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Note: For the Channel Islands and Isle of Man see: British Crown Dependencies.

England

The word county is derived from the Norman French word, comté and the boundaries of Norman counties largely correspond with those of the earlier Saxon shires which in turn were based on much older tribal districts. The names reflect their Celtic origin such as Cornwall, Devon and Kent. Essex, Middlesex and Sussex (the lands of the East, Middle and South Saxons), while Norfolk and Suffolk were the areas of the North Folk and South Folk of the Angles' kingdom of East Anglia.

The shires of the more northerly east and midlands were formed later by the Danes, and named after military encampments as in Bedford, Cambridge, Derby, Huntingdon, Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton, Nottingham and York. The counties of the west midlands were formed by the king of Wessex after he invaded the area which had previously been the kingdom of Mercia.

The remaining counties of northern England were created by the Normans to produce a uniform system across the whole of England.

When seeking information about ancestors, a knowledge of where they lived is paramount to locating records. When researching regions before the start of civil registration this becomes even more significant as the records were generated at the local level and largely by the Church of England. The church had an ecclestiastical and civil role in society that was gradually removed during the course of the 19th century. Knowing where the family lived will point you towards the appropriate repositories.

A surprising number of boundaries and borders have changed over the generations and the region the particular place is located in today could be entirely different. This may mean the records sought could be located in unexpected places and therefore a good understanding of borders and boundaries is important.

Apart from boundaries created by civil jurisdictions, a knowledge of the boundaries of ecclesiastical authorities is also significant. This is particularly so in the era prior to the introduction of civil registration when the Established Church maintained what we today would consider a civil function.

Genuki logoGENUKI (Genealogy UK and Ireland) is a major free resource of information for family history researchers. For detailed information on individual English counties go to GENUKI English pages.


The place codes used for England are known as Chapman Codes after their innovator, Colin Chapman. These are used by family historians to identify the counties of England prior to 1974.

The county structure for England changed in 1974. The pre-1974 English counties and their codes are:

ENGcounties Berkshire BRK Bedfordshire BDF
Buckinghamshire BKM Cambridgeshire CAM
Cheshire CHS
Cornwall CON
Cumberland CUL Derbyshire DBY
Devon DEV Dorset DOR
Durham DUR Essex ESS
Gloucestershire GLS Hampshire HAM
Herefordshire HER Hertfordshire HRT
Huntingdonshire HUN Isle of Wight IOW
Kent KEN Lancashire LAN
Leicestershire LEI Lincolnshire LIN
London LND Middlesex MDX
Norfolk NFK Northamptonshire NTH
Northumberland NBL Nottinghamshire NTT
Oxfordshire OXF Rutland RUT
Shropshire SAL Somerset SOM
Staffordshire STS Suffolk SFK
Surrey SRY Sussex SSX
Warwickshire WAR Westmoreland WES
Wiltshire WIL Worcestershire WOR
Yorkshire YKS

Notes

Isle of Wight was part of Hampshire until 1890. (Trivia: IOW is the smallest county during high tide otherwise it is RUT!)

In 1889 London gained part of Middlesex and the balance in 1965.

Huntingdonshire merged with Soak of Peterborough 1965 to form Huntingdon & Peterborough.

For detailed information on historical county structure use Wikipedia using the county name as the search word.

A number of towns, cities and boroughs held county status to 1974. These were significantly increased in number by the Local Government Act 1888 which established a population requirement of 50,000+ (with a few exceptions) resulting in 61 county boroughs created from then on.

Towns, cities, boroughs etc with county status and with monarch who created status—all surviving to 1974 were abolished:

Town, city, borough Monarch
Co
Co town
Start
Note
Ainsty of the City of York Henry VI
YKS
York
1449
Bounded by the rivers Nidd, Ouse, and Wharfe, to WRY 1837
Borough & Town of Berwick–upon–Tweed Edward VI
NBL
Berwick–upon–Tweed
1551
Borough formerly known as Berwick Bounds
City and County of the City of Lincoln Henry VI
LIN
Lincoln
1410
 
City of Birmingham William IV
WAR
Birmingham
1835
 
City of Bradford William IV
WRY
Bradford
1835
 
City of Canterbury Edward I
KEN
Canterbury
1471
 
City of Coventry Henry VI
WAR
Coventry
1452
Abolished 1842
City of Exeter Henry VIII
DEV
Exeter
1537
 
City of Leeds William IV
WRY
Leeds
1835
 
City of Lichfield Mary I
STS
Lichfield
1556
 
City of Liverpool William IV
LAN
Liverpool
1835
 
City of Manchester William IV
LAN
Manchester
1835
 
City of Norwich Edward III
NOR
Norwich
1404
 
City of Sheffield William IV
WRY
Sheffield
1835
 
City of Worcester  
WOR
Worcester
1662
 
City of York Richard II
WRY
York
1396
Extant until 1449 when Ainsty of the City of York created
Howendenshire William I
NRY
Howden
1069
Former Manor of the Bishop of Durham absorbed by NRY
Islandshire William I
NBL
Holy Island
1069
Palantate of the Bishop of Durham comprising Holy Island & adj mainland parishes: Ancroft, Kyloe, pt Bedford, pt Tweedmouth, absorbed by NBL in 1844
Isles of Scilly William I
CON
St Mary
1069
Ancient county absorbed into CON 1539
Liberty of Lincoln George I
LIN
Lincoln
1717
Included Bracebridge, Canwick, Branston and Waddington
Norhamshire William I
NBL
Norham
1069
Palantate of the Bishop of Durham absorbed by NBL 1844
Parts of Holland Victoria
LIN
Boston
1889
SE section Lincolnshire est 1086
Parts of Kesteven Victoria
LIN
Grantham
1889
SW section Lincolnshire est 1086
Parts of Lindsay Victoria
LIN
Great Grimsby
1889
N section Lincolnshire est 1086
Regality of Hexhamshire William I NBL Hexham 1069 Palantate of the ancient bishopric of Hexam; status lost during reign Elizabeth I & absorbed by NBL in 1572
Soke of Peterborough Victoria
NTH
Peterborough
1889
Merged with Huntingdonshire 1966 to create Huntingdon & Peterborough
East Suffolk Victoria
SFK
Ipswich
1889
 
West Suffolk Victoria
SFK
Bury St Edmunds
1889
 
East Sussex Victoria
SSX
Lewes
1889
 
West Sussex Victoria
SSX
Chichester
1889
 
Town of Kingston-upon-Hull or Hullshire Henry VI
ERY
Hull
1440
Absorbed into ERY 1889
Town of Poole Elizabeth I
DOR
Poole
1571
 
Town of Southampton Henry VI
HAM
Southampton
1447
 
Town of then City of Bristol Edward III
GLS
Bristol
1373
 
Town of then City of Chester Henry VII
CHS
Chester
1506
 
Town of then City of Gloucester Edward I
GLS
Gloucester
1483
 
Town of then City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Henry VI
NBL
Newcastle-upon-Tyne
1400
 
Town of then City of Nottingham Henry VI
NTT
Nottingham
1448
 
Yorkshire East Riding Victoria
YKS
Beverley
1889
Has its own Chapman Code ERY
Yorkshire North Riding Victoria
YKS
Northallerton
1889
Has its own Chapman Code NRY
Yorkshire West Riding Victoria
YKS
Wakefield
1889
Has its own Chapman Code WRY

Note: those established in 1835 were county boroughs. The Local Govt Act 1888 established a population level of 50,000+ (with a few exceptions) resulting in 61 county boroughs – these are not listed in this table unless already deemed a county.

There have been many minor changes to county boundaries over the years. In some cases these have been to address detached pieces of one county being entirely surrounded by another and most have been where the boundary passes through parishes. Such changes have taken place ad hoc over many years. The northern part of Worcestershire containing the town of Dudley was entirely surrounded by Staffordshire but not addressed until 1974. Details of boundary changes affecting individual parishes can by found in the publication, Graham Jaunay, A parish finder for England, 2000.

In addition to the shifting boundaries described above, most of the larger towns and cities were at various times granted county status and as such functioned independently of the county in which they were located. This system accelerated when all towns and cities with populations in excess of 50,000 were granted this status.

County borough
From
County
County borough
From
County
County borough
From
County
Barnsley
1913
WRY
Barrow-in-Furness
1889
LAN
Bath
1889
SOM
Birkenhead
1889
CHS
Blackburn
1889
LAN
Blackpool
1904
LAN
Bolton
1889
LAN
Bootle
1889
LAN
Bournemouth
1900
HAM
Brighton
1889
SSX
Burnley
1889
LAN
Burton upon Trent
1901
STS
Bury
1889
LAN
Carlisle
1915
CUL
Darlington
1915
DUR
Derby
1889
DBY
Dewsbury
1913
WRY
Doncaster
1927
WRY
Dudley
1889
WOR*
Eastbourne
1911
SSX
Gateshead
1889
DUR
Grimsby
1891
LIN
Halifax
1889
WRY
Hartlepool
1967
DUR
Hastings
1889
SSX
Huddersfield
1889
WRY
Hull
1889
ERY
Ipswich
1889
SFK
Leicester
1889
LEI
Luton
1964
1964
Northampton
1889
NTH
Oldham
1889
LAN
Oxford
1889
OXF
Plymouth
1889
DEV
Portsmouth
1889
HAM
Preston
1889
LAN
Reading
1889
BKS
Rochdale
1889
LAN
Rotherham
1902
WRY
St Helens
1889
LAN
Salford
1889
LAN
Solihull
1964
WAR
Southend-on-Sea
1914
ESS
Southport
1905
LAN
South Shields
1889
DUR
Stockport
1889
CHS
Stoke on Trent
1910
STS
Sunderland
1889
DUR
Teesside
1968
NRY
Torbay
1968
DEV
Tynemouth
1904
NBL
Wakefield
1915
WRY
Wallasey
1913
CHS
Walsall
1889
STS
Warley
1966
WOR
Warrington
1900
LAN
West Bromwich
1889
1889
Wigan
1889
LAN
Wolverhampton
1889
STS
Yarmouth
1889
NFK

* to 1966 then STS

Ecclesiastical authorities

ENGdioceses.jpgApart from boundaries created by civil jurisdictions, a knowledge of the boundaries of ecclesiastical authorities is also significant in family history. This is particularly so in the era prior to the introduction of civil registration when the Established Church maintained what we today would consider a civil function. Even in regions without an established church, such knowledge can be important.

The difficulty with family history research prior to Civil Registration in mid-1837 is that the records of individuals were largely created at the local level. This means that you need to determine where your ancestors lived to have any success in recording their lives. At the centre of the average person’s life was the Church and therefore that is probably the best place to start your search once you have determined just where that church was! For many family historians that seemingly simple task is the barrier preventing further discoveries about their family tree.

The parish was the basic administrative unit in Britain. Sometimes the parish lay entirely within a manor and the lord controlled the parish through his right to appoint the priest. Town based parishes were not dependent on the manorial system although someone may have had the right to appoint the priest, usually towns managed their own affairs. In England a town may be quite large as a city is defined by having a cathedral and not by population and therefore there can be only one city in each diocese. Towns were established by Royal Charter and that gave the residents the right to a mayor and council.

  • Parishes were established in the seventh century by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. Lords of manors were able to build and endow parish churches and in return have the right to nominate the priest.
  • The earliest parishes were extremely large and as the population grew were subdivided.
  • Remote rural areas were served by teams of priests who made up the bishop’s staff.
  • Parishes established prior to 1597 are called ancient parishes and had a dual ecclesiastical and civil function.
  • Parishes established after 1597 were purely ecclesiastical. Parallel with this system was the establishment of civil parishes that sometimes reflected the ecclesiastical parish but often did not.

In ancient times the parish records were stored in the Parish Chest. In 1800 there were about 10000 parishes in England. Cromwell introduced parish Registers in 1538/9.

The searcher needs to know the place parish records have been lodged and the following publications may assist—

  • Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers (only valid to 1834)
  • Graham Jaunay Parish finder for England (only includes Church of England parishes; extends into 20th century)
  • National Index of Parish Registers series (includes all denominations; separate books for each county)

Parishes were typically villages with a church. Larger towns and cities would contain several parishes. Records of baptisms, marriages and burials have been maintained by law since 1538, but not all churches date back this far and not all clergymen kept proper records in the early years. The early baptism, marriage and burial records were usually jumbled together and some of them were written in Latin but by 1732 all registers were required to be written in English. During the 18th century the baptisms, marriages and burials were maintained in separate registers or on separate pages. For the first 200 years it was normal to record only the father’s full name and that of his child in baptismal entries so proving ancestry for a popular surname is often difficult. Most original parish registers are today in County Registry Offices but some are still in their churches. From 1598 the clergy had to send a copy of their entire previous year’s parish register to the local bishop at Easter. These copy entries are known as the Bishops’ Transcripts. Thanks to the efforts of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), microfilmed copies of most parish registers and Bishops’ Transcripts are available for loan at most Family History Centres. There are also holdings at The National Archives and copies are available for scrutiny at the Society of Genealogists and various libraries. Considerable work has been undertaken by Family History Societies in indexing some registers, and typewritten indexes and abstracts can be viewed at Society of Genealogists, County Registry Offices and Family History Societies.

In general the records of nonconformist denominations have not been kept as consistently as those of the Established Church. It is unusual to find records earlier than the 19th century and where they do exist they often cover wide areas.

Non-conformists or dissenters were people who did not follow the doctrine of the Anglican Church (the Church of England) known as the Established Church. Britain broke with the Catholic Church of Rome when Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the English Church by the Act of Supremacy of 1534. Some priests refused to accept the new Anglican Church and religious meetings were held by Roman Catholics, and people were baptised and married in secret by priests. Mary I reigned as a Catholic queen for five years but Elizabeth I reintroduced the Church of England in 1558. Religious persecution continued in 17th century and independent (dissenting) chapels were established by Presbyterians, Quakers and Baptists. James II briefly reigned as a Catholic king in the 1680s but was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Catholic Registers were the property of the priest and so travelled with him. Very few early examples survive, as it was dangerous to keep written records.

All Non-conformists except Quakers and Jews were required to marry in an Anglican Church from 1753 to 1837 (Hardwicke Marriage Act). Many chose to ignore this requirement. Others married in Established Churches well away from their communities.

Some non-conformist registers have survived and are today in the safekeeping of The National Archives.

The Anglo–Jewish Association can help historians trace their Jewish ancestry.

Some Presbyterian and Congregational records may be found at Dr Williams Library. Baptist records may also be at Dr Williams Library and at Baptist Church House.

Huguenot ancestry may be traced through the Huguenot Society.

Quaker records are reputed to be the most comprehensive of all non-conforming faiths since the registers were transcribed before being deposited at the Public Record Office. An index to the registers may be examined at The Society of Friends Library.

Catholics were allowed to worship in their own churches from 1791 but like all non-conformists, they still had to marry in Anglican churches until the Hardwicke Marriage Act was repealed. Most surviving Catholic registers date from the late 1700s. Many have been published by the Catholic Society. The Catholic Family History Society should also be approached for assistance.

For more details on researching your English ancestors you are referred to 2 booklets written for Australian researchers. They can be purchased for $12 each including postage within Australia.

You can select to pay by PayPal or Direct Debit. Send an email to the address below with your request, your name and postal address and which book you seek. You will receive via return email payment instructions.

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