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 too.

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 interest you.

Brian Pears
December 1997

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