County town

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, a county town is the most important town in a county. It is usually the location of administrative or judicial functions within a county and the place where the county's members of Parliament are elected. Following the establishment of the English county councils in 1889, the headquarters of the new councils were usually located in the county town of each county. However, the concept of a county town pre-dates the establishment of these councils.

The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial. Some counties have their administrative bodies located elsewhere. For example, Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire, but the county council is located in Preston. Some county towns are no longer situated within the administrative county because of changes in the county's boundaries. For example, Nottingham is administered by a unitary authority separate from the rest of Nottinghamshire.

UK county towns, pre-19th-century reforms

Historic counties of England

This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.

CountyCounty town
BedfordshireBedford
BerkshireReading,[lower-alpha 1] previously also Abingdon[2]
BuckinghamshireAylesbury,[lower-alpha 2] although the county is named after Buckingham
CambridgeshireCambridge
CheshireChester
CornwallTruro[lower-alpha 3]
CumberlandCarlisle[lower-alpha 4]
DerbyshireDerby
DevonExeter
DorsetDorchester
County DurhamDurham
EssexChelmsford
GloucestershireGloucester
HampshireWinchester, although the county is named after Southampton[3]
HerefordshireHereford
HertfordshireHertford
HuntingdonshireHuntingdon
KentMaidstone[lower-alpha 5]
LancashireLancaster[lower-alpha 6]
LeicestershireLeicester
LincolnshireLincoln
MiddlesexBrentford, Clerkenwell, the City of London or Westminster for different functions.[lower-alpha 7]
NorfolkNorwich
NorthamptonshireNorthampton
NorthumberlandAlnwick[lower-alpha 8]
NottinghamshireNottingham[lower-alpha 9]
OxfordshireOxford
RutlandOakham
ShropshireShrewsbury
SomersetTaunton,[lower-alpha 10] although the county is named after Somerton
StaffordshireStafford
SuffolkIpswich
SurreyGuildford[lower-alpha 11]
SussexLewes[lower-alpha 12]
WarwickshireWarwick
WestmorlandAppleby
WiltshireTrowbridge although the county is named after Wilton [lower-alpha 13]
WorcestershireWorcester
YorkshireYork
  1. Lent assizes were held at Reading, where the county gaol and house of correction were situated; summer assizes were held at Abingdon, which was the site of the county bridewell.[1] Knights of the shire were nominated at Reading and elected at Abingdon.[1]
  2. Sir John Baldwin, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, caused the county assizes to be moved to Aylesbury. Knights of the shire continued to be elected at Buckingham. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica considered Buckingham to be the county town.
  3. The county assize court sat at Bodmin, and the 1911 Britannica considered Bodmin to be the county town. Prior to 1835, it was Launceston.
  4. Knights of the shire were elected at Cockermouth; the assizes and quarter sessions courts were occasionally held at Penrith.
  5. East Kent and West Kent had separate administrations until 1814, with East Kent sessions meeting at Canterbury, and West Kent at Maidstone, the over-all county town.
  6. In 1787 the Lancashire Quarter Sessions decreed that in future the annual general sessions for transacting all business for the county at large should be held at Preston as it was "a central place in the county." The magistrates of Lonsdale Hundred refused to accept the decision, and would meet only at Lancaster. The matter was settled only when a local act of parliament (38 Geo.III c.58) established that the principal administrative business of the county could be transacted only at Preston.[4]
  7. Knights of the shire were elected at Brentford; sessions presided over by Middlesex Justices of the Peace were held at Clerkenwell; trials for persons accused of the most serious crimes took place in the Old Bailey before the Aldermen of the City prior to the committing of the accused to Newgate Prison (which functioned as the county gaol for Middlesex) if found guilty; while the county council had its headquarters at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster from its establishment in 1889 until its abolition in 1965.[5]
  8. Alnwick's position as the county town seems to have been based largely on its castle being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, although knights of the shire were elected at the town too.[6] Assizes for the county however were held mainly or exclusively in Newcastle upon Tyne. Morpeth Castle was used as the prison for Northumberland, and the county gaol was built there in 1824.[7][8]
  9. Nottingham was constituted a county corporate separate from Nottinghamshire in 1449. The area containing the Shire Hall however remained an exclave of Nottinghamshire.[9]
  10. Knights of the shire were elected at Ilchester. Somerton temporarily became the county town in the late thirteenth century, when the shire courts and county gaol were moved from Ilchester.[10]
  11. Under an act of 1791, the justices of the peace of the county of Surrey were empowered to build a new sessions house and county gaol at Newington adjacent to the borough of Southwark and in the suburbs of London.[11] By 1799 the buildings were completed and the county administration was based there until 1893.[12] Newington, or more inaccurately Southwark were sometimes described as the county town thereafter, for instance in a school textbook of 1828.[13]
  12. Chichester was traditionally described as the capital city of Sussex and Lewes its county town.[14][15][16] Horsham was occasionally described as the county town of Sussex due to the presence of the county gaol and the periodic holding of the county assizes and quarter sessions in the town. The last assizes were held there in 1830, while the gaol was closed in 1845.[17]
  13. Wiltshire County Council note that Wiltshire "never had a well recognised county town". Wilton had served as the seat of quarter sessions and for election of knights of the shire until 1832. Knights had been nominated at Devizes.[18] An 1870s gazetteer describes "Salisbury and Devizes" as the "county towns".[19] The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica names only Salisbury.

Historic counties of Scotland

CountyCounty town
AberdeenshireAberdeen[lower-alpha 1]
Angus (or Forfarshire)Forfar
ArgyllLochgilphead (formerly Inveraray)[lower-alpha 2]
AyrshireAyr
BanffshireBanff
BerwickshireDuns (formerly Berwick-upon-Tweed, formerly Greenlaw)
ButeRothesay
CaithnessWick
ClackmannanshireAlloa (formerly Clackmannan)
CromartyshireCromarty
DumfriesshireDumfries
DunbartonshireDumbarton
East Lothian (or Haddingtonshire)Haddington
FifeCupar
Inverness-shireInverness
KincardineshireStonehaven (formerly Kincardine)
Kinross-shireKinross
KirkcudbrightshireKirkcudbright
LanarkshireLanark[lower-alpha 3]
Midlothian (or Edinburghshire)Edinburgh[lower-alpha 4]
Morayshire (or Elginshire)Elgin
NairnshireNairn
OrkneyKirkwall
PeeblesshirePeebles
PerthshirePerth
RenfrewshireRenfrew[lower-alpha 5]
Ross-shireDingwall (also the county town of Ross and Cromarty)
RoxburghshireJedburgh (formerly Roxburgh)[lower-alpha 6]
SelkirkshireSelkirk
ShetlandLerwick
StirlingshireStirling
SutherlandDornoch<[lower-alpha 7]
West Lothian (or Linlithgowshire)Linlithgow
WigtownshireWigtown[lower-alpha 8]
  1. In 1900 Aberdeen became a county of a city and thus outside Aberdeenshire.
  2. Inveraray (the seat of the Duke of Argyll) was regarded as the county town until 1890, when the Argyll County Council was created with headquarters in Lochgilphead.
  3. The headquarters of the Lanark County Council were established in 1890 in Glasgow. In 1893 Glasgow became a county of itself, and was therefore outside the council's area. The county council moved to Hamilton in 1964.[20]
  4. Edinburgh was a county of itself, and therefore lay outside the county of Midlothian.
  5. The headquarters of Renfrew County Council were in Paisley from 1890.
  6. Newtown St Boswells was the administrative headquarters of the county council established in 1890.
  7. The headquarters of Sutherland County Council were at Golspie from 1890.
  8. Stranraer became the administrative headquarters of the Wigtown county council in 1890, and was sometimes described as the "county town" thereafter.

Historic counties of Wales

This list shows county towns prior to the reforms of 1889.

CountyCounty town
AngleseyBeaumaris
BrecknockshireBrecon
CaernarfonshireCaernarfon
CardiganshireCardigan
CarmarthenshireCarmarthen
DenbighshireRuthin (formerly Denbigh)
FlintshireMold (formerly Flint)
GlamorganCardiff
MerionethshireDolgellau
MontgomeryshireWelshpool (formerly Montgomery)
Monmouthshire[lower-alpha 1]Monmouth[lower-alpha 1]
PembrokeshireHaverfordwest (formerly Pembroke)
RadnorshirePresteigne (formerly New Radnor)
    1. Between 1536 and 1974, Monmouthshire was included by successive English and later, British, governments within England for some administrative and legal purposes. Always regarded culturally and ecclesiastically as part of Wales, particularly by the Welsh, since 1974 when new local government legislation was introduced it has unequivocally been within that country. The county is named after Monmouth, but the Sheriff's county court was held alternately in Monmouth and Newport.

    Historic counties of Northern Ireland

    CountyCounty town
    County AntrimAntrim
    County ArmaghArmagh
    County DownDownpatrick
    County FermanaghEnniskillen
    County LondonderryColeraine
    County TyroneOmagh

    Note – Despite the fact that Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, it is not the county town of any county. Greater Belfast straddles two counties (Antrim and Down).

    UK county towns post 19th-century reforms

    With the creation of elected county councils in 1889 the location of administrative headquarters in some cases moved away from the traditional county town. Furthermore, in 1965 and 1974 there were major boundary changes in England and Wales and administrative counties were replaced with new metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties. The boundaries underwent further alterations between 1995 and 1998 to create unitary authorities and some of the ancient counties and county towns were restored. (Note: not all headquarters are or were called County Halls or Shire Halls e.g.: Cumbria County Council's HQ up until 2016 was called The Courts and have since moved to Cumbria House.) Before 1974 many of the county halls were located in towns and cities that had the status of a county borough i.e.: a borough outside of the county council's jurisdiction.

    England

    County councilDateHeadquarters
    Avon 1974 to 1996 Bristol
    Bedfordshire 1889 to 2009 Bedford
    Berkshire 1889 to 1998 Reading (county borough until 1974)
    City and County of Bristol 1996 onwards Bristol
    Buckinghamshire 1889 onwards Aylesbury
    Cambridgeshire 1889 to 1965
    1974 onwards
    Cambridge
    Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely 1965 to 1974 Cambridge
    Cheshire 1889 to 2009 Chester
    Cleveland 1974 to 1996 Middlesbrough
    Cornwall 1889 onwards Truro
    Cumberland 1889 to 1974 Carlisle (county borough from 1914)
    Cumbria 1974 onwards Carlisle
    Derbyshire 1889 onwards Matlock (moved from Derby, county borough 1958)[21]
    Devon 1889 onwards Exeter (county borough until 1974). In 1963 the Devon County Buildings Area was transferred from the county borough of Exeter to the administrative county of Devon, of which it formed an exclave until 1974.[22]
    Dorset 1889 onwards Dorchester
    Durham 1889 onwards Durham
    Essex 1889 onwards Chelmsford
    Gloucestershire 1889 onwards Gloucester (county borough until 1974)
    Greater London 1965 to 1986
    2002 onwards
    County Hall, Lambeth (Greater London Council)
    City Hall, Southwark (Greater London Authority)
    Greater Manchester 1974 to 1986 Manchester
    Hampshire 1889 onwards Winchester
    Herefordshire 1889 to 1974
    1998 onwards
    Hereford
    Hereford and Worcester 1974 to 1998 Worcester
    Hertfordshire 1889 onwards Hertford
    Humberside 1974 to 1996 Beverley
    Huntingdonshire 1889 to 1965 Huntingdon
    Huntingdon and Peterborough 1965 to 1974 Huntingdon
    Isle of Ely 1889 to 1965 March
    Isle of Wight 1890 onwards Newport
    Kent 1889 onwards Maidstone
    Lancashire 1889 onwards Preston (county borough until 1974)
    Leicestershire 1889 onwards Leicester
    Lincolnshire, Parts of Lindsey 1889 to 1974 Lincoln (county borough)
    Lincolnshire, Parts of Holland 1889 to 1974 Boston
    Lincolnshire, Parts of Kesteven 1889 to 1974 Sleaford
    Lincolnshire 1974 onwards Lincoln
    London 1889 to 1965 Spring Gardens, Westminster until 1922, County Hall at Lambeth thereafter
    Merseyside 1974 to 1986 Liverpool
    Middlesex 1889 to 1965 Middlesex Guildhall at Westminster in County of London
    Norfolk 1889 onwards Norwich (county borough until 1974)
    Northamptonshire 1889 onwards Northampton (county borough until 1974)
    Northumberland 1889 onwards County Hall Newcastle upon Tyne 1889 – 1981[23]
    County Hall Morpeth since 1981[24]
    Nottinghamshire 1889 onwards West Bridgford (moved from county borough of Nottingham in 1959)
    Oxfordshire 1889 onwards Oxford (county borough until 1974)
    Soke of Peterborough 1889 to 1965 Peterborough, although geographically considered part of Northamptonshire
    Rutland 1889 to 1974
    1997 onwards
    Oakham
    Shropshire 1889 onwards Shrewsbury
    Somerset 1889 onwards Taunton
    Staffordshire 1889 onwards Stafford
    East Suffolk 1889 to 1974 Ipswich (county borough)
    West Suffolk 1889 to 1974 Bury St Edmunds
    Suffolk 1974 onwards Ipswich
    Surrey 1889 onwards Inner London Sessions House, Newington, until County Hall, Kingston upon Thames opened in 1893 (Kingston has been in Greater London since 1965).[25]
    East Sussex 1889 onwards Lewes
    West Sussex 1889 onwards Chichester (originally jointly with Horsham)[17]
    Tyne and Wear 1974 to 1986 Newcastle upon Tyne
    Warwickshire 1889 onwards Warwick
    West Midlands 1974 to 1986 Birmingham
    Westmorland 1889 to 1974 Kendal
    Wiltshire 1889 onwards Trowbridge
    Worcestershire 1889 to 1974
    1998 onwards
    Worcester (county borough until 1974)
    Yorkshire, East Riding 1889 to 1974
    1996 onwards
    Beverley (later HQ of Humberside)
    Yorkshire, North Riding 1889 to 1974 Northallerton
    North Yorkshire 1974 onwards Northallerton
    South Yorkshire 1974 to 1986 Barnsley
    Yorkshire, West Riding 1889 to 1974 Wakefield (county borough from 1915)
    West Yorkshire 1974 to 1986 Wakefield

    Wales

    County councilDateHeadquarters
    Anglesey1889 to 1974Beaumaris1
    Brecknockshire1889 to 1974Brecon
    Caernarvonshire1889 to 1974Caernarfon
    Carmarthenshire1889 to 1974
    1996 onwards
    Carmarthen
    Cardiganshire1889 to 1974Aberystwyth2
    Ceredigion1996 onwardsAberaeron
    Clwyd1974 to 1996Mold
    Denbighshire1889 to 1974Denbigh
    Dyfed1974 to 1996Carmarthen
    Flintshire1889 to 1974Mold
    Glamorgan1889 to 1974Cardiff (county borough)
    Gwent1974 to 1996Newport (1974–78), Cwmbran (1978–96)
    Gwynedd1974 onwardsCaernarfon
    Mid Glamorgan1974 to 1996Cardiff (extraterritorial)
    Merionethshire1889 to 1974Dolgellau
    Montgomeryshire1889 to 1974Welshpool
    Monmouthshire1889 to 1974Newport (county borough from 1891)
    Radnorshire1889 to 1974Presteigne3
    Pembrokeshire1889 to 1974
    1996 onwards
    Haverfordwest
    Powys1974 onwardsLlandrindod Wells
    South Glamorgan1974 to 1996Cardiff
    West Glamorgan1974 to 1996Swansea
    Ynys Môn (Anglesey)1996 onwardsLlangefni
    1. Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llangefni.
    2. Cardigan was often still referred to as 'the county town' due to the name link. However, assizes were held at Lampeter while Aberystwyth housed the administration of the county council. Aberystwyth was therefore the de facto county town.
    3. Due to its better transport links and more central location, some administrative functions were moved to Llandrindod Wells.

    Ireland

    The follow lists the location of the administration of each of the 31 local authorities in Ireland, with the 26 traditional counties.

    CountyCouncilsCounty townNotes
    County CarlowCarlow County CouncilCarlow
    County CavanCavan County CouncilCavan
    County ClareClare County CouncilEnnis
    County CorkCork County CouncilCork city
    Cork City CouncilCork city
    County DonegalDonegal County CouncilLifford
    County DublinDublin City CouncilDublin city
    Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council Dún Laoghaire Until 1994, formed Dublin County Council, with its administrative offices in Dublin City
    Fingal County CouncilSwords
    South Dublin County CouncilTallaght
    County GalwayGalway City CouncilGalway city
    Galway County CouncilGalway city
    County KerryKerry County CouncilTralee
    County KildareKildare County CouncilNaas
    County KilkennyKilkenny County CouncilKilkenny
    County LaoisLaois County CouncilPort LaoiseCalled Maryborough till 1929
    County LeitrimLeitrim County CouncilCarrick-on-Shannon
    County LimerickLimerick City and County CouncilLimerick
    County LongfordLongford County CouncilLongford
    County LouthLouth County CouncilDundalk
    County MayoMayo County CouncilCastlebar
    County MeathMeath County CouncilNavanpreviously Trim was the administrative town
    County MonaghanMonaghan County CouncilMonaghan
    County OffalyOffaly County CouncilTullamorePrior to 1883, the county town was Daingean, then known as Philipstown
    County RoscommonRoscommon County CouncilRoscommon
    County SligoSligo County CouncilSligo
    County TipperaryTipperary County CouncilClonmel/NenaghUntil the Local Government Reform Act 2014, these were respectively the administrative towns of South Tipperary County Council and North Tipperary County Council
    County WaterfordWaterford City and County CouncilWaterford
    County WestmeathWestmeath County CouncilMullingar
    County WexfordWexford County CouncilWexford
    County WicklowWicklow County CouncilWicklow

    Jamaica

    Jamaica's three counties were established in 1758 to facilitate the holding of courts along the lines of the British county court system, with each county having a county town.[26] The counties have no current administrative relevance.

    CountyCounty town
    Cornwall Savanna-la-Mar
    Middlesex Spanish Town
    Surrey Kingston

    See also

    References

    1. Lewis, Samuel (1831). "Berkshire". A Topographical Dictionary of England. I (1st ed.). p. 130.
    2. "Berkshire Quarter Sessions". Jackson's Oxford Journal. 4 July 1868.
    3. "Hampshire Placenames and their Meanings". .hants.gov.uk. 17 February 2009. Archived from the original on 15 August 2013. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
    4. Webb, Sidney; Beatrice Webb (1906). English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: The Parish and the County. London: Longmans Green and Co. pp. 432–433.
    5. Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney (Process and Procedures), by Ruth Paley British History Online
    6. "''Alnwick (St. Mary and St. Michael)'', ''A Topographical Dictionary of England'' (1848), pp. 39–44". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
    7. "''Morpeth (St. Mary)'', ''A Topographical Dictionary of England'' (1848), pp. 345–350". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
    8. "''Northiam – Nortoft'', ''A Topographical Dictionary of England'' (1848), pp. 433–439". British-history.ac.uk. 22 June 2003. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
    9. Nicholson, A P (11 November 2007). "Shire (County) Hall, Nottingham". Nottinghamshire History. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
    10. "Somerton archaeological survey (Somerset County Council)". Archived from the original on 28 March 2005. Retrieved 29 April 2007.
    11. "Southwark Prisons". Survey of London: volume 25: St George's Fields (The parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). British History Online. 1955. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
    12. Edward Walford (1878). "The Old Kent Road". Old and New London: Volume 6. British History Online. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
    13. Stewart, Alexander (1828). A compendium of modern geography: with remarks on the physical peculiarities, productions of the various countries; Questions for Examination at the end of each Section; and Descriptive Tables. Oliver & Boyde.
    14. "About Sussex". Sussex County Flag. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
    15. "A List of Some Towns of Commercial, Antiquarian, Historical or Sanitary Interest". A Reference Book of Modern Geography. Longmans, Green and Co. 1870. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
    16. "Chichester, Lewes". Sussex; being an historical, topographical, and general description of every rape, hundred, river, town, borough, parish, village, hamlet, castle, monastery, and gentleman's seat in that county, etc. E. Taylor. 1834. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
    17. General history of Horsham – The town as county centre, Victoria County History of Sussex, Volume VI British History Online
    18. "Why is Trowbridge the county town of Wiltshire?". Wiltshire County Council. 9 January 2003. Archived from the original on 22 March 2003.
    19. Wilson, John Marius (1872). "Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales: WILTS". A. Fullarton and Co.
    20. Notice in Edinburgh Gazette, 28 February 1964 that county council's address changed from Lanarkshire House, 191 Ingram Street, Glasgow C1 to County Buildings, Hamilton from 6 April 1964
    21. Removal of County Headquarters, The Times, 28 January 1958
    22. Frederic A. Youngs, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, Vol.1: Southern England, London, 1979, p.83
    23. Northumberland County Hall was situated within an exclave of Northumberland (Moot Hall Precincts) within the county borough of Newcastle 1889 – 1974; the area became part of the county of Tyne and Wear in 1974 and was thus extraterritorial
    24. County Hall moved to Morpeth on 21 April 1981 (see notice in London Gazette issue 48579, dated 10 April 1981)
    25. When the question of where the council should meet arose in 1889/90 six towns were considered: Epsom, Guildford, Kingston, Redhill, Surbiton and Wimbledon.The Times, 27 March 1890
    26. Higman, B. W.; Hudson, B. J. (2009). Jamaican Place Names. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-976-640-306-5.
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