This site presents and promotes the country’s real counties, which have never been abolished and describes the flags that they bear. The terms “shire” and “county”, sometimes used in conjunction with such adjectives as “historic”, “ancient”, “traditional” or “geographical”, refer to the 86 areas of ancient origin which for centuries have formed, and continue to form, a commonly agreed way of referring to the different parts of the country; our basic geography and reference, used for many personal, social and cultural purposes and in spheres like business and trade, tourism, sport and the delivery of mail. In England, Rutland, Lincolnshire, Somerset and Yorkshire are examples; in Scotland, Fife, Clackmannanshire and Argyll; in Wales, Glamorgan, Caernarfonshire and Pembrokeshire.
Many of these ceased to be administrative units in 1974 when the 1972 local government act came into effect, as reported by the Times in April of that year
however, as a government official, quoted in this report, stated at the time,
“They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”
People are often unaware of this distinction; media, mapmakers and councils are some of the most unaware! Cumbria is not a county: it is an administrative area. Middlesbrough is still in Yorkshire, so is Redcar, so is Sedbergh; Peterborough is still in Northamptonshire; Didcot and Abingdon are in Berkshire, they never left, even if it was more practical to organise the removal of rubbish from their streets from an office in Oxfordshire. The former Dorset Council proudly proclaimed its financing of the construction of a fine shopping centre in Bournemouth with a bold sign announcing the fact but the town lay in Hampshire at the time and continues to be there still. Sunderland has never ceased to be part of County Durham, Newcastle is in Northumberland. Regrettably, the retention of the word “county” in the titles of many of these administrative bodies, whose remits rarely cover precise county boundaries, has served to confuse the situation even further.
Our counties existed for a thousand years before the advent of local government in 1889, they are not and never have been defined by the presence or absence of a council – councils do not, a county, make!
The councils in Westmorland, Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Radnorshire, Peebles-shire and Banffshire (to name but a few) might well have disappeared in 1974 but these counties most certainly did not. The border between Lancashire and Yorkshire runs right down the middle of Todmorden high street
; that between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, through Royston; Middlesex was never abolished, it simply ceased being a local government area and as published in the Times on February 15th 1962, the council expressed some dismay at the news of its impending demise. Such “areas”, the “administrative counties”, were established by the “Local Government Act of 1888” which legally established an entirely new form of local government. The designation “administrative county” specifically highlighted the purely administrative function of these units. The clear distinction between the actual counties and the administrative designations was subsequently demonstrated in the 1891 census
where returns are presented for the actual counties at left and administrative units at right.
Nowhere in the 1888 act are the actual counties abolished or altered in any way, their status and boundaries remain intact, it simply created an entirely separate set of units for administrative convenience, the actual counties remain wholly untouched. As detailed by Russell Grant in the introduction to his work “The Real Counties Of Great Britain”, administrative counties were created by an Act of Parliament, to differentiate from the real counties, formed in the main by natural geography. Subsequent acts have and will alter administrative counties, several have been abolished but the real counties were not created by any Government and so cannot be eliminated by one. A record of governmental regulations and guides relating to traditional counties can be found here and a series of maps which compare and contrast actual counties, with the territories of local authorities that bear county names or which obscure real counties, can be found here.
The Historic Counties Standard, produced by the Historic Counties Trust, provides a comprehensive definition of the names, areas and borders of our counties of the UK. A further analysis of the true status of our counties by ABC Chairman Peter Boyce can be found here and an ABC guide to our historic counties is available here. A selection of fact sheets, with basic information regarding the status of our counties and further information on lieutenancies is available from ABC here. ABC Vice-Chairman Rupert Barnes provides some interesting insights into county identities here. The “County Wise” pages provided by the Association of British Counties include a synopsis of the status of our counties, an expanded explanation detailing how the historic counties were never abolished, a more detailed definition of the types of county and the issue of “county confusion” that these cause and some frequently asked questions and answers regarding our counties.
Government quotes through the years regarding the nation’s real counties, confirming their continued existence.
“The new county boundaries are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties.”
Government statement issued 1st April 1974 and printed in the Times newspaper.
■ “I can confirm that the government still stand by this statement,…. that the local authority areas and boundaries introduced in 1974 do not alter the boundaries of traditional boundaries of counties. The 1974 arrangements are entirely administrative, and need not affect long-standing loyalties and affinities.”
Michael Portillo MP – Minister of State for Local Government – 11th July 1990
■ “The Local Government Act 1972 did not abolish traditional counties, only administrative ones. Although for local government purposes some of the historic counties have ceased to be administrative areas, they continue to exist for other purposes, organisations and local groups.”
Department of the Environment – 3rd September 1991
■ “Although the Local Government Act of 1888 and subsequent legislation transferred to newly constituted Councils administrative business and responsibility for redefined areas, such legislation did not alter or affect the Duchy palatinate boundaries which remain the same as the old (pre 1888) geographical County of Lancaster. Both Furness and Cartmel lie within the County Palatine.”
Office of the Duchy of Lancaster – 23rd September 1992
■ “The Government acknowledge the continuing strength of the affection which many people in Wales have for the traditional 13 counties, which is expressed, for example, in the organisation of many sporting, social, voluntary and cultural societies on the basis of the traditional counties’ boundaries. I see no reason why such arrangements should not continue.”
William Hague MP, Secretary of State for Wales – 31st January 1996
■ “The Government is aware that many people attach importance to Historic and traditional county areas and it is not their intention that people’s identification with their counties will be diminished.”
John Powell, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – 29th August 2003
■ “I can confirm that these Acts (1933, 1972) did not specifically abolish traditional counties so traditional counties still exist but no longer for the administration of local government…”
Department for Communities and Local Government – 22nd August 2006
■ “There is no doubt about the importance of historic counties… as part of our history and cultural life. I agree that they provide many people with a strong sense of identity and local pride. Indeed the continued use of traditional county names and areas in tourism, sport, business, literature and the arts, to name but a few examples, bears testament to that.
Gillian Merron MP, Private Secretary to the Cabinet Office – 29th June 2007
■ “The legislation that currently defines counties for the purposes of the administration of local government is the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended by various Orders in the 1990s). This legislation abolished the previous administrative counties, which were established by the Local Government Act 1933. However, these Acts did not specifically abolish traditional counties, so traditional counties still exist, but no longer for the purpose of the administration of local government. We are certainly aware that many people attach importance to historic or traditional county areas and that they feel strongly about such issues. It is true that the traditional counties continue to play an important part in national life, and their names are often used in sport, business, local and family history, military history, literature and the arts.”
Parjit Dhanda MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities & Local Government – 16th April 2008
■ ““English counties continue to form an important part of our cultural and local identity in this country and many people remain deeply attached to their home county. This sense of pride and shared identity is one of the things that binds communities together and it’s right that the Government department responsible for communities and local government should be actively recognising the important role they play.”
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – 10th September 2010
■ “The historic English counties are one of the oldest forms of local government in Western Europe. Their roots run deep. And no amount of administrative reshuffling can delete these longstanding and cherished local identities.”
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – 11th July 2011
■ “The background to the legislation relating to local government administrative areas and traditional counties is as follows: The Local Government Act 1972 defines counties for the purpose of the administration of local government. The above Act abolished the previous administrative counties, i.e. those established by the Local Government Act 1933. Neither Act specifically abolished traditional counties – these still exist but not for the purpose of the administration of local government.”
M. Duggleby, Department For Transport, Leeds. – Tuesday 9th October 2012
■ “The tapestry of England’s counties binds our nation together. This government has binned the arbitrary Government Office euro-regions, and instead, we are championing England’s traditional local identities which continue to run deep. Administrative restructuring by previous governments has sought to suppress and undermine such local identities. Today, on St George’s Day, we commemorate our patron saint and formally acknowledge the continuing role of our traditional counties in England’s public and cultural life.”.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – 23rd April 2013
■ “In April, my Department formally acknowledged the continuing role of England’s traditional counties in English public life. Previously, many parts of Whitehall and municipal officialdom have shunned these counties, many of which date back over a thousand years of English history. On 25 May, my Department flew the flag of Wessex as part of our broader programme of recognising and celebrating the traditional institutions of England.
Flags are a symbol of local and national pride and heritage and we have already amended the law to make it easier to fly flags without a permit from the council. I was pleased to see that misjudged decisions by Radstock town council in Somerset and the Places for People social landlord in Preston to ban the St George’s flag have been reversed.
Recent events remind us that we are stronger as a society when we celebrate the ties that bind us together and we challenge the politics of division. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, we should have pride in Britain’s local and national identities.”
Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government – 3rd June 2013
■ “England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats in recent decades, including the municipal restructuring by Edward Heath’s government in 1972. By contrast, this government is championing local communities continuing to cherish and celebrate such traditional ties and community spirit.
To mark St George’s day, on 23 April, my Department announced a new initiative to support the “tapestry” of traditional English counties, including getting rid of a Whitehall ban on the names of traditional counties being displayed on street and road signs. We have also published a new online interactive map of England’s county boundaries.
Planning guidance has been changed to allow for councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties—for example, the likes of Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. In addition, the Government are shortly to propose changes to highways regulations to allow traditional county names to appear on boundary road signs. The current rules prevent unitary councils like Blackpool from having a road sign saying “Lancashire”, or Poole saying “Dorset”—since they confusingly are not considered to be part of an “administrative county”.
No council is being forced to make any change or put up unnecessary street clutter, but the intention is to free councils from Whitehall red tape, support local tourism and to cherish local ties and traditions. Local communities will be able to lobby their councils for the restoration of traditional boundary signs, including campaigns by public subscription.
This is part of a series of steps to champion England’s national identities; the Government have previously changed Whitehall rules to allow local and county flags to be flown without planning permission, and supported the Flag Institute in encouraging a new wave of county and community flags to be designed and flown by local communities.”
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – April 23rd 2014
■ “On 16 May, my Department raised the flag of Middlesex to mark Middlesex day, and on 2 June my Department also raised the flag of Dorset to celebrate Dorset day. England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of history, but in the past, many of them were sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats. By contrast, the coalition Government are championing local people in flying the flag for such traditional ties and community spirit.”
Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government – 5th June 2014
■ “England’s counties and historic counties continue to form an important part of our cultural and local identity in this country and many people remain deeply attached to their home county.”
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – 13th October 2014
■ “England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history, but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall in recent decades, whether by the bland municipal restructuring of Edward Heath’s Government in 1972, or by the imposition of artificial regional structures by the last Labour Government based on the EU’s Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (the appropriately-named ‘NUTS’ Regulations). Yet the tapestry of England’s counties binds our nation together, and is interwoven with our cultural fabric – from our cricket to our ales. So this Government has taken a series of steps to champion our traditional counties:
• We have amended planning regulations to allow local and county flags to be flown without planning permission, and published a plain English guide to flying flags. Previously, flying a county flag on an existing flag pole required a princely sum of £335 to be paid to the council.
• We have supported the Flag Institute in publishing a new guide for would-be vexillologists to encourage a new wave of county and other local flags to be designed and flown.
• My Department has flown a range of county flags in Whitehall to mark different county days, including Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. We have also flown flags to celebrate other historic localities such as those of the Ridings of Yorkshire and of Wessex – the kingdom which gave birth to the united English nation.
• We are changing highways regulations to allow traditional county names to appear on boundary road signs. The previous rules prevented unitary councils like Blackpool from having a road sign saying ‘Lancashire’, or Poole saying ‘Dorset’ – since they were not considered to be part of the ‘administrative county’.
• We have a new online interactive map of England’s different county boundaries.
• Ordnance Survey, the Government’s National Mapping Agency, now provides a dataset of current, ceremonial counties(counties retained for the purposes of representing Her Majesty by Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs).
• I can also announce to the House today that from May a dataset of the traditional, historic counties based on 19th Century boundaries will be available on the OS OpenData portal. These datasets are compatible with the OS Boundary-Line product which is available to all free of charge. Ordnance Survey is also going to provide a viewing map window on their website showing both the historic and ceremonial County boundaries on top of a base map.
• Later in the year, Ordnance Survey is hoping to publish a paper map of the Historic Counties of England, Scotland and Wales (as defined in the Local Government Act 1888 for England and Wales and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 for Scotland), which will be available to the general public to purchase and proudly display.
We are stronger as a nation when we cherish and champion our local and traditional ties. This Government is proud to wave the flag of St George and Union flag alongside our county flags. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, we should have pride in our English identity within the United Kingdom’s Union that binds us all together.”
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Parliamentary Under Secretary, Department for Communities & Local Government – 10th March 2015
■ “We have backed British values and identity, flying the United Kingdom’s national and traditional county flags, and recognising England’s traditional boroughs, towns, cities and counties.”
Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government – 26th March 2015
■ “For years, town hall bureaucrats have been obsessed with modern metropolitan boroughs that divorce people from their historic birthright and created meaningless agglomerations like Humberside. Our historic counties are at the heart of communities and are part of the fabric of British society that has been woven into our national story since Saxon times.”
Jake Berry, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth – 30th December 2018
Additionally, 2016 advice from the Office for National Statistics, in the user guide (page 13) to its index of place names clarified that,
“The historic counties of Great Britain (also known as ancient counties, counties proper, geographical counties or traditional counties) have existed largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. Their original administrative function became the responsibility of separate administrative counties and county councils set up by the Local Government Act 1888 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. It was these administrative counties and county councils that were abolished in England and Wales in 1974 by the Local Government Act 1972, and in Scotland in 1975 by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, not the historic counties. While no longer a statistical geography, the historic counties are now included in the IPN for those users who wish to use them for historic, traditional or cultural purposes. They are recommended as a stable, unchanging geography which covers the whole of Great Britain.”
Further information was subsequently released on the statistical service’s geography blog.
And in 2019, following his above, late 2018 announcement, new guidance was issued by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Jake Berry’s department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to English local authorities, on promoting their traditional county links which stated,
“This document summarises why the Government thinks the historic counties should be an important issue for both local and national partners. It sets out the rationale for the promotion of the historic counties, what local authorities can currently do in relation to these activities and collates the relevant guidance and regulations…The Government attaches great importance to the history and traditions of this country. Our history helps to define who we are and where we come from and we are stronger as a nation when we cherish and champion our local traditions…The tapestry of England’s historic counties is one of the bonds that draws our nation together. The promotion of the historic counties can bring real benefits. The historic counties are an important element of English traditions which support the identity and cultures of many of our local communities, giving people a sense of belonging, pride and community spirit. They continue to play an important part in the country’s sporting and cultural life as well as providing a reference point for local tourism and heritage. We should all seek to strengthen the role that they can play.”
It further advised that,
“The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has also supported The Flag Institute in producing guidance to encourage a new wave of county and other local flags to be designed and flown.”
■ “I regularly have discussions with local authorities covering a wide range of issues which can include the celebration of historic counties. To help county council leaders develop local activities to celebrate their historic counties, I issued on 10 April guidance which included a section referring to the County Flags Day on 23 July and provided advice about the flying of Historic County Flags.”
Jake Berry, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Housing, Communities & Local Government – 20th May 2019
■ “I am a huge supporter of our historic counties which are an integral part of local identity and belonging. Over the last year or more, we have been active in promoting the role of our historic counties in celebrating the history and traditions of our nation. We will use the opportunity presented by Historic County Flags Day on 23 July to raise their profile once more….”
Simon Clarke MP, Minister of State for Local Government – 8th July 2020
■ “Our new guidance helps local authorities celebrate historic counties, their shared heritage, culture, history and our great nation. In government, we are throwing our full weight behind historic counties through proudly flying 50 iconic county flags in the heart of Parliament Square for Historic County Flags Day on 23 July. I am proud that we’re helping councils celebrate our nation’s great historic counties and their rich cultures. I look forward to seeing what innovative ideas they have to celebrate historic counties not just on Historic County Flags Day but all year round.”
Jake Berry MP, Northern Powerhouse Minister – 16th July 2019
■ “Today is an opportunity to celebrate the rich tapestry of our shared national heritage. These flags represent local traditions and stories from every corner of Great Britain which people rightly take pride in. I am proud to see such an explosion of colour in Parliament Square on Historic County Flags Day in celebration of all that binds us together.”
Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government – 23rd July 2021
■ “The history and traditions of this country are very important and the tapestry of our historic counties is one of the bonds that draws the nation together. We support various initiatives to celebrate our historic counties and encourage local leaders across Great Britain to do the same. The Government have taken steps to ensure it is easier to recognise historic counties. In 2014, planning rules were changed to allow councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties. In 2015, the Government commissioned Ordnance Survey to produce historic and ceremonial county-boundary datasets, and we are open to other ideas. The Government proudly flew the Yorkshire flag outside our headquarters to mark Yorkshire Day. That beautiful flag was part of the display in Parliament Square that flew for a week to mark Historic County Flags Day on 23 July. We recognise that people should take great pride in their local identities and we continue to do so, irrespective of the local administrative areas.”
Lord Greenhalgh, Minister for Housing, Communities & Local Government – 16th September 2021
The definitive guide to Britain’s real counties is: “The Real Counties Of Britain” by Russell Grant.
The Real Counties of Britain is available from Amazon and Abe Books
Quadhurst provides a map of our real counties
also available here , where you’ll find the following description
“Quadhurst Maps proudly presents its best-selling UK counties map. These are our real counties. Local government boundaries may appear on our maps purporting to be “counties”; but they are not.”
A highly detailed, modern map of the counties is available online at Wikishire Map
A gazetteer provided by ABC is also available and tables of county statistics from The Historic Counties Trust are available here. A list of “tripoints” where three counties meet, is available at the Wikishire site.
A set of maps which graphically demonstrate the distinct differences between the true counties and local administrations which either bear county names or obscure real counties can be found here.
Other terms which you may encounter are;
An administrative area defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997 solely “for the purposes of the lieutenancies”. An area in which Lord Lieutenants exercise their functions. In England and Wales these are labelled by the 1997 Act as “counties”, in Scotland as “areas”. In England, Greater Manchester and West Midlands are examples; in Scotland, Tweeddale and Dundee; in Wales, Clwyd and Mid Glamorgan. Ceremonial counties do not correspond with real counties.
In England and Wales, as described, one of the administrative areas created by the local Government Act 1972 solely “for the administration of local government” and deemed by the Act “to be known as counties”. There have been many changes to the names and areas of these since the 1972 Act. In England, Stockton-on Tees, Blackburn-with-Darwen and Rutland are current examples and in Wales, Swansea and Gwynedd. In Scotland principal local government areas are not called counties, “Dumfries and Galloway” is an example.