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.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.