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
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. 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 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 – 23 September 1992
■ “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 – 29 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 – 29 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.”
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 9 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. April 23rd 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.”.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. April 23rd 2014
“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. December 30th 2018
Underlining the government’s commitment to our true counties, in 2016, following a change in planning policy, the Office of National Statistics published its Index of Place Names in Great Britain, and at its website specifically highlighted the continued existence of our real counties,
“Recent moves to recognise the cultural importance of historic counties led to a change in planning policy in 2014 so that road signs for these areas may now be put up by local authorities.” … “The forthcoming 2016 IPN will offer a variety of changes and new features designed to be useful to a wide range of users. …place names will now also be assigned to historic county….”
In its user guide to the index (page 13) it further explained 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.”
In 2018, following his above announcement, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Jake Berry, ordered his civil servants in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to draft new guidance for English local authorities, on promoting their traditional county links. The 2019 guidance 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.”
The 2019 guidance followed the 2012 change to the rules, allowing local and county flags to be flown without planning permission and the 2014 planning guidance permitting councils to put up signs marking the true county boundaries.
■ “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 – 20 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, but given the wider pressures resulting from the COVID-19 emergency, we envisage any celebrations this year at national and local level will be done
Simon Clarke MP, Minister of State for Local Government – 8 July 2020
The definitive guide to Britain’s real counties is: “The Real Counties Of Britain” by Russell Grant.
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.