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 warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.