England County Boundaries (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Counties and Unitary Authorities

Below are maps of England and Wales with the pre-1974 counties as they are used in genealogy, and post-1974 counties as the archives tend to be organized. Note that there have been further re-organizations of county boundaries since 1974, especially with the ongoing establishment of Unitary Authorities all over the country; Wales consistently uses them. A unitary authority is a local government body which forms a single tier of administration. Similar areas used to be called county boroughs until their abolition in 1974. After this there was a two-tier arrangement where each county had a council and contained multiple districts with councils of their own. In common usage unitary authority areas are not usually referred to as counties. London boroughs (including the City of London), and the Isles of Scilly, are also counted as unitary authorities.

The listings of the link to English and Welsh unitary authorities.

There is a map of England and Wales,

and another map with links to local government websites.

The Registrar General produced an incomplete series of Ordnance Survey maps marked up with boundaries of registration districts and sub-districts; these are at TNA (RG 18) but do not seem to be available elsewhere.


Map: English and Welsh Counties Pre-1974

Map of English & Welsh Counties.jpg


Map: English and Welsh Counties Post-1974

English & Welsh Counties Post-1974.jpg


County Maps

The county was the basic unit of regional mapping from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries, and most counties have more than 100 individual maps. These include both original and printed editions, but for the family historian it doesn’t much matter and they may be consulting microforms anyway. What is more important is whether the map is from a new survey or was plagiarized from former maps, a common practice prior to the mid-19th century.

John Brian Harley (The County Maps from William Camden’s Britannia 1695 by Robert Morden, 1972) and Paul Hindle (Maps for Historians, 2002) can be consulted for the history of county maps and national, county and archive-based bibliographies. The older commercial county maps were effectively replaced by the new and more precise, but non-county-based Ordnance Survey 1" series.

However many other publishers continued to issue county, regional (Lake District, Fens, Cotswolds, Peak District etc.) and environs maps for special purposes such as hiking, cycling, and road maps for tourists, geology or electoral districts.

The English and Welsh family historian should become totally familiar with The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Humphery-Smith), including the very important introduction. This volume should be in every decent library specializing in British records—if it isn’t, do suggest its purchase to the director or chief librarian. It includes all the IHGS (Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies) county maps with parish boundaries colour-coded for dioceses, and Bell’s 1834 topographical maps with county divisions which will greatly facilitate the understanding of the area. The parishes are the ancient parishes up to 1832; other sources need to be consulted for parishes created since then, largely in the 19th century Victorian population explosion and migration to the cities, such as those for London by Cliff Webb. Another related book is that on parish boundaries by Angus Winchester (Discovering Parish Boundaries, 1990), and Pauline Litton has two useful advice columns in the UK periodical Family Tree Magazine.

Maps and gazetteers showing registration districts and the old county divisions called hundreds, sokes, wapentakes, lathes, rapes or wards are essential to ascertain the higher jurisdictions having records of your parish. The parishes in the old poor law unions used as a basis for census and civil registration districts are indexed by Penelope Christensen (Parishes and Registration Districts in England and Wales, 2001). The National Index of Parish Registers series (edited by Webb) indicates the hundred and poor law union for each parish.

Sometimes there are maps available, for example:

  • Essex Record Office has a map of registration districts and hundreds in their guide (Essex Record Office).
  • West Sussex Record Office’s guide has a map of rural deaneries, peculiars and parishes (Wilkinson).
  • Manchester and Lancashire FHS have published a detailed map of the changes in Manchester registration districts over time (Coupe).
  • County histories have such maps, for example R.R. Sellman has a map of Devon hundreds.
  • Peskett’s guide to Devon and Cornwall registers has maps of the deaneries.
  • Three maps of the named Registration Districts for England and Wales for the periods 1837-1851, 1852-1946, and 1946-1965 respectively, are available from: The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Northgate, Canterbury, Kent, England CT1 1BA and are posted at some FamilySearch Centers and libraries. They show the counties and the Registration Districts labelled by name and volume number.
  • Church of England Parishes in Cumbria based on an 1829 gazetteer by Cumbria Archives and Planning Departments 1985.

Any map user faces four problems (Harley 1972):

  • Dating the content of the map, not just the publication—modern archivists and librarians are usually pretty well up on this aspect.
  • The map-maker’s sources, particularly as a common practice was to plagiarize previous maps without acknowledgement, especially with smaller-scale maps.
  • Completeness of the map; here a realistic approach to the scale and reading any introductory notes are important, and comparison with other contemporaneous cartographic and written sources.
  • Any bias or subjectivity of the map-maker. Each surveyor had a different facility for detail and accuracy, and different interests in historical, horticultural, industrial or other aspects of the landscape. John Brian Harley (1972) comments that map-makers were human and some of their products have more of the qualities of a portrait than a photograph.

A map of a single county is convenient in many ways but it has to be remembered that ancestors did not always live their lives within the boundaries of one county. It is essential to look at least 15 miles around a rural place and as far as the nearest market towns and larger city; for town dwellers their trade and ancestors may be based in the surrounding villages or perhaps stretch to other towns and cities. The O.S. maps encourage the researcher to cross county boundaries as they are based on rectangular areas not counties.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.