covers a large northern area of the Yorkshire Dales.  The name was given to the lands passed to Alain Le Roux, 1st Lord of Richmond, by Edwin, Earl of Mercia in 1071.

Rutshire – a county in the Cotswold Hills, the setting of the series of romantic novels the Rutshire Chronicles by Jilly Cooper

Slopshire – a county in the West Country, the location of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, home of Doctor John Dolittle, the central character in the series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting

Soke of Peterborough – a county associated with the city of Peterborough formed in 1888 and previously part of Northamptonshire. Merged with adjacent Huntingdonshire in 1965 to form the county of Huntingdon and Peterborough, which then became part of Cambridgeshire in 1974

Southmoltonshire – a rural county, the setting of Rowcester Abbey in the novel Ring for Jeeves by P G Wodehouse

South Riding of Yorkshire – the setting for South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Stonyshire – a county adjacent to Loamshire, used in Adam Bede the first novel of George Eliot

Trumptonshire – the setting of the children’s TV trilogy Camberwick GreenTrumpton, and Chigley

Wessex – an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south and south-west of Britain from 519 until the early 10th century, the setting of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Although the places that appear in his novels actually exist, in most cases Hardy gave them fictional names. For example, Hardy’s hometown of Dorchester was called Casterbridge, Salisbury was Melchester, and Wells was Fountall.

Westershire – the location of the town of Middleton, the setting for the TV detective series Pie in the Sky

Westshire – the setting of Dead Man’s Mirror by Agatha Christie and the Inspector Wilkins novels of James Anderson, and the location of Wandlebury in the novels of D E Stevenson

Winchcombeshire – an ancient county and petty kingdom of Mercia, which included ‘Cheltenham, Cleeve, Kiftsgate, Slaughter and Tibaldstone, and parts of Bradley, Deerhurst and Tewksbury’ which was largely absorbed into Gloucestershire in 1100

Winshire – the location of the village of Midwich, the setting of the science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Worfordshire or more precisely South Worfordshire – a county in the English/Welsh borderlands, the setting for the novel Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe

Wyvern – a county in south-west England, location of the city of Holby, the setting for the BBC medical drama productions Casualty and Holby City. A wyvern is a legendary winged dragon used since 1911 as the heraldic emblem for the Kingdom of Wessex, and by the British Army to represent Wessex in badges

A final word. Trumptonshire, the fictional rural county created by the puppeteer Gordon Murray, is a utopia and as such nothing really goes wrong. Everything always turns out alright in the end because everyone works together, whether it’s Windy Miller, Roger Varley the sweep, PC McGarry, Mrs Cobbit the florist, Captain Flack, Bracket the butler, Nick Fisher the bill poster or Harry Farthing the potter. In the Guinness Book of Classic British TV, it states ‘there is a mythical part of Britain that is forever Trumptonshire’. But was it based on anywhere?

Some have said it is inspired by the area around Plumpton Green in East Sussex. This is a very pleasant village just north of the South Downs, between Lewes and Burgess Hill, in the heart of the English countryside, just like Camberwick Green.

Gordon Murray himself wrote ‘Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley are representative of real locations which are one-and-a-half miles from each other in an equidistant triangle. But their exact position must remain a mystery as disclosure could lead to the actual places being inundated with tourists, something I couldn’t bear to see happen’.


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