UK County Classifications and Information

A collection of various resources specific to each county, including Parish Registers, Census, Directories and Maps.

When we study British genealogy, we refer to the original divisions of Britain, for it is within these divisions that the records were created.

Some definitions are required to avoid confusion:United Kingdom

The United Kingdom

The full title is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. (Note that the country of Ireland is not included in the UK. It is a separate country in its own right).

Great Britain

Comprises the countries of England, Wales and Scotland, together with some off shore islands, namely, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.Great Britain

(Note that no part of Ireland is included in Great Britain). Also note that although there is a collective term “British”, we are really English, Welsh or Scottish. Neither “Britain” or “UK” is a country. A country of origin for our ancestors, and even today, would be either England, Wales or Scotland.

For the sake of British genealogy, we therefore refer to the countries and islands that comprise Great Britain:Great Britain

England

Wales

Scotland

The Isle of Man

The Channel Islands

 

Great Britain is divided into Countries of England, Wales & Scotland. Each of which has its own nationality – English, Welsh and Scottish.

The Countries are divided into Counties.

Each of which has a County Town (a capital)

Counties are divided into hundreds or Wapentakes

Wapentakes are divided into Parishes and Counties.

English Shires – County Classification

County names often, but not always, have the term “shire” as part of the name. Shire means county. Therefore, unlike in the USA, we never use the word “county” as part of the name. There is no such name as “Nottinghamshire County”. It is just plain “Nottinghamshire”. There is just one exception – Durham is known as “County Durham”. It’s all down to our terminology, for example:

“Nottingham County” would be wrong

“County Nottingham” would be wrong

“Nottinghamshire County” would be wrong

“Nottinghamshire” would be correct

“The County of Nottingham” would be correct, although the term is not in common use.

The traditional counties, as listed here, were so until 1974, with later changes occurring in the 1990s. This is why, for genealogy purposes, we use the old traditional counties. The original records relate to these traditional counties.

Think of a county town as being the “capital” of a county. It is not always the largest town in the county, although is often so. Counties that include the word “shire” usually (but not always) have a county town as part of the name. For example, Gloucester is the county town of Gloucestershire, and Nottingham is the county town of Nottinghamshire. Chester is the county town of Cheshire, and Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire. The exceptions (in England) are:

Berkshire – There is no town named “Berk”

Hampshire – In the case of Hampshire, then things become complex; what is absolutely wrong though is the term Southamptonshire – it never existed. The confusion in this county is the fact of two Southampton’s; except for a short blip in the 20th century, since the 15th century the port of Southampton has been governed separately from the county now known as Hampshire. Its title until the 1960s was the town and county of the town of Southampton and it derived its authority to self-government from royal charters.

Since then it is officially ‘The City and County of the City of Southampton’. This was a royal manor and a staple port; it was a tax farm and had been outside the writ of the Shire Reeve of Hants since even before it had county status bestowed upon it; instead there was a Port Reeve. The derivation of the name Hampshire and its shortened version, Hants, is from the development of the names of the port of Southampton. The original Saxon port was called Hamwic, probably pronounced Hamwich, or Ham’ich (as with Greenwich); it was an important trading and industrial port and the most important one in the Kingdom of the West Saxons.

The eventual royal house of the West Saxons first landed in Southampton water and fought a great battle against the indigenous Romano-British peoples nearby. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles members of this family with Jutish connections established a centre on the Isle of Wight whilst the primary figures moved north and west to eventually establish Wessex. Southampton was in essence the ‘home’ town, which may have given rise to the later Saxon name developing, Hamtun, sometimes recorded as Hantun. The commissioners of the great survey known as Domesday, in 1086 prefaced the county with the title ‘Hantunscir’ which is the town name with the Anglo-Saxon name for shire (it is pronounced the same).

From this was the short-form name ‘Hants’ derived. So the county had by the eleventh century obtained the name of the town. The name Southampton is said by some, but with little evidence, to have been a later distinction to identify the two Hamptons, North and South – personally I believe this to be wishful thinking since they would have been under separate jurisdictions for most of this period. Southampton did, however, emerge as the name of the town, and one can only surmise that as the economic powerhouse, and in continuance of the time established tradition of the county bearing the name of the town, the wider county became known also as Southampton (note just the county of Southampton, and no mention of either town, city or shire!).

The name Southampton persisted in legal, judicial and administrative terms until quite recently when referring to the wider county, it was the establishment of the Hampshire County Council that changed most of that – although until the reorganisation of the courts the assizes and circuits were still name Southampton when referring the wider county. The problem was made worse by the charters granted to the town’s gilds over the years, they had rights of custom over all ports from Langstone in the east to Lymington in the west, meaning that references to these often speak of Southampton, meaning the town even though they are not a part of the town.

Shropshire – There is no town named “Shrop” – but historically there was a place called Salop, which is why Shropshire is still often known as “Salop” today.

Wiltshire – There is no town named “Wilt”. Wiltshire derives its name from the Royal seat that was the centre of the County in times past, it is named for Wilton – these days on the western fringes of Salisbury. In the same way the Chester becomes Cheshire, so Wilton becomes Wiltshire.  I will add that to confuse things there is a second Wilton in Wiltshire that amounted to nothing much more than a manor with a mill.

Hundreds and Wapentakes

The UK Counties are divided into sub divisions known as Hundreds (or wapentakes). These terms and divisions are not in common use today. But you will encounter them in historical records. Many books relating to counties, such as county directories of the early to mid-1800s are divided into Hundreds, and then towns and villages in alphabetical order within them. Although the Hundreds are not in common use today, many of them are still electoral districts, for example Broxtowe and Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire.

Parishes

Each county is divided into parishes. A parish is a community that was set up in early Norman times in England. Norman lords were each given the responsibilty of the land and people within their parish. Each of them built a parish church (most of them in the 1100s) and most of these parish churches survive today. In 1538 instructions were given to keep registers of all baptisms, marriages and burials in each parish church. These records form an extremely important reference for our family history studies.

Some older towns had several ancient parishes, for example in London, Bristol and Nottingham. As towns and cities grew, many of the old town parishes were further sub-divided into new parishes (each with its own parish church), most of which were founded between 1830 and 1900.

Other Divisions

In 1837 a new type of district was introduced. This coincided with the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths. (Note, not baptisms or burials which were still recorded, along with most marriages, in churches). These new Registration Districts did not coincide exactly with county boundaries. The early censuses were conducted under the county and hundred systems, but those after 1841 were organised by the same Registration Districts as births, marriages and deaths. That’s why, in the censuses, some towns and villages show up “out of county”.

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