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 or 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. 

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


 

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.