Counties of England

England's administrative, geographical and political demarcation

The counties of England are territorial divisions of England that have many different purposes, such as local government. Most counties began as Anglo-Saxon shires, and duchies.

The names, boundaries and functions of these divisions have changed many times. A series of local government reforms from the 19th century onwards has left the exact definition of the term 'county' unclear, and many counties have more than one definition in law.

Therefore, the term "counties of England" does not refer to a unique set of names or boundaries. There are specific sets of counties that serve a purpose in government (e.g. ceremonial county, registration county or former postal county) or are cultural regions that are sometimes loosely defined (e.g. historic county).

Two definitions have a purpose in present-day government:

  • Administrative counties: These are areas that are governed by a county council.
  • Ceremonial counties: These are the areas that are represented by a Lord Lieutenant and a High Sheriff.

For example, Leicester is not in the administrative county of Leicestershire, but is in the ceremonial county of Leicestershire.

Historic counties

Counties in 1851

The 39 historic, ancient or traditional counties, developed from the 12th to the 16th centuries, though many of the specific areas are much older. They were not used for census reporting since 1841. Most of the historic counties continue to form part of the local government structure, often with reformed boundaries.[1]

Registration counties


Registration counties existed from 1851 to 1930 and were used for census reporting from 1851 to 1911.

1889 to 1974


Elected county councils were set up in England in 1889, taking over many of the administrative functions of the Quarter Sessions courts, as well as being given other powers over the years. A County of London was created from parts of Kent, Middlesex and Surrey.[2] The counties were divided into administrative counties (the area controlled by a county council) and independent county boroughs.[3] Some counties were covered by several administrative counties; they were Suffolk, Sussex, Northamptonshire, Hampshire, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

1965 saw a minor change as the original County of London became instead the 'administrative area' of Greater London.

Counties as established in 1974
County level divisions since 2009

Changes in 1974


On 1 April 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 came into force. This abolished the existing local government structure in England and Wales (except in Greater London) and replaced it with a new entirely two-tier system. It abolished the previously existing administrative counties and county boroughs (but not the previous non-administrative 'counties') and created a new set of 46 'counties' in England, 6 of which were metropolitan and 40 of which were non-metropolitan.

Some of the counties established by the Act were entirely new, such as Avon, Cleveland, Cumbria, Hereford and Worcester, and Humberside, along with the new metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire. The counties of Cumberland, Herefordshire, Rutland, Westmorland and Worcestershire were abolished and the county boroughs as well.

A further local government reform in the 1990s grouped the counties into regions, created many small unitary authorities with county level status (re-establishing in effect if not in name the old county boroughs), and restored Herefordshire, Rutland and Worcestershire as administrative entities.

There are now 81 county level entities outside Greater London. Of these, 34 are so-called 'shire counties' with both county councils and district councils, and 40 are unitary authorities. Six are metropolitan counties. The remaining one is Berkshire, whose county council has been abolished and its districts have become unitary authorities.

Post-1996 ceremonial counties


Because of the local government reforms in the 1990s, the distinction between the counties used for local government and those used for Lieutenancy, abolished in 1974, was revived, and a new term, 'ceremonial county', coined. Most unitary authorities remained associated with the same county for Lieutenancy, and in a few areas the old ceremonial counties were restored (Bristol, East Riding of Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Rutland, Worcestershire).

These are also known as the geographic counties and are generally used to describe a place's location in England. They are also taken into consideration by the boundary commission when they draw up boundaries for constituencies, for example.

Postal counties


The former postal counties as used by the Post Office are no longer required on addresses. They included most of the 1974 changes, but did not acknowledge Greater Manchester or Greater London as postal counties. They went out of official use in 1996.


  1. Her Majesty's Stationary Office, Aspects of Britain: Local Government (1996)
  2. Thomson, D., England in the Nineteenth Century (1815-1914) (1978)
  3. Bryne, T., Local Government in Britain, (1994)

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