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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