diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 26, 2023

Having visited Gloucester and written up my trip, I smiled and thought "that's another county town blogged."

And then I wondered how many county towns I'd blogged.
And then I wondered how many county towns I'd visited.
And then I wondered what a county town actually is.
And then I realised I'd opened a can of worms.

Wikipedia has a list, as you'd expect, and also an attempted definition.
A county town is the most important town or city in a county. It is usually the location of administrative or judicial functions within a county. 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.
County towns are historic but also administrative, probably of longstanding cultural significance and based on counties that may or may not still exist. In particular...
The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial.
You can sense this if you switch to the 'Talk' tab where Wikipedia's nitpickers have been debating the subject at length.
» Is it fair to say that pre-1832, at least, the main test was location where Knights of the Shire were elected?
» This raises the prospect that there may be "traditional" County Towns and current administrative HQs that do not correspond.
» Done some checking and in addition to Leicestershire's being Glenfield, Derbyshire's is in Matlock. (Nottinghamshire's is (extraterritorially now) in Nottingham). So it's either erroneous or a list of historical county towns, which needs stating.
» It would be neat if we could find some historical gazetteers actually defining county town as a general term rather than just giving examples of them, which we have no shortage of!
» Well this article is a bit of a shambles, as county town seems to mean different things at different times (and to different people).
Other lists of county towns are available, the only constant being the inconsistency.

So let's attempt to list England's county towns in descreasing order of controversy. These are the "obviouslys".

Obviously the county town
Bedfordshire: Bedford
Cambridgeshire: Cambridge
Cheshire: Chester
County Durham: Durham
Derbyshire: Derby
Dorset: Dorchester
Gloucestershire: Gloucester
Herefordshire: Hereford
Hertfordshire: Hertford
Lancashire: Lancaster
Leicestershire: Leicester
Lincolnshire : Lincoln
Northamptonshire: Northampton
Nottinghamshire: Nottingham
Oxfordshire: Oxford
Staffordshire: Stafford
Warwickshire: Warwick
Worcestershire: Worcester
Yorkshire: York

Good, that's half of them dealt with.

...although York is debatable, depending on whether you treat Yorkshire as one county or three ridings. If the latter then the county towns are Northallerton for the North Riding, Wakefield for the West Riding and Beverley for the East Riding, but these days we also have South Yorkshire and its county town is apparently Barnsley, so you can see why this is a mess. Of those I've only blogged Wakefield and Beverley, for what it's worth.

Acknowledged as the county town
Cornwall: Truro
Devon: Exeter
Essex: Chelmsford
Hampshire: Winchester
Kent: Maidstone
Norfolk: Norwich
Rutland: Oakham
Shropshire: Shrewsbury
Somerset: Taunton
Suffolk: Ipswich
Surrey: Guildford
Sussex: Lewes

If you're sitting there thinking "Ah but the county town of Surrey is Kingston and that's not even in Surrey any more" please note they moved their administrative centre to Reigate in January 2021 (and the historic county town has always been Guildford). Also these days Sussex is split into West and East, so you might expect Chichester to be West Sussex's county town but apparently Lewes trumps it.

Historically the county town
Huntingdonshire: Huntingdon
Cumberland: Carlisle
Westmorland: Appleby

These counties arguably no longer exist, with Huntingdonshire part of Cambridgeshire and Cumberland and Westmorland part of Cumbria. However Cumbria has less than a week left because next Saturday it's being replaced by two unitary councils called Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness. They're almost the same as the historic counties, bar the Furness bit. Cumberland's administrative seat will be in Carlisle, as before, but County Hall for Westmorland and Furness will be in Kendal which muddies the waters further.

Apparently the county town
Berkshire: Reading
Buckinghamshire: Aylesbury
Northumberland: Alnwick
Wiltshire: Trowbridge

Historically Abingdon was the county town of Berkshire but that's now in Oxfordshire so Reading is a slamdunk for the modern county town, not that the county exists any more. Buckinghamshire's odd because you'd expect the county town to be Buckingham but no, Aylesbury's been the county town since 1549. Northumberland properly exercised Wikipedia's pedants because the county gaol was in Morpeth and its assizes were mainly held in Newcastle, but the general view is that the historic county town is Alnwick. As for Wiltshire you'd expect it to be Salisbury but the historic county town was Wilton, just outside, until 1889 when the county council shifted its allegiance to Trowbridge.

What even is a county town anyway?
Middlesex: ???

I hand you over to Wikipedia.
Middlesex arguably never, and certainly not since 1789, had a single, established county town. The City of London could be regarded as its county town for most purposes and provided different locations for the various, mostly judicial, county purposes. The county assizes for Middlesex were held at the Old Bailey in the City of London. The sessions house for the Middlesex Quarter Sessions was in Clerkenwell from 1612 to 1921. The quarter sessions performed most of the limited administration on a county level prior to the creation of Middlesex County Council in 1889. This was based at the Guildhall in Westminster which became the Middlesex Guildhall. New Brentford was first promulgated as the county town in 1789 on the basis that it was where elections of knights of the shire (or Members of Parliament) were held.
So Middlesex's county town could be the City, could be Clerkenwell, could be Westminster and/or could be Brentford. More likely it's none of these. And thankfully it doesn't matter because my original question was "how many county towns have I blogged?" and I've blogged the whole of London, so wherever Middlesex's county town is I've covered it.

To conclude...

Properly blogged
Briefly blogged
Not blogged
Never been

However you define it, I have a lot more county towns to go.

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