The divisions and sub-divisions of England and its counties
Many of you ask about counties, their divisions into parishes, townships, districts, manors and postal addresses. It is not a straightforward subject with clear cut answers but I believe the following
goes a long way explain the vagaries of the boundaries and divisions of England. The text was
written by Brian Pears in reply to a question on the hierarchy of place names, and he has kindly given his permission for me to use it here.
The basic sub-division of England was into counties which in turn were sub-divided into
parishes. Prior to 1866 most parishes were sub-divided into townships which in most cases
corresponded to manors. Most townships comprised one or more villages and/or hamlets.
1866 saw the birth of the Civil Parish - not to be confused with ecclesiastic parishes - and
from then on the civil and religious boundaries developed quite independently. Confusingly
the civil parishes generally corresponded with the former townships - sometimes more than
one. 1875 saw the birth of Rural and Urban Sanitary Districts and in 1894 we got Rural and
Urban Districts - these were all defined in terms of the civil parishes they contained, but often
they contained several complete civil parishes plus parts of others. Then there were
registration Districts and Sub-Districts which were established in 1837 and therefore based on
the pre-1866 parishes and townships. Then there were Poor-Law Unions - ie unions of
parishes for looking after the poor.
Note the frequent use of the word "most" in the above paragraph - in almost every case there
were exceptions. Sometimes a parish was sub-divided into Grieveships instead of townships,
in other cases there were Quarters or Constablewicks. Some counties were divided into
Ridings or Hundreds which in turn were subdivided into parishes.
Some areas of parishes were not in townships - these were usually
areas not considered habitable, nonetheless in some cases villages
were established in these areas. Other areas were not even in parishes
- these were termed "extra-parochial" and were the lands formerly
belonging to monasteries or other religious houses. There were
numerous such areas in the two counties; some, like Kidland in
Northumberland, were larger than many parishes, others, like
Masters Close near Mickley, were tiny. Now perhaps you might see
why this is not a subject which can be summarized in a few words
- and I haven't even touched on the situation in the cities or
towns with Borough status, and I've made several simplifications
Now when it comes to describing a location, the hierarchy used
would depend on the date and the purpose of the description. A
certificate of birth, marriage or death would use the Registration
District and Sub-district and some further sub-division, perhaps
the township, village and house names. After 1875 it would very
likely include the Rural or Urban Sanitary District too - e.g. XXXX
R.S.D, and after 1894 the Rural or Urban District would replace
this. For church purposes the description would be based on the
ecclesiastic parish with the addition of the a village/hamlet and
(if you are lucky) the house name. For poor-law purposes, Poor
Law Union districts and parishes were used - and so on.
Finally we come to the subject of postal addresses!!! This can
be terribly confusing, because these bear no relationship
whatsever to any of the above. They were initially based on
the delivery route, so, for example, until 1902 locations
at High Spen had the address "High Spen, Lintz Green,
Newcastle-on-Tyne", because its mail was routed via Newcastle
and Lintz Green. When Rowlands Gill Post Office was opened, the
address became "High Spen, Rowlands Gill, Newcastle-on-Tyne"
because its mail was then routed via Rowlands Gill. Later the
"on-Tyne" became "upon-Tyne" and around 1924 the PO decided
to make the address "High Spen, Rowlands Gill, Co. Durham",
even though the mail still came via Newcastle. In 1971 post-codes
were added and in 1974, because of the creation of the new
county of Tyne and Wear, it became "High Spen, Rowlands Gill,
Tyne and Wear". And so it remains, even though Tyne and Wear was
abolished in 1986 and High Spen is in Gateshead Metropolitan
District which effectively has county status. Now compare that
with the neighbouring village of Chopwell - initially it was
"Chopwell, Ebchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne" then just "Chopwell,
Newcastle-upon-Tyne", then "Chopwell, Co Durham" but only
briefly because it soon reverted to "Chopwell,
Newcastle-upon-Tyne" again - and so it remains to this day!!
This is a mystery even to locals - why should Chopwell have
Newcastle upon Tyne in its address when it is further from
Newcastle than High Spen which doesn't?
Add to this the fact that the Post Office are very slow to notice
changes - they used Rural Sanitary Districts in addresses in
the 1920's despite the fact that they were abolished in 1894 -
they still use "Middlesex" in addresses when Middlesex ceased to
exist in 1963. Also they occasionally move people into adjacent
counties, ie a person living in county A has county B in his
address because his mail comes from a sorting office in county B.
Having said that, I should quickly add that the Post Office are
extremely good at delivering incorrectly or partially addressed
mail - sometimes amazingly so.
As you've probably gathered, there are few general rules in England
as far as geographical description and sub-division is concerned
all you can do is try to learn the common usages in the areas that
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