Slide Shows on Cathedral and Church Architecture - by Michael G Hardy

return to home page          go to list of slide shows


About County Names

Some Personal Opinions by Michael G Hardy


Much of the history of England is defined by its structure of counties, most of which originates from before the Norman Conquest. This equally applies to the church, where diocesan boundaries have very often shared county boundaries. The history of building types and styles is often related to counties as much as it is by geology.



In the last 30 years, there is increasing confusion about counties, and their status. This has come about through various changes in local government administration, such as the county boundary changes of 1974, which also brought in Metropolitan Authorities. Further changes followed in 1998 with the setting up of Unitary Authorities, many of which have divided counties and even the Metropolitan Authorities into fragments. There are, of course, mixed opinions about the advantages of the many different systems of local government we now have, with different areas now having 1 or 2 or 3 tiers of local government control. This situation only looks set to become more complicated, as we are being swept along an inevitable path where regional control (however democratic or undemocratic it turns out to be) will gradually take over many of the powers of existing authorities. All this will inevitably become more complicated because of devolution and the differing powers and policies of the national governments or assemblies (themselves under increasing control from across the English Channel, of course).

The changes of 1974 meant the abolition of many historic county names for administrative purposes, although some were re-instated in 1998. The former 86 Historic Counties are now administered as follows:

The 39 Historic Counties of ENGLAND are now divided into 34 Counties and 115 Unitary Authorities for administrative purposes, the 34 counties are sub-divided into around 230 District Council and Borough Council areas.

The 13 Historic Counties of WALES are now divided into 22 Unitary Authorities for administrative purposes.

The 34 Historic Counties of SCOTLAND are now divided into 22 Unitary Authorities for administrative purposes.



However I actually think that the worst confusion has, however inadvertently, been caused by the Royal Mail. Any location is defined by what I call a Real Address comprised of:  House Name or Number, Road, Village or District, Town or City, County. With the aid of street atlases, any address could then easily be found. 

The Royal Mail always used these Real Addresses for delivering letters, until they decided, for perfectly valid reasons in this automated age, that Postcodes were also necessary. At first this sounded fine, but they decided that every address should have a Postal Address comprised of: House Name or Number, Road, Locality Name (possibly), Post Town, Postcode.  Apparently each postcode shows a main office or area, a district (usually a delivery office), and the second part defines a sector and a unit which can include a number of addresses.  The main offices and post towns are chosen as the most appropriate to route the mail through. Unfortunately, they can often be based over a county boundary.  The Royal Mail says that it is unnecessary to include a county name in a postal address, anyway one could often choose between the counties of the Main Office, the Post Town, or the Real Address.  The Royal Mail actually state that  "a Postal Address does not necessarily give an accurate geographical or administrative description of the destination".

This system leads to all sorts of problems where the name of people's villages or localities are not included in their Postal Address, and Post Towns (possibly in different counties) can be included which bear no relevance to local people.  These Postal Addresses can actually be useless for people actually trying to find an address for business or pleasure.

Therefore, strictly speaking, I think that many people actually need two addresses, a Postal Address for the delivering of letters and parcels, and also a Real Address, so that visitors can find them.



All this confusion makes it increasingly difficult to look places up in different books, as they may use a variety of county names or districts for the same place. Since 1974 some books have been structured on new county names, whilst others have kept to the old boundaries. The same can apply to web sites, and also to important institutions such as County Record Offices, who may well come under increasing economic pressures to restrict their holdings to match modern administrative boundaries. All these anomalies contribute to the increasing complications and confusion of modern life.



I have included some maps which show the 86 Historic Counties of Great Britain, and individual maps for England, Wales and Scotland, where the pages include a basic list of the historic county names:


go to complete GB map     go to England map     go to Wales map     go to Scotland map



I could continue by giving you examples of ridiculous situations concerning how people have been affected by county boundary changes. However there are plenty of other places where you can read such information, so I would just like to give you some examples of web sites of organisations and individuals who have concerns over this county confusion and erosion of history.



Let us not forget that however many of us 'of a certain age' seem to know fairly instinctively the historic county layout, this will certainly not be the case for the younger generations of today or the future. Indeed how many generations could it take until people say they have never heard of the county names that have now disappeared from the administrative maps of Scotland, England and Wales. These names include Caithness, Sutherland, Ross-shire and Cromartyshire, Inverness-shire, Nairnshire, Banffshire, Kincardineshire, Renfrewshire, Wigtownshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Peebleshire, Selkirkshire, Berwickshire, Roxburghshire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Huntingdonshire, Middlesex,  Caernarvonshire, Merionethshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Brecknockshire. 


return to top of page

This page last modified on 15th December 2005