Where did England’s counties get their names?

Oh Humberside, we hardly knew thee. Image: AntBex74.

Last week, I went to Birmingham, on a train that continued on to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury, of course, is the county town of Shropshire, which was for a long time was the only county in England without direct trains to London.

So being a train nerd and a geography nerd and a history nerd – being, basically, one big nerd – I was sat on this train, thinking about Shropshire, when something hit me:

There’s no town called Shrop. 

Normally when you’ve got a British county whose name ends in -shire, it’s named after its county town (or, in a few cases, its ex county-town). But there’s no Shrop in Shropshire. So, why’s it called that?

Anyway, I decided to find out.

There are 39 traditional counties in England, so I’m warning you now, this is a surprisingly long post. Of those counties, 37 of them split neatly into one of three groups.

1. The shires

Nearly half the counties – 19 of them – are very clearly named after their county town, or at least, a town that used to be. Those are (deep breath) Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and – we got there in the end – Yorkshire.

All of these are basically obvious. “Shire” is just the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the old French word “county”, so Yorkshire, for example, means “County of York”. A couple of them you have to manipulate a bit, presumably because Lancastershire and Chestershire were a bit of a mouthful; but it’s still fairly obvious where the name came from. (Yorkshire was so vast that for much of its history it was split into east, west and north “ridings”, which basically just means “thirds”.)

George Carrington Gray's map of the counties in 1824. Image: public domain.

Hampshire is more complicated, but only a little. In Anglo-Saxon times, when the shires were first created, what is now Southampton was known (among other names) as Hamtun, and the county was named accordingly; occasional attempts since to rebrand the county as Southamptonshire have failed miserably. At any rate – the “Hamp” in “Hampshire” is the one from the middle of “Southampton”.

There are three other shires where the origin of the first bit of the name is, at least to modern eyes, a bit mysterious. Wiltshire is only confusing because the town it’s named for, Wilton, has descended into obscurity. It’s still there – but with a population of under 4,000, and no railway stations, it’s been almost completely over-shadowed by its near neighbour Salisbury, which is 10 times the size.

Berkshire plays silly buggers by not being named after a town at all (there’s no Berkton, not even an obscure one). Instead it takes its name from a large forest, known as Bearrock’s Wood, which may in turn take its name from the Brythonic (that is, ancient Celtic) for “hilly place”. So Berkshire basically means “the county of the forest on the hill”.

Lastly, there’s Shropshire, the country which kicked off this mess. As it turns out, while there’s no place called Shrop, there was once a Scrobbesburh, and the county surrounding it was known as Scrobbesbyrigscīr. For reasons that seem to have been lost in time, the two words evolved in different directions - the latter into Shropshire, the former into Shrewsbury. So the answer was right in front of me all along.

Incidentally, the name evolved in a third direction, too, into Salop – an alternative name for both county and town. Why Shropshire couldn’t follow the example of neighbours like Worcestershire and Staffordshire and keep all its shit together, I have no idea.

(Okay, 23 down, 16 to go. This is easy.)

2. The ancient kingdoms

Then there are those whose names relate to which Germanic tribe settled them in about the 6th century, and to its location relative to all the other places those same settlers went.

The easy ones are EssexMiddlesex and Sussex: the eastern, middle and southern areas settled by the Saxons. Surrey means “southern district”, presumably of the Middle Saxon tribes living to its north. (Middlesex, incidentally, never seems to have been a kingdom in its own right, but was for many years a part of Essex. Which isn’t really relevant here, but being an Essex boy I enjoy smugly pointing out that London was once in Essex, so.)

 

The counties as of 1851. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Why is there no county of Wessex, you may ask? There was a Kingdom of Wessex, which covered a substantial chunk of south central Britain. That, though, was so big that, when its kings inherited the whole of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, they broke their original kingdom up into several counties, and it didn’t get its name on any of them. Sad.

Then there’s Norfolk and Suffolk. These came out of the Kingdom of East Anglia – the eastern chunk where the Angles settled – and refer to the “north folk” and “south folk” within that kingdom.
Kent, too, was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom (a Jute one, to be specific), but its name actually goes back even further. Julius Caeser described the area of Cantium – home of the Cantiaci – in 51BCE. The name of that tribe seems to come form “Cantus”, the Brythonic (Celtic British again) word for “border”.

So the name Kent means, in effect, “the bit at the edge”. The “Cant-” spelling is preserved in Canterbury.
At the other end of the country, there’s Northumberland, which is a modernised version of the name of the Kingdom of Northumbria: literally, the people north of the Humber.

Northumberland was significantly smaller than the Kingdom of Northumbria, which also included Yorkshire, Durham, and parts of Lancashire and lowland Scotland: the traditional country would more accurately have been known as Northtyneland, in fact. 

(That’s 31, just eight left.)

3. Far flung tribes

Most of the rest are named, in some way or another, after the people who lived in them, even if they never got to be kingdoms. Most of these hold-outs are at the more marginal parts of the country, to north and west, which reflects their relatively late inclusion in the Anglo-Saxon county system.

Two, however, were included in that system all along, but still refused to play by the rules. Somerset and Dorset are old English names, meaning “people of Somerton” and “people of Dorchester” respectively. So the structure of the names is not a million miles away from the “shire”/”county of” construction, except named after the tribe rather than the land. Perhaps this is one reason why the archaic Somersetshire and Dorsetshire never really stuck: “the county of the people of Somerton” is a stupid thing to call an area. 


Further west, you find the land of the Celtic tribe, the Dumnonii (“valley dwellers”), a name which got mangled into Defenas and finally Devon. This one also sometimes used to get a -shire, probably dating back to the early Middle Ages when the Latin Dumnonia became the Old English Defenascir. In modern usage we’ve largely dropped it, although it survives in the names of assorted military regiments and cream teas.

Then at the tip of the land there’s Cornwall, which also takes the first part of its name from a local tribe, the Cornovii. (The Roman name for the area was Cornubia.) That’s the Corn- taken care of; the -wall bit has the same root as “Wales”, the Old English “wealas”, meaning “foreigners”. Incidentally, Cornwall was known by the Anglo-Saxons as Westwealas, to distinguish it from the other foreign/Welsh people across the Bristol Channel.

(Blimey, there’s a lot of counties, aren’t there? Still, nearly there.)

Cumberland is another tribal name with links to the Welsh. It takes its name from the Cymry, the name of the Celtic inhabitants of a region that – like Cornwall, and Wales – was never really a part of the Anglo-Saxon world. Cumberland just means “Land of the Cumbrians”. (Cymry shares roots with Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales.)

The modern country of Cumbria, created in 1974, includes Cumberland, as well as Westmorland and parts of Lancashire. The use of the Latinised version of the name was presumably intended to communicate the fact this wasn’t just Cumberland, but something bigger.

Finally, there’s tiny Rutland – literally the land of some bloke called Rota. Rutland started out life as a detached part of Nottinghamshire (known as a “soke”), but during the course of the Middle Ages gradually became a county in its own right, however ludicrously small it was.

4. The awkward ones

If you’ve been keeping count, which you haven’t, you’ll know there are still two left. That’s because they don’t fit into any of these categories. 

One is Westmorland, which I already mentioned, briefly: that means (this’ll shock you) “land west of the moors”. 

The other is County Durham. Its name is obviously taken from its principal city, so the mystery here is why it’s the only English county to use “county” as a prefix (something much more common on Ireland), rather than just being Durhamshire. The reason seems to be that it started life as a county palatine – that is, an area whose rulers get a certain autonomy that most counties don’t – run by the Bishops of Durham. In other words, while it was a county, it wasn’t a shire in the traditional sense, so the name is a bit weird.

Finally. Done at last. That’s the lot.

Except...

The only public domain map of the 1974 counties I could find. The numbers are not ideal, but some of the more important changes are 2 (Tyne & Wear), 4 (Cleveland), 6 (Cumbria), 8 (Merseyside), 9 (Greater Manchester), 12 (Humberside), 32 (Hereford & Worcester), 19 (West Midlands), 33 (Avon) and 36 (Greater London). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Except it isn’t, is it? Because some of these counties don’t exist any more. Several times the map has been comprehensively re-organised, to create or abolish metropolitan counties or tinker with boundaries.

Some of those counties are no longer with us (Hereford & WorcesterHumberside). Some had their governments abolished, but remained for other purposes (MerseysideTyne & Wear).

The source of the names of most of those modern counties are pretty obvious. They were named after cities (Greater LondonGreater Manchester, latterly Bristol), or rivers (Avon, plus several of the above), or bits of counties (South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire), and in one case a vague geographic region just to get out of using any name that might annoy the locals (West Midlands). There’s also the Isle of Wight, at one time a part of Hampshire, but today a proud and independent county whose name reflects the fact that it’s the Isle of Wight.

The only modern county whose name requires any explanation at all, I think, is Cleveland, the Yorkshire/Durham border country containing the Middlesbrough/Hartlepool area. That’s an ancient name for a part of Yorkshire that got swallowed by the new county, which literally means “cliff-land”. Cleveland was abolished in 1996; but in another form it’s on its way back, as the Tees Valley Combined Authority, which gets its own metro mayor this May.

 

The counties as of 2010. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Phew. That took a while. 

That’ll teach me to think about things when I’m on a train.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.