Why do so many of England's cities straddle traditional county boundaries?

Traditional county boundaries in the M62 corridor. Image: Wikishire.

Last week I wrote a frankly rather over-lengthy screed explaining the origins of the name of every county in England. At its end, almost as an aside, I chucked in a paragraph noting that the post-1974 counties, mostly invented to represent city regions, generally had boringly explicable names.

But despite the fact I spent all of about half a minute pondering those where counties came from, something has stuck with me: almost all of them cross traditional country boundaries.

West Yorkshire, I think, is the only exception: that was carved entirely from Yorkshire (carved, indeed, from the West Riding). But South Yorkshire – also taken largely from the West Riding – includes areas of Derbyshire and Nottingham, too.

Most of Merseyside came from Lancashire, but the Wirral came from Cheshire. Greater Manchester was carved mainly from those counties, too, and almost revelled in the name Selnec (South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire); the final map also includes yet more of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Saddleworth).

Traditional counties around Liverpool and Manchester. Image: Wikishire.

Humberside includes bits of both the East Riding of Yorkshire (on the Hull side of the river), and bits of Lincolnshire (on the Grimsby side). The Tees Valley area, once known as Cleveland, includes bits of both the North Riding of Yorkshire and County Durham, while Tyne & Wear straddles County Durham and Northumberland.

Further south, the West Midlands includes stretches of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire, while Avon – the Bristol-Bath area – straddles Gloucestershire and Somerset. The big one, as ever, is Greater London, which includes stretches of no fewer than five counties: a sliver of Hertfordshire, large chunks of Surrey, Kent and Essex, and almost all of Middlesex.

Traditional counties around London. Image: Wikishire.

One possible explanation for this – especially with London – is, well, these places are big. If you carve out a county-sized area of the map of England at random, the odds are it’ll cross a country boundary at some point.
Except that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. Wikishire (yes, that exists) has a searchable map on which it’s imposed traditional county boundaries. On that, you can see that most of England’s big cities sit surprisingly close to the edge of a county.

Even those without significant rivers (we’ll be coming back to rivers) generally sit near boundaries. Manchester started life as a village in Lancashire, but was only about four miles from the Cheshire border down at Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

Sheffield is just 1.5 miles from the border with Derbyshire at Heeley Bridge. And that old Warwickshire town of Birmingham is less than a mile with the Worcestershire border at Highgate – so close, indeed, it’s now on the edge of the city’s central business district. What the hell is going on?

Traditional counties around Sheffield. Image: Wikishire.

I have, at best, only a partial explanation for this. As I hinted above, the big factor here is rivers. The core of London grew up at a crossing of the Thames between (what would later be) Surrey and Middlesex. Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool and Middlesbrough were all port cities; in each case, the river that was the key to their existence (Avon, Tyne, Mersey, Tees) also marked the boundary between two counties.

And the reason for that seems to be that visible and/or impenetrable physical features make quite helpful boundary markers. If you were dividing England into shires sometime in the 9th century, then rivers would be a quite helpful place to draw a line.

But a thousand years later, as the industrial revolution kicked in, those features could also make a riverbank quite a useful place to put a lot of people: both because docks needed workers, and because running water made a pretty good power source.

Even Manchester, which isn’t know as a great city on water, is where it is because of the physical features of the landscape. Its mills were powered by the fast-flowing streams running down from the Pennines to the east (hence, it’s near to the Yorkshire border). The goods thus created were then exported via the River Irwell, which flowed into the Mersey four miles to the south (hence, it’s near to the Cheshire one).

I still, for what it’s worth, have no idea why Birmingham is so close to a county boundary. Please do write in.

Traditional counties in the West Midlands. Image: Wikishire.

All this has been a very long way round to a very simple point: the features that defined sensible governance units in the 9th century aren’t necessarily much use in the 21st. Back when Athelstan was still moving about, it probably made sense to treat the area between two rivers as a single government unit: it was defensible, and the people who lived there would consider themselves different from the people on the other side.

But once trade became a thing, and then industrialisation happened, many rivers became more like roads than walls: the people either side of them were connected up in a single economic system. It’s the cities that grew up in that era that largely dominate Britain today.


Which means that, just maybe counties, aren’t the most sensible unit for local government any more.

So anyway, the Yorkshire Party should shut up, is basically what I’m getting at here.

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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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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