In the wake of the awful murder of Sir David Amess, MP for Southend West, comes the news that Southend is to become a city. It's a fitting tribute to a man who campaigned over several decades for his home town to receive city status, or it's a populist kneejerk bauble diminishing a historic civic designation, potentially both.
Whatever, it's not often that an English town is officially elevated to the rank of city. Only six have received the honour during the last 50 years, one each for the Queen's Silver, Ruby, Golden and Diamond Jubilees and two for the Millennium. The last town to be gifted city status simply because it asked was Southampton in 1964.
There are approximately four city-making eras in English history. First were the ancient cathedral cities from 'time immemorial' to 1227. Second came the granting of six letters patent by Henry VIII in the 1540s as part of the Reformation. Third was a response to increasing urbanisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. And fourth is the more recent era of towns bidding for city status on special occasions with the most worthy winning the prize.
n.b. This isn't a 100% definitive list so please don't feel the need to tell us you'd have done it differently. Yes, I know 'time immemorial' has a specific legal meaning. Yes, I know Rochester lost city status in 1998 due to an administrative error. Yes, I know the other home nations have cities too. Yes, officially it should be the City of Southend-on-Sea, not just Southend. Maybe also hold your breath as we dip a toe into the murky definitions of cathedrals and universities.
English cities without cathedrals: Bath, Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Nottingham, Plymouth, Preston, Salford, Southend, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, Westminster, Wolverhampton
Southend joins the ranks of the 16 English cities that don't have Anglican cathedrals. These used to be essential in a city, or perhaps an Abbey which is what Bath and Westminster had instead. The cities of Nottingham, Westminster, Lancaster, Leeds, Plymouth and Salford have Roman Catholic cathedrals but these don't count.
The first cathedral-less town to become a city was Truro, although it gained a newly-built one a few years later. Leeds (which gained city status in 1893) is the oldest city never to have had an Anglican cathedral, probably because it was deemed too close to Wakefield. Four English cathedral towns - Blackburn, Bury St Edmunds, Guildford and Southwell - are still waiting for the call-up to become cities.
English cities without universities: Ely, Hereford, Lichfield, Ripon, St Albans, Salisbury, Truro, Wakefield, Wells
As for what a university is, these days that's even more debatable. For example Southend has been home to a decent-sized campus for the University of Essex since 2013, so perhaps that counts, although the university is really based in Colchester (which isn't a city because there's no logic to any of this).
It's not just the town of Southend that's going to become a city, it's the entire unitary authority. This means city status for Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff, Eastwood, Prittlewell and Shoeburyness, collectively at least. Thanks to an anomalous boundary only one end of Southend Airport's runway will be inside the city while the terminal remains outside.
Sir David's persistence in demanding city status for Southend is highlighted in the following list of failed bids. An awful lot of English towns have thought they had what it takes, far more than were ever going to be accepted with a single prize at stake. It's always worth a try, but this list showcases a lot of big-headed civic administrations punching above their weight.
It's not yet known which towns will bid for city status in 2022 because the deadline for entries isn't until the start of December. So far Boston, Dudley, Medway, Milton Keynes, Middlesbrough, Swindon, Reading and Newport on the Isle of Wight have all expressed an interest, at least according to media reports. Southend was planning a bid but need no longer bother. Tower Hamlets is no longer run by an egomaniac so won't be trying.
Bournemouth is the largest urban area in the UK not to have city status, although as a newly-minted unitary authority 'The City of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole' doesn't really trip off the tongue. Middlesbrough, Birkenhead and Reading aren't far behind, population-wise, with Luton, Medway, Blackpool, Milton Keynes and Northampton nearer the quarter of a million mark. Southend's 180,000 puts it a lot further down the urban significance list.
Note that ten years ago there were no cities in Essex and now there are two. I think it's a fair bet that Southend wouldn't have been the choice for a new city in 2022 because that would sit very badly with a levelling up agenda. Indeed I'd be willing to bet that the new city chosen for the Platinum Jubilee will be somewhere in the north, with Middlesbrough the ridiculously obvious political choice.
Whatever, Southend is about to get the honorary title it's long desired, sadly after the man who most wanted it has passed away. Next time you fancy a City Break, maybe consider the seaside resort 13 miles outside London with the muddy beach and the very long pier.