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 of 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 in 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.

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

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.