A lesson in the British Isles!

This week I had a lovely message from a fellow blogger Pastsmith asking for some advice about English administrative divisions. It got me thinking about how as a Brit I just kind of seem to know this stuff and I’ve not really thought too much about it. I grew up understanding about how the country is divided into Counties, and Cities, Towns, Villages, Hamlets. As I got older of course my understanding developed in terms of council divisions within counties and even town councils. Parishes, diocease and as I learned about genealogy – further divisions such as Poor Law Unions…. the list goes on.

To someone unfamiliar to all of this it must seem so confusing. Probably as confusing as it might be for me to understand the way other countries divide their areas, the US has States, Counties, Districts, Townships etc. Canada with it’s Provinces – it’s all different and it can take a bit of time to get your head around it all. Pastsmith asked if I might do a post to help explain the way we do it over here – and that was a great idea. Since the majority of my followers are based in the US and at some point may find their research takes them into the realms of the UK – it would be a good opportunity to provide some information as a kind of rough guide.

My main focus will be on England. I am by no means an expert and I won’t be going into every tiny detail but hopefully enough to get the concepts across!

Typically when we research our ancestry we start with ourselves and work backwards so we have to understand the current set up in order to look in the right places for things like certificates in order to get us back further in time to the available censuses and then to parish records.

The British Isles is a confusing mixture of different area divisions. The British Isles consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain consists of England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland is broken down into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is worth noting that the Isle of Man is a self governed crown dependency so it has it”s own civil registration and censuses. The Channel Islands – Guernsey and Jersey (including Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Breqchou and Lihou) are also crown dependancies and are different in that they are not considered part of the United Kingdom as they come under the Duchy of Normandy! They have their own civil registration and censuses too.


A good diagram to explain from laborenglishzone.blogspot.com

Each country is split into counties – in the terms of England the majority of these county divisions have remained the same for centuries, but over time county borders have changed, some counties have been abolished and new ones created and so forth. Most counties end with the suffix – shire. But of course there are plenty that don’t such as Suffolk and Norfolk, Essex, Cornwall and the like. Counties were introduced when the Normans took over the rule of Britain in 1066 to help them administer to the country, to divide it up for the various Earls that were given land and of course to collect taxes. These are the so called Historic or Traditional Counties which over time changed little other than border changes – especially between England and Wales and in 1997 the Lieutenancies Act defined Ceremonial Counties – where a Lord Lieutenant is appointed. These differ from the areas used by local government. Then we go into the realms of Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan Counties. What is the difference? A Metropolitan County has a County Council and a Non-Metropolitan one doesn’t. The current Metropolitan Counties in England are Greater London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire. In this way of dividing it creates areas that aren’t considered a county and are a unity authority – such as Swindon (which is in the county of Wiltshire) and the Isle of Wight (in the county of Hampshire).


The current administrative counties of England (Image from http://www.picturesofengland.com/mapofengland/counties-map.html)

This is pretty confusing isn’t it? One thing I always suggest to people, whether they are native or not, is look at a map. There is nothing better than checking out the area you are interested in. Find out about what county it is in, what other counties border it, what are the main cities and towns? Do they have their own administrative area like Greater Manchester?

Initially in terms of tracking down things like certificates we need to know what registration district to look at. Again these are things that have changed over time as counties have changed, administrative authorities abolished and created. Some registration districts may span two or three counties, some districts purely cover one city. A great site for checking out information about counties and towns is Genuki – it has a wealth of information to help identify the places you need to be looking. It has details pertaining to all the registration districts that have ever been in use. It shows what counties they cover, what towns and villages were contained in that district and the changes to those districts. For example if you were looking for a birth that occurred in the General Hospital of Ashton under Lyne – situated in Lancashire – in 1975 you could check to see that Ashton under Lyne’s registration district has changed a fair few times since civil registration began in July 1837 – to begin with it came under Ashton & Oldham until 1848 when they separated and became registration districts in their own right until 1937 when the areas were split between Ashton and Hyde districts until April 1974 when they were split between Tameside and Oldham districts. What was Oldham district came under Greater Manchester in 1974. So it means I would need to be looking in the Tameside district for a birth at Ashton General Hospital in 1975. Phew!

Most people are familiar with the concept of cities, towns, villages and hamlets. Checking a map will show you what county they currently fall under and dependent on the era you are looking at, then maybe you would need to locate an older map to check or look for the placename on Genuki in case it was considered to be in a different county in the past. Often Wikipedia can be a great source of information about a place and it’s history in terms of administrative areas and county changes. It is also handy to check if a place you are looking at has a local history society, many societies have websites which can help a great deal to learn about the area you are interested in. For instance if it’s name has changed, divisions within that area and details of any records relating to it.

So what about Parish and Diocease? A church will have its own parish area it covers – in some rural areas this may be a larger area and may contain smaller chapelries for parishioners unable to travel the whole distance to get to the main parish church. Some larger towns may have more than one parish if there is more than one parish church – for instance Marlborough in Wiltshire has two churches at either end of the High Street. St. Peters and St. Mary’s. These days only St. Mary’s Church is used as the Parish Church. The parishes came under the Diocease of the Bishop of that area. So for this example Marlborough would come under the Diocease of Sailsbury. Then these Diocease would also come under the Archdiocease – under an Archbishop – so in this case Sailsbury is in southern England so comes under the Archbishop of Canterbury. If it was up north then it would be under the Archbishop of York. In these examples I am referring to the Church of England and not the Catholic Church divisions.

So when we are going backwards and we have our certificates and we get to the censuses – they will use the same registration district, sub-district (to go down a level further) and will state what parish it comes under. This then should help when looking for parish records for baptisms, marriages and burials. It is worth remembering to not neglect these records when you are searching a little closer to the present day, although we don’t often use churches as much as we did – we still do use them and you could still find information there that you might not find in other records.

So what is a Poor Law Union? Well to simplify some of the history behind it – the country used laws to help manage and assist the parish poor since Elizabethan times – genealogists and historians refer to this as the Old Poor Law. There was an amendment to the Poor Law Act in 1834 which changed the administration of the poor from being done rather unsystematically by a parish by parish basis to having a formal structure with the creation of Workhouses and defined areas set out as Unions. A great website for information about this is the workhouses website run by Peter Higginbotham. Peter has appeared on TV several times talking about workhouses, including episodes of Who Do You Think You Are. The use of Poor Law Unions was in place until the end of the Second World War with the introduction of the benefits system and the National Health Service among others. So if your ancestor came upon hard times, they might have ended up in the workhouse, so this information helps in order to understand what workhouse they might have been in and whether any records survive in terms of admission and discharge. Prior to 1834 people would be applying to their parish for relief, and often you might find records relating to that in the Parish Chest. Documents such as Settlement Examinations or Removal Orders – where someone applies for relief and the parish has to substantiate whether they have a right to claim from that parish – i.e. were they born there or lived there for a particular period, perhaps served an apprenticeship there. And if not – sending them to another parish for their relief rather than dig into their pockets for a stranger.

Going further back of course we know that Scotland, Wales and Ireland had all come under English rule at various points. The act of union in 1707 joined England and Scotland together and in 1801 joined with Ireland. Wales had typically been seen as part of England or Britain since Roman times. In 1746 an act was passed in order to consider Wales as part of England in terms of laws prior to 1746 and from that date. This wasn’t repealed until 1967. Of course most of us are aware of the troubles in Ireland in the 1800s and early 1900s to gain independence from British Home Rule. In 1922 the country was split to become Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 1999 Wales devolved and formed it’s own government and from 2006 has been able to pass it’s own laws. Later this year Scotland will be voting to decide on independence. And of course going further back the country was split into the Danelaw and Wessex areas broadly north and south with an area in the middle of English and Danelaw Mercia, this is well illustrated in the map below:


Image from maps.nationmaster.com

So without getting too deep into it all, that is a rough guide to the divisions of areas here. I am sure I have missed out some bits but I’m always happy to answer any questions as best I can.

But I think my biggest tip/advice is checking out maps. Get yourself familiar with the area, learn to recognise the placenames nearby so you can search the locality for clues and further information. For example – most marriages tend to occur in the brides parish – but if it was by banns they would have been called in both the bride and the grooms parish. A marriage entry should normally denote if someone was not of the parish in order to point you in the direction of where to go next. But bear in mind that just because someone was of a particular parish, it doesn’t mean they were born there! Plus, information on things like censuses – you may notice people’s places of birth changing on each census. Some people had no idea where they were born, some may just give the name of the next largest town to where they were from, and of course it depends on who was giving the information and how much they knew!


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