In Great Britain today, the term county is synonymous with shire. Historically, however, the two words have different origins.
In medieval times, a county was the realm of a lord (or, in many other countries, a count). A county palatine was a county in which the lord held particular rights in lieu of the monarch, for example the right to pardon those guilty of treason or murder.
Shires were formed in Anglo-Saxon times for the purpose of raising taxes. These had fortified strongholds at their centres which became the shire or county towns of today.
Today's counties are a combination of historic shires and counties and have been subject to many boundary changes over the course of history. This page concentrates mainly on the changes made during the 20th century.
Counties in the 20th century
Historically, counties have always been administrative areas. For most of the 20th century, local government in Great Britain was made up of two-tier counties consisting of an 'upper tier' county council and various lower-tier city, borough and district councils. Some counties, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire for example, consisted of more than one county council. Some towns and cities had the status of county borough - a single tier of local government independent of the county council.
Counties were not purely for administrative purposes; they also played various ceremonial roles. Each county had a Lord Lieutenant to represent the monarch in the county, and many had other offices with historical origins such as High Sheriff.
The City of London was (and still is) only the 'square mile' on the north bank of the River Thames where the Bank of England is located. The city was governed by the Corporation of London rather than a county or borough council. In 1899, the county of London was formed from the city and parts of the surrounding counties of Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. Evidence of this can still be seen today with a building in Westminster known as 'Middlesex County Hall'.
In 1965, Greater London was formed from the counties of London and Middlesex, and parts of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey. This new county was administered by the Greater London Council and 33 lower-tier bodies (32 London boroughs and the City of London). Greater London was, and is today, a proper county with its own Lord Lieutenant. You may still hear references to Middlesex, in addresses and in the context of the cricket club for example, but officially there is no longer such a county.
Local Government reorganisation
April 1974 saw comprehensive reorganisation of local government in England and Wales (outside Greater London). A uniform two-tier structure was introduced, abolishing single-tier areas such as county boroughs. Several of the historic counties disappeared, new counties were created, and all had significant boundary changes. New lieutenancies were created for each of the new counties so that the boundaries of ceremonial and administrative areas were the same. At this time, even services such as the police and fire service changed their boundaries to coincide with the new counties. Six of the new counties, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands, and West and South Yorkshire, were styled metropolitan counties, and in these areas the district councils had greater powers than in other areas.
In the following year, similar changes were made in Scotland. All of Scotland's historic counties were abolished and replaced with two-tier regions. Exceptions to this were the island councils serving Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles which remained single-tier. In the case of Scotland, the ceremonial areas for the Lord Lieutenants were not changed to match the new regions and many still represented the former counties. These were known simply as areas, so officially there were no longer any counties in Scotland.
The demise of the metropolitan councils
In 1986, the Greater London Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils were abolished, mainly for political rather than practical reasons. The lower-tier metropolitan districts and London boroughs became almost single-tier councils, although some services were still provided county-wide using residuary bodies and joint boards. These counties were no longer administrative entities, but remain today as ceremonial and geographical counties.
Another round of local government reorganisation
Between 1995 and 1998, another round of local government reorganisation took place. In Wales and Scotland, the counties and regions were completely replaced in 1996 by unitary authorities. These are single-tier councils responsible for all services in an area. In Wales, they are known either as counties or county boroughs (the latter being quite different to the pre-1974 county boroughs), and in Scotland they are simply called council areas! In both cases, the ceremonial arrangements remained as they had been after 1974 - the post-1974 counties in Wales, and ceremonial 'areas' in Scotland. In most cases, the Scottish ceremonial areas match boundaries of one or more council area.
Over the four years, England underwent more varied reorganisation. Several of the much hated counties created in 1974 were abolished, for both administrative and ceremonial purposes. In some areas, the councils remained two-tier, but in many of the larger towns and cities, new unitary authorities were created, similar to those in Wales and Scotland. The metropolitan counties were said to be successful, so were retained in their post-1986 form.
Each of the ceremonial or geographical counties in England is now one of the following:
- a two-tier area (eg. Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Northumberland, Worcestershire)
- a single unitary authority (Bristol, Herefordshire, Isle of Wight, Rutland)
- a number of unitary authorities together (Berkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire)
- a two-tier area and one or more unitary authority (eg. East Sussex, Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Somerset)
- a metropolitan county (eg. Greater Manchester, West Midlands)
- Greater London
The return on the Metropolitan counties?
In 1998, the people of Greater London voted in a referendum in favour of establishing a mayor and an elected chamber for the city. Although this is often referred to as an 'elected mayor for London', it is, in fact, a mayor for Greater London and a new Greater London assembly. Although different to the former Greater London Council, this has restored Greater London as an administrative entity.
The government has similar plans for other metropolitan counties, primarily Tyne & Wear and Greater Manchester, so in the future these may become administrative counties in addition to ceremonial ones.
So, what are the counties of Great Britain today?
There is much debate as to what constitutes a 'county' today. Really, this is a matter of personal choice and opinion. Some people use the names of unitary authorities as counties, others advocate the use of the so called 'historical counties' which existed before the 1974 reorganisation.
In England, the most satisfactory solution is to use the ceremonial counties. These are close to the historical counties in most places, and better represent local identities in the big conurbations. They also consist of (with only one exception) one or more whole council areas making it easy to publish statistics by county.
In Wales and Scotland, one could use either the ceremonial areas or the unitary authorities. The latter are closer to the pre-1974 counties in most cases, so are the most popular choice.
So most maps show the ceremonial counties in England, along with the unitary authorities of Wales and Scotland. Strictly speaking, these maps show counties, county boroughs and council areas rather than simply counties. An up-to-date map showing these boundaries is available on this web site.