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Government / Local politics

Why do so many of England's cities straddle traditional county boundaries?

Last week I wrote a frankly rather over-lengthy screed explaining the origins of the name of every county in England. At its end, almost as an aside, I chucked in a paragraph noting that the post-1974 counties, mostly invented to represent city regions, generally had boringly explicable names.

But despite the fact I spent all of about half a minute pondering where those counties came from, something has stuck with me: almost all of them cross traditional county boundaries.

West Yorkshire, I think, is the only exception: that was carved entirely from Yorkshire (carved, indeed, from the West Riding). But South Yorkshire – also taken largely from the West Riding – includes areas of Derbyshire and Nottingham, too.

Most of Merseyside came from Lancashire, but the Wirral came from Cheshire. Greater Manchester was carved mainly from those counties, too, and almost revelled in the name Selnec (South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire); the final map also includes yet more of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Saddleworth).

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Traditional counties around Liverpool and Manchester. Image: Wikishire.

Humberside includes bits of both the East Riding of Yorkshire (on the Hull side of the river), and bits of Lincolnshire (on the Grimsby side). The Tees Valley area, once known as Cleveland, includes bits of both the North Riding of Yorkshire and County Durham, while Tyne & Wear straddles County Durham and Northumberland.

Further south, the West Midlands includes stretches of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire, while Avon – the Bristol-Bath area – straddles Gloucestershire and Somerset. The big one, as ever, is Greater London, which includes stretches of no fewer than five counties: a sliver of Hertfordshire, large chunks of Surrey, Kent and Essex, and almost all of Middlesex.

Traditional counties around London. Image: Wikishire.

One possible explanation for this – especially with London – is, well, these places are big. If you carve out a county-sized area of the map of England at random, the odds are it’ll cross a county boundary at some point.

Except that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. Wikishire (yes, that exists) has a searchable map on which it’s imposed traditional county boundaries. On that, you can see that most of England’s big cities sit surprisingly close to the edge of a county.

Even those without significant rivers (we’ll be coming back to rivers) generally sit near boundaries. Manchester started life as a village in Lancashire, but was only about four miles from the Cheshire border down at Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

Sheffield is just 1.5 miles from the border with Derbyshire at Heeley Bridge. And that old Warwickshire town of Birmingham is less than a mile from the Worcestershire border at Highgate – so close, indeed, it’s now on the edge of the city’s central business district. What the hell is going on?

Traditional counties around Sheffield. Image: Wikishire.

I have, at best, only a partial explanation for this. As I hinted above, the big factor here is rivers. The core of London grew up at a crossing of the Thames between (what would later be) Surrey and Middlesex. Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool and Middlesbrough were all port cities; in each case, the river that was the key to their existence (Avon, Tyne, Mersey, Tees) also marked the boundary between two counties.

And the reason for that seems to be that visible and/or impenetrable physical features make quite helpful boundary markers. If you were dividing England into shires sometime in the 9th century, then rivers would be a quite helpful place to draw a line.

But a thousand years later, as the industrial revolution kicked in, those features could also make a riverbank quite a useful place to put a lot of people: both because docks needed workers, and because running water made a pretty good power source.

Even Manchester, which isn’t know as a great city on water, is where it is because of the physical features of the landscape. Its mills were powered by the fast-flowing streams running down from the Pennines to the east (hence, it’s near to the Yorkshire border). The goods thus created were then exported via the River Irwell, which flowed into the Mersey four miles to the south (hence, it’s near to the Cheshire one).

I still, for what it’s worth, have no idea why Birmingham is so close to a county boundary. Please do write in.

Traditional counties in the West Midlands. Image: Wikishire.

All this has been a very long way round to a very simple point: the features that defined sensible governance units in the 9th century aren’t necessarily much use in the 21st. Back when Athelstan was still moving about, it probably made sense to treat the area between two rivers as a single government unit: it was defensible, and the people who lived there would consider themselves different from the people on the other side.

But once trade became a thing, and then industrialisation happened, many rivers became more like roads than walls: the people either side of them were connected up in a single economic system. It’s the cities that grew up in that era that largely dominate Britain today.


Which means that, just maybe counties, aren’t the most sensible unit for local government any more.

So anyway, the Yorkshire Party should shut up, is basically what I’m getting at here.

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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