Which historic English county has the highest population?

The historic county boundaries in the north west. Image: Wikishire.

Last week, apropos of nothing in particular, I found myself pondering a question: which historic English county has the highest population?

This is not an easy question to answer. Wikipedia has a list of the ceremonial counties of England, which you can sort by population, to learn that the most populous is – oh, here’s a shock – Greater London. 

But that’s not an answer to our question, because Greater London is very much not a historic county: it’s existed only since 1965, when it swallowed most of Middlesex, and digested large chunks of Essex, Kent and Surrey, too. In fact, of the 10 most populous, modern ceremonial counties, no fewer than six are modern creations. They’re the ones in bold:

1. Greater London (8,778,500)

2. West Midlands (2,864,900)

3. Greater Manchester (2,782,100)

4. West Yorkshire (2,299,700)

5. Hampshire (1,829,500)

6. Kent (1,820,400)

7. Essex (1,802,200)

8. Lancashire (1,485,000)

9. Merseyside (1,406,400)

10. South Yorkshire (1,385,000)

Source: ONS, 2016, via Wikipedia.

That these ‘metropolitan counties’ should dominate the rankings is unsurprising. They were created in 1974, to cover England’s largest urban areas, most of which crossed county boundaries. There was also a sixth, Tyne & Wear, the Newcastle-Sunderland conurbation, as well as assorted new non-metropolitan counties like Avon, Cleveland and Humberside. Nobody much loved any of these, so most of them were abolished little over a decade later, and for the last few years we’ve been slowly, painfully re-creating them, in the form of combined authorities with metro mayors and so forth. 

So why are they still on the list? Because, even if they don’t exist as governments, several still exist for ceremonial purposes – such as, for example, counting the people who live there. 

This, in terms of answering our original question, presents us with a problem. While we know that 1.8m people live in modern Essex, we don’t know how many people live in historic Essex – that is, the modern county, plus the five London boroughs carved from its historic territory.

And that’s a relatively easy one to work out. Others are more complicated. Manchester city centre was once in Lancashire, but the modern city includes chunks of Cheshire too.

Manchester, its territory shaded by historic county. Image: Wikishire.

Meanwhile the City of Birmingham includes territory from Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.

Birmingham, its territory shaded by historic county. Image: Wikishire.

These problems exist all over the shop: the historic county boundaries often bear very little resemblance to contemporary government ones. We can make some educated guesses – Middlesex is likely to be huge, because it’s completely built up; Lancashire and Yorkshire contain large chunks of more than one major city, so they’re likely near the top, too – but how can we get more exact figures?

At this point we run into two other problems. One is that county boundaries have historically been more fluid than we sometimes like to admit. Many had “exclaves” – that is, detached sections surrounded by other counties – while a number of cities counted as counties in their own right, most famously Bristol, which straddled the boundary between Gloucestershire and Somerset. 

For our purposes, to keep things simple, we’ll use the boundaries described by those bad boys of the Association of British Counties and Wikishire – which are based, best one can tell, on the boundaries as they pertained in around 1888, after the Victorians had tidied up the exclaves, but before they’d messed things up by creating the London County council.

Click to expand. Image: ABC.

The other problem is that I am quite lazy. 

So, anyway, I asked Twitter.

Nobody out there seemed to have done the legwork on this before – weird, when you consider what an important question it is, really – so nobody could point me to a dataset. But two different people felt inspired to look into the matter themselves. 

The first was Stephen Jorgenson-Murray. He told me he used

...the 2015 population estimates from the ONS, and the Ordnance Survey historical county borders (which it says are from circa 1888). I just put them into QGIS geographic data software, and let it do all the hard work of adding them up.

Here’s the result:

Click to expand. 

Cricket fans may notice something about the counties at the left of the chart: the bigger counties are far more likely to be in first-class counties, that is, the top league of country cricket. This is no surprise, really: all else being equal, you’d expect a larger population to be able to pull together a better team.

Here’s the same chart, with the first-class counties in red:

Click to expand. 

One is missing: the historic Welsh county of Glamorgan also plays in the same league. But that still fits our pattern: it contains both Cardiff and Swansea and so, according to Stephen’s data, accounts for 1.3m people, nearly 40 per cent of the entire Welsh population.

Anyway, that’s enough about cricket, here’s the top 10:

1. Yorkshire (5,341,332)

2. Lancashire (5,030,958)

3. Middlesex (4,244,926)

4. Essex (3,139,392)

5. Surrey (3,114,947)

6. Kent (2,886,310)

7. Staffordshire (2,194,038)

8. Hampshire (2,171,352)

9. Warwickshire (1,739,412)

10. Cheshire (1,691,045)

Source: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Yorkshire is huge – despite being only a county, it has a population roughly on a par with Scotland. That partly reflects the sheer size of the land it covers, vastly bigger than any other county. But it’s also because it contains two old metropolitan counties (West Yorkshire, the Leeds-Bradford area; plus South Yorkshire, the Sheffield one), and Middlesbrough too. 

Lancashire is not much smaller. It’s still a fairly populous county in its own right; throw in the majority of the Liverpool and Manchester urban areas, and you end up with nearly 5m people. (The same two city regions also account for Cheshire’s place lower down the list.)

The next four counties on the list are all London-ish ones. Middlesex accounts for nearly half the population of Greater London: everything north of the Thames and west of the river Lea. Meanwhile Essex, Surrey and Kent all combine fairly big surviving counties with a handful of modern London boroughs. What was once Surrey, indeed, includes a large chunk of central London: the entire South Bank.

The area around Greater London, its territory shaded by historic county. Image: Wikishire.

Staffordshire and Warwickshire owe their place on the list to the West Midlands: Wolverhampton and the Black Country were once in Staffs, Coventry was once in Warks, and Birmingham itself was split between the two, with some of its southern suburbs like Longbridge creeping over into Worcestershire. 

That leaves Hampshire. That doesn’t touch any major metropolitan country, but nearly a million people live in the Southampton-Portsmouth urban area, which was on occasion discussed as a possible metropolitan county in its own right. What’s more, Bournemouth, though jetissoned to Dorset in 1974, was once in Hampshire too. 

Historic Hampshire. Image: Wikishire.

I said that two people answered my call for help on this question. The other was a postgraduate scientist, who tweets as @robert_squared. He was kind enough to make me this map. (5e+06 is just a fancy way of saying “5 million”.)

Image: @robert_squared.

So: which historic English county has the highest population? Yorkshire, then Lancashire, then Middlesex. Great.

Does... does anyone remember why I asked this in the first place? Anyone?

No?

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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Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.